Fire in the Fields Underneath the Blazing Sun (Theme Music Monday)

I first heard this song in 1988, at age 13, and it fired my imagination like few songs had ever done.  The first verse talks of a people defeated and enslaved, but not broken.  Even as they suffer “for someone else’s selfish gain” they sing songs to their God.  The second is darker, more metaphorical, with its talk of “chambers made for sleeping forever.”  It was not until I was somewhat older than I understood what that meant (“waiting for the train labeled with the golden star” should have clued me in, but I was thirteen).

Though I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get the historical references (the Jews’ enslavement by the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Holocaust, respectively) at first, the sentiment and imagery struck me to my heart.  This was the universal cry of outrage at human cruelty: “Man hurts man, time and time again, and we drown in the wake of our power. Somebody tell me why?”  But more than that, it was the hope that comes from faith.  Even at thirteen years old I could understand that.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the album, and especially the song, “Lead Me On” jump-started my dream of writing.  Though at thirteen, I was hardly writing prose, I began to compose narratives, imagine characters, and inhabit the themes.  I suppose I would be writing if I had never heard “Lead Me On,” but I think I would be a very different writer, a very different person.

It was while listening to this album that my mind started to imagine Tarafore, the fantasy world of my young imagination.  While many things have changed, the image of a group of warlords rising up to break the world, the conquer, to enslave, stuck with me.  The themes of faith against tyranny, sacrifice against cruelty, hope against domination have informed my writing – my best writing at least.

I believe in this song.  This song is a part of me, a part of who I am.  It’s one of those things that’s helped shape me.


A little update

I’m making progress toward having actual inventory.  I put “Peace? I Hate the Word” up on Kindle and Smashwords.  I’m following Dean Wesley Smith’s advice and pricing it at $2.99, even though I feel a little odd about selling a novelette for that much (it outgrew “short story” status, reaching 7,600 words).  To make a long story short, there’s an ugly trend of indie authors devaluing their own work, and I refuse to participate.

In writing, “value” means the quality of the experience, not the number of words per dollar charged.  A 200,000 word novel priced at 99 cents may be a great value, or it may be 200,000 words of your life you’ll never get back.  I’ve gladly paid over $10 for e-books that were quite short: The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton is one example.

Another is A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz.  I got it on sale for 99 cents, but it was worth far more.  Temporary sales are good for promotion, but how do you put a book on sale when you’re starting at 99 cents?

Anyway, I’ve put “Peace? I Hate the Word” up, and I’m working on another Cassa short story.  This one’s a prequel, taking place twenty years earlier, when Cruhuer Merengo and Giuseppe Fiorentino first inherited their titles as heads of their respective houses.  It has similar themes, but approaches them from a different perspective.  I’m calling it “All Men Are Wolves.”

I know the “challenge goal” of one short story a week isn’t going to happen, but I knew that from the beginning.  I’m just glad to be making forward progress.  I’m using the short stories as workshops to improve specific aspects of my writing craft: sentence structure, character voice, proactive protagonists, and a balance of excitement with non-glorification of violence.

So, what do you think about e-book prices, especially indie prices?   And for those of you who are also writers, are there any specific aspects of your writing you’re working on improving?

Short Story #1: “Peace? I Hate the Word”

Well, without further ado, I present to you the first short story from my summer project.  As you may remember, I’m working on five things: character voice, sensory details, proactive characters, not using profanity (which is a temporary thing to make sure I’m not just using it because I’m lazy), and an internal and inherent premise.

In addition to being the first short story of this summer project, “Peace? I Hate the Word” is also the first short story I’ve written in this new stage of writing (roughly the last three years).  Anyway, I hope that reading it is a good for you as writing it has been for me.

Peace? I Hate the Word

(A Tale of Tarafore)

by Brent Dedeaux

“Two families, both alike in indignity, in fair Cassa where we lay our scene,” the elder Merengo said, chuckling at a half-remembered passage from an ancient book of Earth.  His clear baritone filled the room as the cry of a great stag fills the forest, echoing off the stone walls, undiminished by thick hanging tapestries.

His second son stood, his deep brown eyes wide with shock.  “The Merengo and the Fiorentino, alike in dignity?” Lorenzo said, leaving his tutor behind and stepping toward his father, his hands grasping at his doublet.  “Surely, my lord, you jest.”

Lord Cruhuer Merengo laughed deep and long.  “Ah, to see the concern on your face, son,” he said, “perhaps you seek to cure me of this heresy, as our uncles have so long sought to do.”

“Father, may I speak freely?”

“If you cannot, I have done a poor job indeed as your father.”

