Sometimes These Things Take Time

by wjw on April 6, 2011

I’m currently working on a novella that I’ve been planning for over twenty years.  I think I came up with the idea in the late 1980s.

I guess you could say I’m not the fastest writer around.

The story is the latest installment in the “Dead Romantics” series, in which I craft science fiction stories about writers.  Past installments have featured Poe (“No Spot of Ground”), Mary Shelley (“Wall, Stone, Craft”), and Nietzsche (“The Last Ride of German Freddie”).  “Red Elvis,” which features, well, Elvis, is an allied story, but it isn’t about a writer, so it doesn’t quite qualify as a Dead Romantics story.

These are stories that I primarily write for myself.  They’re indulgences.  They’re about writers who were important to me in one way or another, and I’m generally working out something fairly personal about what it means to be in this line of work.

I was pleased when these stories seemed to find an audience.  I wrote them for myself, but apparently at least a few other people share my preoccupations.

This story is about Mark Twain, and I decided to finally write it when  I was asked by an editor to write a novella, and this was the only novella-sized idea I had lying around the lumber room of my brain.  The publication of Mark Twain’s autobiography was coincidental— I would have written the story whether the autobiography had appeared or not.  I did read the biography, though, to get Twain’s voice and to find out what was in his mental lumber room.  (Quite a lot that you can skip, as it turns out.)

Because Twain knew everybody, I soon found the story thronged with his acquaintances— tycoons like JP Morgan, John Jacob Astor, and Henry Huttleston Rogers, and literary titans like Robert Underwood Johnson.   (I even read Johnson’s poetry.  It’s hideously, horribly, appallingly bad.  Worse than you can probably imagine.  A lot of it didn’t scan— and not in an interesting way— and it was full of ghastly literary anachronisms of the sort that often infest Victorian verse.   Twain, whose writing is admirably modern and direct,  must have been laughing up his sleeve at Johnson the whole time.)

Along the way, I discovered that John Jacob Astor, who was the richest man in the world and who died on the Titanic, wrote a science fiction novel.   JP Morgan,  who began his career selling defective, exploding carbines to the U.S. military during the Civil War, precipitated a financial panic in 1901 that made him a tidy sum while ruining thousands of investors.  (And he did it without a government bailout! Goldman Sachs, take note.)  (Morgan’s most famous quote, “I owe the public nothing,” dates from this period.)

I’ve also been researching the science of the period, which is vexing, because I have to use period terms for what are now common scientific concepts.  I’d pay money for someone to have come up with the term “robot” in the 1890s, because it’s so much easier than “teleautomaton,” which was the word back then.  Because Einstein wouldn’t publish Special Relativity for some years, the speed of light was not considered a limit, and people expected to be able to travel more quickly—or at least that their messages might.  Atoms consisted of a nucleus surrounded by negatively-charged “corpuscles.”  Evidence that the ionosphere exists was piling up, but it didn’t have a name yet, not even the Heaviside Layer.  Heavier-than-air flight was still a dream.  The first zeppelin had just flown (and crashed).  The land speed record was held by a British locomotive, which had traveled (once) at 90 miles per hour, a speed not exceeded by an automobile till 1907.

As for how the novella is progressing, I’m almost done, at least with the draft.  I’ve known all along what the climax would be, but I’m having trouble envisioning the denouement, the bit of falling action that follows the climax.  (You know what a denouement is, right?  It’s like at the end of Star Trek, where McCoy makes a joke at Spock’s expense, and Spock raises an eyebrow, and then it fades out.  Maybe I’ll just have Mark Twain light a cigar.)

There’s another Dead Romantics story to follow this one, and I’ve been thinking about it at least as long as the Twain story.  It will feature Ambrose Bierce, and his finale in the Mexican Revolution.

So andale, as they say down there.  Except, y’know, not too fast . . .

Kathy H April 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm

I think “Dead Romantics” would make a great anthology, but it would have to have some sort of steam-punk tie-in, to make it marketable.

John Appel April 7, 2011 at 1:17 am

Intriguing – I’ll be interested to read this once it’s published. And I may have to crack the cover of Twain’s autobiography (well, fire up the NOOK) after my current read.

But the when you mentioned Ambrose Bierce in Mexico, it immediately reminded me of a story in Asimov’s years ago that featured Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer (real people in this alternate universe!) in Mexico along with Ambrose Bierce…

DensityDuck April 7, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Don’t forget that anything involving metal is about three times as thick and heavy as it really needs to be, because the concept of “metal fatigue” didn’t really exist yet. The process of structural analysis was to record where the previous thing broke, and make that part thicker in the next thing.

wjw April 8, 2011 at 9:13 pm

The story isn’t steampunk, which doesn’t mean I’d necessarily object to pictures of zeppelins and women with goggles on the cover.

The story is in fact Secret History, where you show historical people and what they did historically, and then explain the secret reasons behind their actions. Which, s’far as I’m concerned, is far cooler than zeppelins and goggles, but then I’m not a publishing company marketing guy.

Robert Sulentic April 19, 2011 at 12:13 am

I still remember that Poe story, that was good stuff.

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