Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Who the hell is Mary Hansard?

I had a very peculiar thing happen to me while working on my work-in-progress, a fall-of-civilization novel called In the Midst of Lions that I swear was not inspired in any way by 2020.  (In fact -- true story -- I first came up with the idea for this book when I was in college.  Which was a lot of years ago.)

The main characters, a bunch of academics who are very used to the easy life, are caught up in a sudden societal collapse.  I'm always interested to think about how perfectly ordinary people would act in extraordinary circumstances; this is kind of the crypto-theme of all my stories, actually.  In any case, these four professors from the University of Washington end up having to flee the rioting and violence on foot, crossing the Washington Park Arboretum, a two-hundred-acre garden south of the campus, on their way to a safe haven.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Joe Mabel, Seattle - Arboretum Bridge 01, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Completely unexpectedly -- not only to them, but to me -- they meet someone in the Arboretum. Here's the scene where they come across her:
Cassandra was the first one to spot her—a woman sitting cross-legged with her back to the trunk of a fir tree, watching them approach with a broad smile on her face.  She was perhaps forty years old, and the most remarkable thing about her appearance was how completely unremarkable she looked.  An oval face, even features, light brown hair in a loose ponytail, neither particularly attractive nor at all unattractive, she was the kind of person you might pass a dozen times a day and never notice.

But here she sat in the Arboretum as the world collapsed around her, apparently unconcerned.

“Oh, hello,” she called out in a pleasant, melodious voice, and waved.

Soren exchanged a puzzled glance with Cassandra, who shrugged.

As they neared, the woman stood, moving a little awkwardly, but with no evident self-consciousness.  Soren jerked to a halt until she raised both hands to show that she was unarmed.  “Don’t be afraid,” she said.  “I mean no harm.  In fact, I’ve been waiting for you all.”
When I finished writing this, I said -- and I quote -- "what the fuck just happened?"  She was not part of the original plot.  The idea was that they'd cross the Arboretum, dodging snipers and rioters, and reach their goal safely.  But suddenly there's this... this person, sitting there waiting for them.

Oh, and her name is Mary Hansard.  Don't ask me where that came from.  Her name came along with her character, waltzing into the story from heaven-knows-where.

I know I tend to be a pantser (for non-writers, authors tend to fall into two loose classes: pantsers -- who write by the seat of the pants -- and plotters -- who plan everything out).  But this is ridiculous.  I honestly had no idea this character even existed.  Afterward, I had to figure out (1) who the hell Mary Hansard was, (2) what role she was going to play in the story, and (3) how she knew the four fleeing professors were going to be coming through the Arboretum.

I would love to know where this kind of stuff comes from.  I mean, "my brain" is the prosaic answer, and is technically right, but when this sort of thing happens -- and it's far from the first time -- it feels like it came from outside me, as if the story already existed out there in the aether and I just tapped into it somehow.

I also know enough that when this occurs, it means something is going really right with the story.  When I've had these sudden shifts in course, following them usually leads to somewhere interesting that I wouldn't have otherwise discovered.  But to say that it's a little disorienting is a vast understatement.

Especially since I knew -- knew for a complete certainty -- that the mysterious, ordinary-looking Mary Hansard would become one of the most central characters in the story.

Here's a bit that comes later, that gives us more information about her -- and how she knew the four would be there in the Arboretum:
Was part of her empathy due to her foreknowledge of what she herself would soon be feeling?

Probably, but just as she’d told Dr. Quaice, that knowledge wouldn’t change anything.  On the other hand, it did bring an odd sort of comfort.  Soren had told her something like that, the day all this started, when he described how he had the courage to cross the Montlake Cut while a sniper was taking potshots at them.  He knew he had to do it, so at that point it became like a thing already accomplished.  His fear was no longer relevant.

That was one advantage of her foresight.  The confusion between future and past meant it was all one thing.  It was the not-present.  And being not-present, it couldn’t hurt her.  If pain lay in the future, it was as removed from her as her memories of a broken arm when she was twelve.  Neither one had any impact on the present as it slowly glided along, a moving flashlight beam following her footsteps through the wrecked cityscape.  The events of the past and the future were frozen, fixed and unmoving, like butterflies trapped in amber.

So much for the idea that authors have the entire story in their heads from the get-go.  Personally, I love it when stuff like this happens -- wherever it comes from.  Writing, then, becomes as much of an act of discovery as it is an act of creation, and all the writer can do at that point is let the horse have his head and hang onto the reins for dear life.


My dad once quipped about me that my two favorite kinds of food were "plenty" and "often."  He wasn't far wrong.  I not only have eclectic tastes, I love trying new things -- and surprising, considering my penchant for culinary adventure, have only rarely run across anything I truly did not like.

So the new book Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Guide by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras is right down my alley.  Wong and Thuras traveled to all seven continents to find the most interesting and unique foods each had to offer -- their discoveries included a Chilean beer that includes fog as an ingredient, a fish paste from Italy that is still being made the same way it was by the Romans two millennia ago, a Sardinian pasta so loved by the locals it's called "the threads of God," and a tea that is so rare it is only served in one tea house on the slopes of Mount Hua in China.

If you're a foodie -- or if, like me, you're not sophisticated enough for that appellation but just like to eat -- you should check out Gastro Obscura.  You'll gain a new appreciation for the diversity of cuisines the world has to offer, and might end up thinking differently about what you serve on your own table.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

1 comment:

  1. One of the most exciting things about being a writer is channeling characters who demand that their stories be told. I do think it comes from somewhere outside of us but also know we have to be in the zone and open. I have had characters come like that, name and all. Just waltz right into my story and take a seat. Fun stuff!! Thanks for sharing, Gordon!