“I can almost understand your desire to expand the franchise beyond the noble houses, to bring the merchants and wealthy professional classes into the council,” Lorenzo said, “for they will side with us far more often than not, giving us leverage against the Peccavi and Kamitaas.  I can understand that their time will come, and crushing them, as the Houses of the Boar, the Ram, and the Wolf are likely to do, will only lead to greater devastation later.  But to call the Fiorentino our equals?  May the Creator forbid it!”

At the mention of The Creator, Lorenzo’s tutor silently made the sign of a circle, starting with his lips, proceeding to his chest, his navel, and back around to his lips.

“These books of Earth you read,” Lorenzo continued, aristocratic indignation raising him above his place, “I understand they are the wisdom of our sister-world, but Father, you cannot blindly follow their words -”

“You think my plans and beliefs came from a book?”  Cruhuer boomed, his dark eyes wide, tossing his head like a great stag might, “even a book from Earth itself?  No.  They come from my own eyes, my own experience.  Is Pierro my nephew?”

“Yes,” Lorenzo said, “of course.”

“Is he your cousin?”

“You know he is.”

“And that is how you see him,” Merengo rumbled, “as your cousin.  Not as hired help, or an enforcer, but as a cousin – lesser estate, because he is excluded from the line of succession, but still, family.”

“Yes, my lord,” Lorenzo said, drawing back a bit, “you know I do.”

“But is Pierro of our blood?” Lord Merengo asked.

Lorenzo paused. “I -”

“He is not our blood, is he?”

Lorenzo dropped his eyes.  “No, sir.”

“Yet he is family.  My nephew, your cousin.”  It was not a question.

“Yes, of course.”

“How did he come into our family?” Cruhuer asked.

“You know as well as I, Father,” Lorenzo said, “his father was of our line, but his mother was of House Lucrece of Cartagi.  She was as the Fiorentino, a granddaughter of Earth, with no Great Beast watching over her House.  They could never conceive, not unless -”  Lorenzo paused, unwilling to speak of such a subject.

“Not unless the power of the Breaking overcame them,” his father said, “causing them to bring forth a creature, half of Earth and half of the Great Stag, a harbinger of chaos.”

“Yes,” Lorenzo said, bowing his head, “but nobility cannot remain childless.  It cannot be, so they adopted a foundling, one clearly of neither House Merengo or House Lucrece, so he would feel equal kinship to both.”

“Pierro, whose ancestral beast was clearly the Great Cat,” Cruhuer said, “a beast that has served us all well, and saved our lives today.”

“Indeed, I claim him among my most valued of kin,” Lorenzo said.

“If Pierro Merengo can be our equal, with no drop of noble blood,” Cruhuer said, “why are the commoners not our equals?  What is the difference?”

Lorenzo stopped, mouth open, and said, simply, “Father, that is not the way of things.  Pierro has been raised since his infancy to be one of our kind -”

“But now the merchants equal and even exceed our accomplishments,” Lord Merengo said, “and educate their children much as we educate ours.  I know we can offer no real equality for the illiterate, the uneducated, the true masses – such would be a mere fantasy.  But we can expand our doors to allow those who can look us in the eye, in all but name and title, to stand beside us, and help guide this city.  It is right.  Moreover, it is rational.”

“That is well and good, Father, but the Fiorentino?”  Lorenzo shuddered.  “Their bloodline is pure enough, but their conduct is beneath reproach!  I’d sooner claim kinship with the Amicitias’s petty thugs!”

“They, too, are our brothers,” Lord Cruhuer said, “misguided and callous as they may be.”  He smiled slyly.  “But I did not mention the Fiorentino.  I believe the two houses in the Earth-man’s book were Montague and Capulet.  And the city may not have been Cassa, but Verona, now that I consider it.”

“Then why, dear father, did you let me proceed this far?” Lorenzo said, embarrassment and anger vying in his dark eyes, “I have made a great fool of myself in front of -”

“Only myself and Alfonse,” His father said gently, “and we have seen much worse.”  He took a deep breath.  “Though I admit there was a purpose to my misquoting.”

“To make a jester of me?”  Lorenzo said, exasperated beyond the point of proper respect.

Lord Merengo sighed.  “Lorenzo, do you know why I gave you a Cassan name, when I gave your brothers ancestral Merengo names?”

“No,” Lorenzo said, “I had always assumed you owed a debt of honor to a man named Lorenzo, and chose to honor him through me.”

“No,” Cruhuer said, “You are the only Lorenzo I have ever known, personally.  I gave you a name fit for the City-State of Cassa because you are to be my emissary to Cassa.  Collin, your older brother, will inherit my title, but you, Lorenzo, you must carry on my work.  You must be my voice in Cassa after I am gone.”

“Father -”

“And to that end, you must learn circumspection,” his father continued, “you must learn wisdom.  You must master your temper, learn to wield and control the fire that burns inside you.  You must learn to hear the whole story before you act, to be absolutely certain your actions, as well as your words, are true.  Do you understand?”

