Kage Baker had few of the problems with inspiration that commonly afflict authors. She felt she was very lucky in that regard; she could find inspiration in almost anything. It took some discipline – Kage trained herself to pay attention to everything that crossed her mind; and to explore most ideas, no matter how silly they seemed initially.
The best case result was a story line. The worst was hours of entertaining conversations, on long summer roads and in long winter evenings. Sometimes she managed a grand slam and got both, coming up with characters and plots that became part of our lives for years. It’s how a scene originally inspired by the evening light on I-5 around 1985 became 8 Company novels, and yet was never actually included in a story until a one about invisible roses and Mendoza in the Tenderloin District; which I think came out the year Kage died … but we talked about that scene all the years and miles in between.
The origin for the Company series in its entirety, as I have recounted ad infinitum, arose from a conversation over breakfast, about whence came all those lost and re-found animals, plants, musical scores, hominid fossils, royal jewels and works of erotica by unlikely authors. It was further informed by the new habits of graduate students, who have taken in recent years to mining for overlooked treasures in universities, libraries and museums. And just imagine how simple and yet how complicated it could be, to stash something in those narrow corridors of the Smithsonian that are famously crowded with elephant skulls and trays of beetles?
Also, Kage loved treasure hunts. She often plotted out the story line like a scavenger hunt, chortling at the mad twists, disappointments and false clues her hapless characters had to endure. And sometimes cursing at the changes her characters sprang on her in the process.
Kage wrote increasingly to order as time went on. However, even if she knew what the topic was, or whose oeuvre she was meant to be imitating, a story still needs a plot. That could make her nuts; she had to go digging through her chest of stored ideas to find just the right plastic doohickey to use as the center of a pearl. “Plotters and Shooters” arose that way, from a dislike of bullies and fanboys. A lesson for everyone, Dear Readers. Do not annoy a writer, especially at a Con; you’ll end up in a story in a weird costume
“Pueblo, Colorado Has The Answer” was partially inspired by a spate of PSA commercials on late night telly in Pismo Beach, about all the wonderful things for which you could send away for instructions from the government offices in Pueblo Colorado. It was kicked off finally, though, by discovering that one stalk of corn in our backyard garden had been laid down and shaped into a curve – Kage decided we had experienced a “crop bend” (we didn’t have enough corn for a crop circle) and the story just took off from there.
“Son, Observe the Time” was written out of her deep love of San Francisco, but the tiny grains of matter about which the fluid crystallized were our adventures trying to find Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, upon whose famous clock tower is a plaque reading Son, Observe The Time and Fly From Evil. Also, the little old lady who finally led us to the church – she came out of nowhere to assist us, and promptly returned there. But before she left, we asked her for her name. “Oh, I’m Old Mary,” she told us, and vanished into the crowds.
“The Wreck of the Gladstone” was the second story about Kalugin, the Company deep sea salvager and fervent lover of Nan D’Araignee. It was also the first story about Victor, double-agent Facilitator, foe of the Poison Club, and also the fervent lover of Nan D’Araignee. That turned out to be an immortal love triangle … but, ancillary characters aside, the story was based on Kage’s abiding fondness for Popeye the Sailor Man. You can trace the classical arc of his birth between the lines of the story.
“Katherine’s Story” is about Kage’s mother. She gave birth to Kage’s older sister, Betty Jean, on October 30th, 1938 – the night Orson Wells broadcast War of the Worlds and scared half the country out of its mind. That included the Deep South rural hospital where Katherine had a breech birth presentation of her first daughter; her labour was delayed by the panic of the staff and the absence of the doctor, and Betty Jean was born with cerebral palsy. Most of this story is true. You get to figure out which parts those are.
“What The Tiger Told Her” was visually inspired by PBS trailers for a Regency drama (probably The Aristocrats), and some television commercial for a dry cleaners that featured a tiger. I’ve no idea why, nor any memory of why the ads for the two aired at the same time. But the pictures fascinated Kage, and ultimately the story of a sentient tiger and a strange little girl was the result.
I also feel constrained by truth to reveal that among the nuggets that inspired Kage were: McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. She loved them. They were cheap, and could be eaten in the car while discussing stories. Or at her desk, writing the stories. They led directly to our discovery of cans of compressed air, too.
There’s more, of course, and I may get into those as well. The workings of Kage Baker’s mind were strange and wonderful, and her ability to weave together bits and pieces into something new was always miraculous. Of course, when asked where she got her ideas, she took a lesson from Roger Zelazny (look him up, Dear Readers) and always told people she sent off for them from a P.O. Box in New Jersey.
Or maybe in Pueblo, Colorado. They have all the answers.