Sunday, 29 March 2015

Where do your ideas come from? The Woman who Must

This is another entry in my sporadic series: 'Where do your ideas come from?' .  The previous one was about my SF story A Bit of A Mutiny first published in Jupiter SF.  This one is about a fantasy story The Woman who Must that first appeared in the Planetmag webzine.  I have republished it through Feedbooks so if anyone wants to download it they can for free.

Sometimes an image pops into my head and then it's a matter of asking the right questions, usually 'why'.  No, not why images pop into my head?  Why is what's happening, happening?

The image was of a Queen consort walking in an arboretum containing trees of her homeland, instantly I knew she was doing this everyday.  I knew she couldn't return to her own land.  Up pop the questions:

Why is she doing this?
Why are trees so important to her?  It can't be  as simple as she's missing her Motherland, can it?
Is she is an exile by marriage or is there something more?

Off and on I've been writing stories based around a fictional European country in the sixteenth/seventeenth century, playing with the idea of a historical fantasy.  This image came from that world and because of it, I knew she was being watched by her only child.  I wanted to write something earlier because her child, a girl called Aileen - and sometimes other things - tends to steal the show if she's about.

In this land I've toyed with dragons, mermaids and a little magic, then I try to make it more realistic and expunge the extreme fantastical elements sticking with 'subtle magic' that leans more to science.

She is walking in the woods for a very important reason and its before her only child is born, why is she doing that?

The first thing that came was a title, not the story title, but hers, that admittedly became the title of the story.  In her country she is 'The Woman who must Walk in the Forest Alone.'  If you look through human history titles like 'King', 'Queen', 'Emperor' are often shorthand for longer, older titles; for example: in the UK, 'Prime Minister'  is a modern title, in fact it used to be an insult - honest.  The Prime Minister's real title is First Lord of the Treasury.  In fact it is still engraved on the letterbox of 10 Downing Street.

The Woman who must Walk in the Woods Alone had to relate to a ritual.  Immediately I saw it,  Kings, even modern governments, go on about protecting their people, what if the King of this land had to demonstrate the land was safe by making his wife walk alone in a wild wood.  Now (most) kings aren't stupid, so say the ritual is a cheat.  A very safe piece of forest would be picked, surrounded by soldiers and cleared out of any people.  Now that would make a dull tale:  a rich woman going for a stroll, so what if a light, trivial ritual has returned to what it once was: a test of courage, of faith in her people and doing it meant something huge.

Her land has been invaded and the previous king had been ruthlessly eliminated as has all his family and anyone with a claim on the throne.  All that killing has made a minor lady sent to make a good match at a foreign court the uncrowned queen; that's the trouble with killing your enemies the consequences are unpredictable.

It's back to why walk in the woods?  Why leave the safety of your husband's land to enter a place of danger?  If she is discovered the new rulers wouldn't hesitate to add her to the list of their royal victims.

What could be so important, so vital that she would risk death?

Lady Roberta of Agritainia made the best of matches.  She married a prince and he became a king. There is one thing a queen consort has to do and she cannot.

I said, I like subtle magic.  The ideas came in a rush.  What if the fertility of Agritainian women is linked to the forests?  I had this thought of her land in ancient times being ravished by raiders stealing away the women and this binding the women to the forests was some kind of defence.  If raiders take its women, they'll have no 'worth'.  A warrior might force one to be their wife, but his brutish line will end with him.  Of course Agritainian women can travel and marry freely, but if they want to have children they must return if only once to Walk through the Woods Alone.  It made the ritual even older than mere kings and nobles think it is.

She loves her husband and has tried everything, including the arboretum in my image, now there is only one thing left for her to do.  To gamble her life to give her husband the heir he needs.

Now that's all background and not much of a story.  The real story is which part of the land she chooses to walk in and who she meets.  I have loaded the Queen with all kinds of burdens and dangers, what about the peasants living the woods?  They all know what it means, they know all the signs.  When the Lady Walks in the Woods, she is carrying or will carry the heir to the throne.  It will be the real King or Queen, proven by trial.

The ordinary folk, who have to cope with war when it burns their fields and takes their sons, know the significance of the Woman who Must.  Giving her up to the new masters of the land will reap gold and, more importantly peace, to a country and its people still scared by the take over years before.

When I started thinking about the people left behind the story flipped.  It wasn't about the Queen, it was about the who she meets.  That was strangely easy it would be a woman who has seen and been broken by past violence and must now balance up the fate of her nation against the life of one woman.

I know the last paragraph was more of a 'sell' than an explanation, but that's how I feel a story should be.  I wrote this story, repeatedly, it still runs round my head and writing the last paragraph makes me want to read it again.  That's how you can tell and the idea works.

By the way, if you read one of my other tales and want to know where the ideas came from ask away.

Useful Links

Planetmag - One of the oldest SF webzines around.

The Woman who Must - on Planetmag 

Feedbooks - eBooks both free and non-free

The Woman who Must - on Feedbooks