We could all use some, I think.
But where to find it?
Ah, now that is the question. Some wander over the occasional ancient wall or two. Some play hide-and-seek in peculiar wardrobes. Some explore animal homes. Some play a forgotten boardgame. Some even purchase a kit from a store.
And let’s not even talk about the parents that spend the day graveyard-hopping with their kids (post forthcoming).
For those of us confined to a house of snits and snaps and other plastic mayhem, the hope for peace and quiet and magic feels all but gone, especially when lockdowns are extended, when schools are closed for the year, when jobs are furloughed until further notice.
Oh, I cried when Wisconsin’s governor extended the lockdown. Even though all the rational parts of me knew this was coming, I still cried. I had hoped my mother could finish her teaching tenure with her students. I had hoped my sons could continue their Occupational Therapy. I had hoped my daughter could return to her friends. I had hoped for a little time for myself, too.
But none of this is meant to be, dammit, so here we are, fearful of the outside world while driven mad by the inside one.
How do we counter this?
Perhaps you find it in an old story, as I did. “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer” began with a photo spotted in the fall of 2018.
Something about the old woman reaching for that apple…it was like she was reaching for, for something else. For me? N-no, but something about the urgency in her manner, the aggressiveness. She needed that fruit. But why? I mean, it’s not like people’s lives depend on a single apple.
Uuuuunless they did.
And from here came the crack and thunder of magic gone wrong. People’s lives did depend on this apple, if that apple was needed in order to stop a Happening from, well, happening.
But what was Happening?
Why, a story, of course.
But sometimes even an inspiring photo isn’t enough. We need to look beyond the photo’s perimeters. What does the traffic sound like on the street? How high do the buildings tower over others? Are we in a world of electronics, or some sort of yesteryear? And smells, don’t forget smells.
(Yes, even towns can have a characteristic smell. For decades, Milwaukee was always blanketed with the smell of yeast from the Miller Brewery. Ever since they removed that level of operation from the downtown location, my nose no longer believes the rest of me when I drive to Milwaukee.)
In order to build upon that initial inspiration, we’ve got to put our sense-memory to use. After spotting the wee shop in the background named “Meatball Obsession,” I focused on my first date with Bo when he cooked me spaghetti. He loves making his own sauce, a day-long endeavor that fills the house with a rich, spicy, meatiness that makes you think the very air is edible. And suddenly I’m imagining people walking about nibbling on saucy meatballs since apples were for magic and not eating.
Hmmm. Sounds a bit silly.
Eh, why not? It’s my story, dammit. At the time I wasn’t looking for serious fare. To help me stay lighthearted, I even put on the soundtrack to Midsomer Murders while I wrote, Parker’s themes for mystery in rural life the perfect balance of spooky and delightful. The mix of smell, sounds, and sights helped me focus on building a story about a woman—no, not just a woman. Look at that hat and coat. Come on. Surely this is a Madame, one of status and prestige…even if no one else agrees. But Madame who? Hmmm…say, isn’t that my Midsomer CD over there?
(Yes, that is occasionally how things come into my stories. If something’s in my eyeline, then iiiiiiiiiiin it goes! So when in doubt, look around you.)
And one apple seems so paltry. Surely Madame Midsomer would insist on purchasing not just one apple but a dozen, certain she could stop the mayhem of her own doing from destroying the entire town. The seller, however, doesn’t like her, refuses to help, and the magical authorities take her away and everything’s fine and life is happy the end.
After posting the story on my free fiction page, I decided to send it off to an online magazine. They didn’t take it, citing the need for more developed worldbuilding and consistent tone.
Well, poop. I liked it, so the story stayed as is…until this past March.
Something Or Other Publishing reached out with information regarding their latest anthology project and inquiring whether or not I’d like to submit.
Um, sure? Except my current short fic WIP wasn’t close to being ready, and SOOP’s deadline was just a few days. What to send, what to send…
I passed “Tampering” off to another fantasy reader to get feedback. While he liked a lot of things, he just couldn’t wrap his head around the meatballs.
But. I. LIKE THEM!