Lorenzo hung his head.  “Yes, Father.”

“Good,” Lord Merengo said, “so now you understand why I bait you so.”  He smiled.  “I am proud of you, son, despite your temper.  Come, our guests will arrive soon, and we must dress for dinner.”

Lorenzo followed his father out of the parlor and down a breezeway that led to the residential wing. Though the interior hallways were doubtless more secure, a summer wind blew cool on their faces, carrying with it the heat-driven smell of roses and honeysuckle.

Without knowing why, Lord Merengo’s hand went to his waist, closing around the grip of his small sword.  Lorenzo sniffed the air.  “I smell an Amicitias rat,” he whispered, sliding his dagger slowly from his belt.

“Speak not of the devil,” Cruhuer rumbled as four black-cloaked men clambered onto the breezeway, faces hooded, daggers dripping poison.  Father and son stood back to back, blades drawn, dangerously outmatched.  “They have come for me, my son.  Use this opportunity to escape.”

“I’d sooner rot in the bowels of Mount Strife,” Lorenzo said, shivering with rage and fear and anticipation…

(Sorry; the free preview is over, but you can buy this short story on my Smashwords or Kindle pages.  It may take a couple of days for it to show up on my pages, so please be patient).

After-Action Report: Writing the First Short Story

As I’ve said, writing short stories is hard for me, and I almost broke the rules on this one – it’s about 50 words shy from being a novelette (7501-17,500 words).  The hardest thing is getting over the fear and actually getting the story written.  But now that I’ve done that, I’ve had more ideas for short stories just start flowing.

I have a few things I’m still worried about – the story is set in Tarafore a fantasy setting I’ve been toying with since childhood.  It’s the first story I’ve been able to write set in the main area of focus in Tarafore, the City-States (specifically, the City-State of Cassa).

Tarafore is defined by The Breaking, a period every 250 years, lasting about 25 years, during which time magic returns to the world, powerful Warlords rise, and kings and empires are brought low.  One thousand years ago, Tarafore emerged from the Great Breaking, and its people fear that each new breaking could be a return to 1,000 years of chaos and darkness.

During each Breaking, humans from Earth come through to Tarafore, and they are in part responsible for Tarafore’s technology (early Imperial era, more 16oo’s than 1500’s, really) and society (mostly late Renaissance).

Most of the natives of Tarafore look quite human, but are actually descendants of a handful of ancestral Beasts, and thus separate species.  However, noble families still have to intermarry their younger children in order to establish political or economic alliances.  This has led to some unusually modern views on adoption, and some very un-Renaissance views on the origins of noble superiority (which, on Tarafore, are based on education and raising, not bloodline)

I think you know I’m a Shakespeare fan.  Well, about ten years ago I had occasion to read several historical monographs about Renaissance Italy in particular and early modern Europe in general.  A lot of that made it into Tarafore, especially in the face of the City-State of Cassa.

Cassa is, as best as I can write it, like something drawn from historical Renaissance Italy, and from Shakespeare’s Italian plays (including tragedies such as Romeo & Juliet, Othello, and Titus Andronicus [which was actually Roman, but fits the mood pretty well] as well as comedies like Much Ado About Nothing).

A council of five Great Houses rule Cassa – the Merengo, led by the idealistic reformer Cruhuer (who is loved by many, but hated by more, even within his own House); the Fiorentino, led by the dissolute, decadent prodigy Giuseppe, who hates the Merengo with an almost mad passion; Crynnlynn, secretive, calm, always scheming; Peccavi, who once were mercenaries and have now become a family of priests, though they have gone from penitents to princes of the church; and Kamitaas, once a tribe of warriors, now the strong arm that keeps order, sister-house and ally to Peccavi.

The alliance between the Kamitaas and Peccavi provides a great deal of stability, standing in the path of both bloody chaos and needed reform.  Meanwhile, the houses fight their cold wars, executing their vendettas in secret.

Frankly, it’s a perfect place to play against my violent imagination.  Dueling, vendetta and assassination are always at hand, but the close family ties means nobody goes unmourned, and that every act of violence likely begets more and more violence.

“Peace?  I Hate the Word” is the story of one short outburst of violence, and the cost it extracts from House Merengo.

It wasn’t easy to write.  Though I believe I have succeeded in making each character’s voice sound unique, I worry that the dialogue is a little too “Shakespearean” for something written in 2012 (there’s a fine line between period-appropriate and stiffly pretentious).

And I’m not entirely sure I’m really through with it.  I think there may be enough there to turn it into a novella, by expanding upon the motivations and plans of the various characters and factions involved.

Not only that, but now that the floodgates are open, I can tell you with full confidence that I’ll be writing more short stories set in Cassa.  I’ve already got one outlined.

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