"What do you want me to kill?" I asked, putting down my cup.
Normally I skirt around the issue for a while, making the client show their coin by getting me more drinks. But I found the sludgy brown liquid unpleasantly bitter. I'd suggested meeting in the Chocolate House because I'd wondered what the exotic import was like, but now I wished we'd met in a tavern instead.
Cassia spooned white sugar into her own drink. "Dragons," she replied.
"More than one?"
"Hundreds," she said, her mouth set in a thin grim line as far from joking as the mountains from the sea.
The inspiration for this piece came from Lucius Shepard's story "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule", which I read in his collection The Jaguar Hunter. Shepard's story is about an enormous dragon, thousands of feet long, and I found it interesting that a simple distortion of scale produced something qualitatively different to the dragons we usually see in the fantasy genre. I began wondering what other distortions could turn something familiar into something fresh, and the obvious answer was to go the opposite direction, into smallness rather than largeness. Consequently I came up with the idea of tiny dragons, just a few inches long, but still with the fire-breathing and treasure-hoarding traits of the regular version.
When you have your gimmick, you need to build a story around it. I went for a walk in the park, and while watching the geese on the lake I jotted down the key elements of the plot. Back home I turned on my computer, intending to note down the outline and write the story later. Instead I found myself pounding out a rough draft at great speed. It's one of the very few occasions I've been seized by a story to the extent that the writing just poured out of me. Normally I find the process far more arduous. It has been said that there are two types of writer: those who enjoy writing, and those who enjoy having written. I'm very much the latter type, but for this story I discovered what it felt like to be the former. It was fun — I wish I could do it more often!
On the surface this is a straightforward "sword and sorcery" tale in which our hero is asked to deal with the dragons that are menacing a village. However, because the problem consists of a large number of tiny dragons, rather than a couple of big ones, the task lacks the supposed glamour of regular dragon-slaying. Instead the creatures are more like a swarm of insects, or a plague of flying rats — it's pest control, hence the story title "Infestation". It becomes clear that the life of a monster-hunter is not nearly as exciting and glamorous as the traditional tales depict it. Not only is the task basically one of exterminating vermin, but it involves a large amount of hanging around in the wilderness, getting hungry and dirty and lonely.
The latter element is described in a section of the story that felt particularly vivid to me as I was writing it. I thought I'd scoured away the accumulated clichés of the dragon-slaying trope to reveal something real and true underneath — a glimpse into what the hunter's experience might actually be like, stripped of all the superficial gloss.
Some time later, when redrafting and polishing the piece, I came across that passage and was surprised at the raw emotion expressed in the text. I realised that I'd subconsciously projected some of my own feelings into the narrative. Not long before I wrote the story, someone whom I considered a friend had abruptly broken off our friendship. At the time I tried to shrug it off and get on with my life, but clearly I was more hurt than I knew. The story's protagonist experiences a palpable sense of isolation, alone in the woods — I wanted that effect for the tale, but I genuinely wasn't aware of where I channelled it from. I just thought I was making things up, as normal.
I've since heard that it's common for writers to put more into a story than they consciously realise. This was the first time I noticed it in my own work, and understood where it came from. In some respects this phenomenon can benefit the story, giving it a feeling of authenticity, of coming from the heart. But it's also important for the writer to remain in control and write the story as fiction, not as personal therapy. When redrafting I toned down that section, retaining its essential emotion, but putting it more in balance with the whole.
Of course, the writer's experiences manifest in numerous ways, right down to the smallest details. There is a certain type of fantasy story that often begins with the hero sitting in a tavern, quaffing ale while waiting for his next adventure. Since this story subverts the traditional dragon-slaying quest tale, I wrote the opening scene as a subversion of the typical tavern intro — with the hero sipping an exotic import known as "chocolate", instead of beer. I'm rather fond of chocolate.
One of my favourite writers as a child was someone who died at a relatively early age, with alcohol a contributing factor. When subsequently re-reading his works, I saw that many of his protagonists routinely had a bottle to hand at all times, reaching for it in tense moments. Personally I rarely drink, and I don't have alcohol in the house unless for some particular reason, so my characters tend not to be drinkers.
There's no doubt that authors reveal themselves in their work. It's almost impossible not to, because although fiction is by definition made up, it can only come from inside our heads. I dislike the kind of analysis that projects political or moral positions onto authors, because a story may require the presentation of a particular angle regardless of the author's feelings — but in the little things, in the unconscious selection of details, the author's personality shines through.