Wintersong Wednesday: The Origin Story

Every book has a beginning. This is Wintersong’s.

Imagine that said in Movie Trailer Guy’s voice.

To be honest, Wintersong’s  origin story is neither portentous, significant, beautiful, or moving. I’m no Stephanie Meyer; I can’t claim that an idea or a scene came to me fully formed in a dream. I’m no J. K. Rowling with a Cinderella story of rags to riches, scribbling out the beginning of Harry Potter on napkins. My story looks like this:

In November 2013I decided to write 50 Shades of Labyrinth for NaNoWriMo. The rest is history.


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Maybe I should try again. Maybe I should dig deeper, pinpoint the lights of inspiration and draw a book-shaped constellation.

I saw a girl, underground. I heard a voice, a violin. And I felt a presence, the Lord of MischiefThe rest is history.

This version of my origin story is both true and untrue. More poetic than prosaic, it rearranges the grammar of my thoughts into something more lyrical than their actual moments.


Where does a story begin? When I sit down at my desk to write, I always know where the story begins. I know the exact moment of change that starts the narrative; I know the first lines. It is the only part of writing of which I am ever certain, the part that never changes.1 And yet, when I try to identify the Inciting Incident of The Writing of Wintersong, as it were, I am lost.

Or perhaps not.

It is October 2013. I have been struggling with a retelling of The Magic Flute. It is my favourite of Mozart’s operas, and one I have been dying to tell in my own way. I have 60,000 words, and they are all dead on the page. The characters move by rote, the scenery is vague and unclear. The story doesn’t breathe, move, or sing. It is lifeless, and I know it, and my friends and critique partners know it, even if they won’t say it outright.

I am working a soul-sucking day job, where my only consolation is that I have time to write. I’m diligently working on my Magic Flute retelling, but my interest is waning. The only thing keeping me going are my writing friends, and this tempting little nugget of an idea that won’t leave me alone.

The beginnings

I email her the synopsis.

And she responds.

response

She tells me what I need to hear and gives me permission to proceed.

And the rest is history.


But maybe that’s not where the story begins. Maybe it begins with the first image that comes to mind, before the idea of a “Labyrinth retelling” is even a possibility. Maybe it begins on a winter’s day in New York City, on a snowy walk to the subway on my way to work.

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I remember when the first image came to me: I was taking a shortcut through a park on my way to the Astoria Blvd stop on the N line.

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A girl, underground. 

I suddenly knew her. Knew her down to her bones. She had a sister, a beautiful sister.2 She had a family who ran an inn. They were struggling to make ends meet. I think of Hansel, of Gretel, of the Brothers Grimm, and know she lives in Germany. I see milkmaid braids about her head, dirt smudged on her cheeks. What is her name? I wonder.

Liesl.3


But perhaps that’s not the beginning either. After all, an image is not a story. Maybe the beginning goes back even further.

It’s summer in New York, and I’m at a writer friend’s house in Washington Heights. We have a critique group where we share our writing. At the moment I am working on an adult literary novel set in an alternate Meiji era Japan. It is the villain backstory of a middle grade novel I had been trying and failing for years to get right.

I have a fascination with all things German: the language, the imagery, the myths. My writer friend is of German descent. I don’t know who mentions it first, but we discuss The Erl-King, and our desires to do something with that tale.

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But I don’t, at least not straight away. I finish that adult literary novel, and then put it away.


Writing is such a strange process. You gather seeds and plant them in the garden of your subconscious, but you don’t always know what will grow. I had been planting seeds for years, gathered from the flowerbeds of obsession and imagination. I love gothic imagery. I love fairytales. I love the poems of Christina Rossetti. I am obsessed with Mozart. Obsessed. I read 50 Shades of Grey. I reread Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy. I like the idea of erotica, but don’t always find them executed to my taste. I think I might write one. I want to write one.

But until the first tendrils of an idea begin to emerge, all I have is a sleeping garden, waiting for the right combination of rain and sun to grow.

The first shoot of my garden began to bloom when my writing friend and I were discussing 80s fantasy movies.

80s movies

There is a lot of sexual subtext—dark, seductive, slightly uncomfortable sexual subtext in the 80s fantasy movies (and musicals!) of my youth. The dancing dress scene in Legend. The ballroom scene in Labyrinth. The “Music of the Night” scene in Phantom of the Opera. Subtext that is often found in fairytales: the power of sexual agency, of growing up, of becoming a sexual being. Naïfs and ingenues hover on the edge of this realization, and there is often a dark figure who beckons, promising knowledge.

I know where this first bloom comes from. Jareth the Goblin King and the Erl-King. It seems so obvious, in hindsight.


The Magic Flute

I still can’t let The Magic Flute go. I love music, I love Mozart, and I love magic. I work on it far longer than I should, unable to relinquish the feeling Mozart’s music gives me.

I make Liesl a composer.

I listen to the work of Schubert, Schumann, et al. I’ve studied music and music history since I was child; I know Liesl’s work—emotional and full of feeling—puts her more in line with the Romantics. And yet, I still can’t let Mozart go.

I understand then, that Liesl is not just a woman composer, but a composer ahead of her time.

I kill Mozart. But his work casts a very long shadow.


In November 2013I decided to write 50 Shades of Labyrinth for NaNoWriMo. The rest is history.


That’s all for this month! Every month I will be doing a feature on Wintersongincluding things like inspiration posts, the writing process, its publication journey, etc. If you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get extra bits not found on my blog: deleted scenes, sneak peaks, and more! (One of them will include the synopsis I sent Marie.)

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  1. Ironically, Wintersong’s beginning got changed. Or rather, it was added to. My editor requested that I include a prologue.
  2. I have a fondness for sister narratives, possibly because I don’t have one of my own. One of my favorite fairy tales is Snow White and Rose Red.
  3. Yes, she’s named for the eldest Von Trapp daughter from The Sound of Music.
2 Responses
  1. I’m totally reading that title in Movie Trailer Guy’s voice, haha.
    I love how you still managed to include musical aspects in this book. YAAS TO A COMPOSER MC. I’m a big fan of Romantic, but also a Mozart girl all the way. I grew up learning piano with his concertos, so he’ll always have a spot in my heart despite my flings with other composers and time periods.
    Gosh, I can’t WAIT for Wintersong! I’m already shivering in anticipayion at the sexual tension LOL. Bring it.

  2. This is so amazing and inspiring. I always wanted to write a story about fairies. When I write, I always end up not finishing because I think I’m not capable enough. But, I will try again this time. I gotta search for some Irish myths. Thank you for sharing this, by the way. 🙂

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