Kage Baker lived more inside her head than out of it. There was a lot more room in there than the one world her body inhabited. She started writing in the first place because she couldn’t find enough of the answers she wanted in the real world, so she made her own worlds where the answers evolved naturally. At age 9, they were questions like: What did Long John Silver do with the rest of his life? How would it be to live with Rat and Mole on the edge of the Great River? If you lived in the top of a palm tree, what would it be like? She learned world building first, of all the tasks of her craft.
She was very loathe to share these worlds with anyone else when she was young. She’d tell stories to us younger ones, though, when we would listen; and once I figured out she was closer and more full of ideas than the library, I became her dedicated audience. By the time we were both in our early teens, the worlds had gotten more and more complicated, and Kage needed to talk out plot points and ideas with someone. That was me. We started brainstorming, and it didn’t stop for the next 42 years.
Years before she was published, Kage already wrote very day. There are whole novels, 4 or 5 of them, in the archives. (If luck is with me, they will see the light of day. After considerable refurbishment … ) They were how she learned her craft. Most writers break “suddenly” into print like this, after 20 years of solid, steady work. The manuscript that finally gets bought is rarely the first and only; there are years and years of dedicated work behind them. The only way to be a writer, Kage said, was to write. Sit down and write: at the kitchen table, in your armchair, behind the stage between acts, for 12 hours a day in the light of the computer monitor.
Between writing (and often during), Kage and I talked. We talked out the details of what came next, what the research was yielding, how the latest installment had read. We often acted the scenes out, and a lot of dialogue came out of these improvisational exercises. (A certain amount of chocolate and alcohol may have been involved.) One of my functions was to throw ideas at her, everything I could think of – she used what worked, but the constant culling also cleared out the ideas she didn’t like.When she hit dead ends, she’d re-cap the plot for me, then look and me and ask, “What happens next?”
“How the hell should I know?” I would usually moan. She would persist. I would curse and the parrot would run about and yell gleefully at the noise. And I’d throw out ideas (the more I wanted to get back to knitting or the laundry or my newspaper, the goofier they were) and Kage would consider and riposte and rework and suddenly need to know if dinosaurs got cancer or what those weird bones on cats’ paws are that sometimes looked like thumbs, and we’d drive out to get pizza and two hours later the plot would have taken on new life and she’d be blazing away again. And two days later, she’d pause and lean back in her chair, and say thoughtfully, “So what happens next?”
And now I am trying to pick up the process. No sighing with relief and going back to an engrossing cable pattern, now; I am making cables out of Kage’s words, and I need asbestos needles. But I have all her old work to search for ideas and answers; I have her voice in all its multiple-personality splendour, in the books and in my head. I followed her down so many strange and wonderful roads of inquiry, I can see where her footprints would lie.
And I have this blog, and all you imagined readers out there. I can shout into the darkness, and the echo will come back just different enough to be another voice. It’s probably whining, “How the hell should I know?”, but as Kage used to say, “That’s not my problem. ”
Nor is it mine. I’m operating on sonar now; I just need the echo so I can feel where the walls are. So I can feel in my skin what happens next.
Tomorrow: night and day