What Lights The Fire?

Kage Baker used to hate being asked that classically disingenuous question: Where do you get your ideas? Especially when the questioner would then stand there, eyes at stretch for wonder and mouth open  like a baby bird, obviously sure that Kage was about to reveal some ancient, sacred, authorly secret … Kage hated disappointing them.

She also  hated being asked, partly because she felt it was an intrusive question  (and then felt guilty about that) and partly because she really didn’t know most of the time. And it made her wonder so much about where the ideas did come from that she would begin to worry – like the centipede who walked just fine when he didn’t think about it, but promptly tied himself into a knot when someone asked him how he did it.

So I told her that Roger Zelazny, whose writing she much admired, had according to legend replied: “From a post office in New Jersey.” The idea tickled her and she used it thereafter, unless engaged in a serious discussion about a specific story. Some grimly earnest fans asked her for the P.O. Box, with the obvious intention of subscribing, but she always explained that if she told them that, she’d have to kill them … which I think they also believed.

The truth is, sometimes you don’t know where an idea comes from at all. Sometimes you do: Kage wrote a lot of stories on assignment, as it were, which have some source to the stories by implication, if nothing else. She would also just sit down sometimes and decide she wanted to write an Ermenwyr story; or a Joseph one; or one about duck-billed platypusses or whatever topic was currently obsessing her.

But there are the stories that just appear in your mind. Best case scenario, the story appears in its entirety, like the Cyprian goddess from the paternal foam. Then you just have to write it down, dictation from your muse. But much more often, a single scene or scenario appears – it blazes in your brain, which is good, but it has no source, no provenance, no background. It is a singularity, a mental quazar that lights up the dark landscape of the mind but imparts no information: not direction, neither nativity nor senescence. No idea what it means, no idea where it leads.

When that happens, Kage always began with research. But what do you research, if you don’t yet know what you’re talking about? Whatever you can make out, whatever detail sprang out at you from that bright, brief flare – a man with one blue-steel hand. A gull dissolving into a high, grey sky. A cow in Martian gravity.

So, a great deal of the time, Kage began the process of a story researching. At one point in the distant past, that meant a trip to the library with a list – I’d bring her books, she’d pore through them; or we’d stack them up and go at the pile from both sides. The city of Mars Two was founded via that method, me passing Kage books with pertinent passages and even more pertinent pictures – Mons Olympus and the Tharsis Plateau took root, blossomed and then burned in Kage’s head through one long summer afternoon in the Ivar Street Library.

Of course, once the Internet was available, Kage did most of her research herself, and right there at her desk. From having to catch the barman’s eye and drink one pint at a time, she went straight to controlling the keg herself: and while she was moderate with drink, Kage was a libertine with knowledge; she bathed and drowned in it. Her plot rose out of the DT’s, or at least from some similar over-stimulated and hallucinatory state. Kage actually grew to depend on the mad wild chain-reaction in the reactor of her brain – she’d start wherever inspiration had left an image, and just leap from reference to reference until something came alive.

You can maybe see, Dear Readers, why she didn’t try to explain this process to eager interrogators. I’ve descended into a veritable grab-bag of confused metaphors, trying to explain what I actually saw her do. And I have the advantage of having watched her while it happened!

Nonetheless. It did – and does – work.

And when she reached that point where the cascade of information and inspiration began, Kage would start the story notes. The bones of the plots – she always aimed at three plots from the very start, to make sure the story would have enough depth. The initial scene or scenes that had flashed across her mind; often, extensions and twists arose while she wrote it down. A beginning. An end. Neither of those might survive the entire process, but Kage never began without having one of each committed to paper – You’ve got to know the punchline, she would say.

She appended these notes, bits and pieces, passages from poetry, sacred texts and advertising – whatever had inspired her – to the end of the document. Then she went back to the beginning, and started to write. She wrote until she had gone through all the ideas and plot points in her notes, adding new ideas as they occurred to her; she wrote until the story met the notes and went out the other side. And then it was done.

Simple, huh?

So. Yestreday I got a lot of mail and fascinating conversation about the newly discovered olinquito; much of it, Dear Readers, from many of you. And as I was making a silly remark about the Company operatives whose consuming passion is little furry animals, a bolt of light leaped across the darkness of my mind: They call them the Teddy Bear Squad.

it read. And added parenthetically:                  And they don’t like it very much.

Employing Kage’s methods, research today has ranged all over the North California coast, leaping from ground squirrels to the Esselen tribe to photophobia to symbiotic molds and lichens to albinism to the hiring practices of the National Park Service.

And now I’m 101 words into a new story, “The Teddy Bear Squad.”

News as it develops, Dear Readers.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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6 Responses to What Lights The Fire?

  1. Allison says:

    I like it! I want to read it!


  2. R. Gray says:

    Ooooh . Hope that works out, ’cause I want to read it. If only to get this gol’ darn song about a picnic out of my head… (“If you go out in the woods tonight….”) …. 🙂


  3. Kate says:

    Thanks, Roger – now *I* have “The Teddy Bears Picnic” stuck in my head. Well, every story has its own soundtrack, and this obviously the one for this story!


  4. Medrith says:

    I’ll buy it! I’ll read it!


  5. Mark says:

    The Hiring practices of the NPS? Boy that’s a depressing subject…
    Park rangers are mostly *cops.* Which doesn’t tend to put the naturalists and historians, who know what the heck they are protecting on the fast track to management oversight. They tend to be off in cubicals….generating paper.


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