“Or I Wil Harrie Them Out of This Land”

My new story, “‘Or I Will Harrie Them Out of This Land'” (yes, the double + single quotation marks are correct) is available today at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

I say “new” but its gestation is actually older than that of the earlier BCS story “Sinseerly A Friend & Yr. Obed’t” (q.v. by all means). The series of stories that I’m currently working on — six planned, four completed, one in progress — all grew out of genealogical research.

I’m not your average genealogist. I prefer to think of myself as a scholar of ancestry. I’m not interested so much in who married whom and who begat such-and-such as I am in what can still be gleaned of how their lives were — how they felt, where they lived, what they loved. Most of that is lost, of course, irrecoverable irrevocably, since we lack time machines, which probably can’t exist; and we’re left with scraps and facts, brown-edged ledger books and lichened gravestones, locks of hair and page-shedding family bibles, deeds and plats, wills and censuses. Dust and grease. But I refuse to set any limits on the power of compassion and imagination. So I invent, I fib furiously, I conjure and conduct.

I discovered Henry and James early on in my research, although it took a while to prove the line of descent. As I turned the facts over like troweling a flowerbed, churning up rocks and roots, the fascination never quite jelled into narrative. Then another story demanded my attention, like a ventriloquist flapping his dummy’s jaw up and down; and as the rejection notes for this new story piled up, I thought: I just can’t write commercial fiction, I don’t have it in me, I should just give it up and do whatever I want. So I did.

I started (working title: “James” then “A Wethersfield Tale” then “A Witch” then “Concerning the Peculiar Incidents…” and so on) with the formal restraint that the story consist of twenty long paragraphs, each exactly five hundred words long. Each paragraph would in turn comprise five one-hundred-word sentences, for example, or ten fifty-word sentences, or what have you, in intricate patternings. Traces of this procedure still survive in the final version: dialog is preceded by an em-dash and has no other punctuation than commas and semicolons because at first the scenes were all run together into single paragraphs, and the numbering reflects the original structure of five-hundred-word chunks.

But then Scott H. Andrews of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, that prince of editors, that paragon of publishers, bought the other story, and I thought: Well, maybe, I might after all, perhaps…?

Let’s do this thing.

I relaxed all the constraints to just one: each (now numbered, with free paragraphing) section must be exactly five hundred words. Finished, the story tipped the scales at twelve thousand words, precisely, not counting a long epigraph.

Since it was written expressly for Scott, I sent it to him. He wrote back a month and a half later, asking for more time to consider it. Two months later, I queried its status, and a week after that we began exchanging long emails about my intentions and his reactions, culminating in a request to revise the story and resubmit it. I spent about two months doing so, pulling it apart, remolding the pieces, discarding and rearranging and supplementing, but still keeping to the five-hundred word rule. And it was now 14,500 words (exactly). I sent it back.

Two and a half months later, we had another spell of long emails, then Scott offered a contract. Don’t, beloved reader, count each section, because a month of adding and subtracting words saw a net loss of three hundred of them, making some sections a trifle longer, others a little shorter. And so here we are.

A story.

It’s surprising how much of it is true.

I can document that’s it true! And I even have some facts left over, like a handful of baby teeth.

(But all that’s for another post.)