Continuing the anniversary celebrations for An Unquiet Calm, today’s post is on the inspiration behind the third story in the collection: ‘Some Secrets’.
‘Some Secrets’ is potentially my most experimental piece. In late January 2014 someone mentioned an anthology due to come out for Valentine’s Day that was looking for submissions. There were only a few days until submissions closed; but, on the off-chance I had something that would fit, I took a look at the criteria anyway. They were (unsurprisingly) seeking romance, but not any romance: romance that didn’t have any horror, fantasy, or sci-fi elements. Apart from my contributions to Fauxpocalypse, everything I had written up until then was both not particularly romantic and solidly in the speculative fiction bracket. Without even a concept, I didn’t think I could write and edit a piece in time, so I shrugged and moved on.
However, synchronicity struck. Later that evening, I finished the story I had been working on. I like to try new styles and themes as practice, so – rather than start my next project on Saturday morning – I decided to spend a few hours trying to create a brief outline for a romance story that wasn’t paranormal.
One of the first romance tropes that occurred to me was the protagonists starting off in opposition due to a misunderstanding about the behaviour of one of them. Earlier in the month I had been in a café and had happened to take the last of a particular sandwich. When I paid the cashier pretended to be annoyed because they had been going to have it for their lunch. As I was only writing a practice piece I wondered about using that as the minor incident that caused the issue.
Of course, romance needs a strong compatibility between the protagonists that also continues the conflict, so – instead of a single sandwich – I decided to have the customer buy the food the barista had their eye on a second time. Not the claustrophobic political manoeuvring of Romeo and Juliet, but I was only experimenting with the form at that point.
Buying the last item each time immediately made me think the customer was using telepathy to do it deliberately. As I was trying to write straight romance so that wouldn’t work; however, having the barista start to think it was more than coincidence might. So I re-framed the conflict as one of perception: was this a prank, flirting, or plain coincidence?
To make the conflict as strong as possible, I made the customer a street magician and worked out a list of odd things that could be explained away once the reader discovered that.
Once I had that, the outline poured out in about 15 minutes. So I decided to try writing the first scene to see if I could make it both romantic and mysterious.
Less than two hours later, I had a first draft that didn’t immediately seem like a bad parody. Knowing that work that seems great when you write often ends up being the area that needs the deepest cuts when you edit, I put the story aside for the day. If it still looked good the next day, I would decide whether to try polishing it for submission instead of just practising a new genre.
Sunday brought two significant events: I wrote a second draft in an hour; and the editor of the anthology announced it was cancelled. So it went back in the experiments folder.
Only to come out again slightly over a week later when I realised the air of uncertainty fitted well with several of the stories I had marked as potentials for An Unquiet Calm.
Freed of the prohibition against speculative fiction, I was free to decide whether or not Marlowe was doing more than sleight-of-hand and cold reading when I redrafted it. Revealing my secrets would of course be doubly inappropriate.