Maybe in this confinement, when we’re so ready for ANYthing to break us out of the rutted dread, I was hoping for those meatballs to just come a’ rainin’ down, blessed by the wind.
But in a short story, where the worldbuilding must be solid in only a few paragraphs, I couldn’t justify having something so oddball as obsessions with meatballs. Even one as out there as Neil Gaiman knows he has to tone things down sometimes for the sake of the readers.
A fresh challenge comes when we remove that presumed Thing from the worldbuilding. To us, that Thing embodied so much of the story, like the meatballs representing the out-there zaniness of my setting. In focusing on that zaniness, though, I forgot to give the setting any sort of history, or rules, or heck, even a name. When we over-prioritize the gimmicky Thing instead of characters or plot, is it any wonder readers question the story’s logic or tone?
This calls for serious inspiration.
I didn’t want this urban fantasy to feel too dated, but I did want it to feel different. It hit me I wanted magic to be a normal thing in this society; at first this was to be through the meatballs, but now, I wanted a calmer presence, something akin to Ingary in Howl’s Moving Castle. Witches and wizards were simply a part of life there. One went to a wizard for spells or potions to protect a voyage, help a crop, etc.
Why not let magic be as natural as a flower from the ground?
*gasp* Or the fruits of the trees?
So many possibilities opened in that moment. A quaint farming community, a town proud of its home-grown magic…because it was unique?
Or because it was dated because the rest of the world had moved on to more modern methods?
Imagine magic factory-made and shipped to big box stores, as pleasantly packaged as a box of cookies, consistently good. Not as good as home-made, mind you, but still, you know, good.
Now this story wasn’t just about a sorceress angrily fighting with a fruit seller. This story was about a community struggling under the weight of a pompous magic-wielder. A town proud of its natural magic and fed up with those who misuse it.
At last, I’d found the world built.
And its name was Pips Row.
“Hullo, Seller!” Madame clacked her way down the walk with the straightest of spines and the most pointed of chins. It made no difference to her that the Seller was addressing a small group of whiny school children and their frazzled teacher on the importance of fruit in Workings and other Spells. “So, just as there’s a fruit for every season, there’s a magic for every fruit. Why, if not for lemons, you’d never have fireworks. If not for holly berries, you’d never have snow for Christmas.”
“Isn’t that fascinating, children?” the teacher said with as much enthusiasm as a slug in a salt shaker. “While most communities import their magic from the capital’s factories, little places like Pips Row carry on the old-fashioned way.”
Old-fashioned, indeed! Madame Midsomer had half a mind to show this frumpish excuse of human being just how “old-fashioned” a Regional Sorceress could be. “Excuse me, Seller?”
“Why don’t people here buy by their magic from Merlin’s Mart like everything else?” One gap-toothed girl asked while licking sprinkles from her fingers.
The teacher opened her mouth to speak, but Madame Midsomer brushed her aside. “Manufactured powders don’t hold a snuff to the real thing, child. Now out of my way. I have urgent business to discuss with Seller.”
Out of the corner of Seller’s eye, he could see the tower of Madame Midsomer’s residence shudder ever so slightly, sending a cloud of pollen from the flowers of her creeping vines into the air. The wind coughed—an unsettling sound to any native of Pips Row.
Seller gave a tight-lipped smile to the teacher behind the little mob. “If you’ll excuse me.”
But this school group was not of Pips Row, and had so far only learned they can throw sweets without consequence. “No! The hag can shut up so you can show us real magic!” the girl said, and the lot of them pitched fistfuls of sprinkles at Madame Midsomer.
This was unwise.
Dear writing friends, do not look upon this time of lockdown as a creative drought. Peruse old works for new potential. Tap the dust off favorite reads for new lessons. Lose yourself in the emotions of music. Look upon the world outside your window, and ask:
What’s hiding in the beyond?
Thanks so much for reading my little explore into this writing experience! If you like the sound of “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer,” then I hope you’ll help its chances for publication by voting on SOOP’s website. If you’ve already voted—
Photos and music and stuff are a’comin’ after I figure out yet another school-at-home conundrum.
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!