"The Report of a Doubtful Creature" by Ian Creasey — story background

As so much of Charles Darwin's correspondence has already been published, it is a rare event to discover a previously unknown letter from him, especially one concerning his seminal work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.  By kind permission of the letter's owner and the esteemed Editor of this magazine, I am pleased to be able to reprint the letter here, and I will restrict myself to the minimum of prefatory remarks necessary to give context to this intriguing document.

When I first started writing, I tended to set my stories in exotic locations: other planets, magical lands, the United States, and so forth.  (For me, growing up in Britain and reading pulpy sci-fi novels, America was a science-fictional place.  It was where the future happened.)  I expect it's common for people to believe that their home territory is dull and mundane.  As the SF genre is predicated upon the fantastical and otherworldly, I initially found it difficult to connect the trappings of SF to the everyday world in which I lived.  It took me some time to become confident enough to create stories set in my local area.  However, when I did finally develop that confidence, my writing became stronger — benefiting from the "aura of authenticity" generated when drawing upon the real and the familiar.

I live near the Yorkshire town of Ilkley, which I've often visited when hiking in the moors above the town.  For a long time I'd been vaguely aware that Charles Darwin once visited Ilkley, and I'd had the notion of using this visit as a peg for a story that would focus on the local landscape, seen through the lens of Darwin's interest in geology.  I considered a few ideas for how such a story might progress, but none of them seemed compelling enough to write, and so the concept languished.

Then, at the end of 2008, I read in a newspaper that the year 2009 marked not only the bicentenary of Darwin's birth, but also the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species.  This inspired me to revive my notion of an Ilkley/Darwin story.  When I researched Darwin's visit to Ilkley, I discovered that he arrived in October 1859, just one month before the first edition of Origin was published.  I therefore decided to change the focus of my story from geology to evolution.  If I could finish the piece quickly, I might even get it published in 2009 to coincide with the anniversaries.  And so I set to work.

This may or may not have been a good idea.  At the time, I didn't anticipate the full extent of the wall-to-wall Darwin coverage the year would produce.  If I'd been more forward-thinking, I would have written the story earlier, so that it could appear before everyone grew tired of hearing about evolution.  In the end, it was published in November 2009, exactly 150 years after the first edition of Origin of Species in November 1859.

As to the story itself, coming up with a theme and plot was fairly easy.  (A little too easy, as it turned out, since I later realised that the central motif was similar to that of my earlier story, "The Edge of the Map".)  I've written a guest post on John Brown's blog explaining how I used the technique of "creative questions" to generate a complete storyline, starting from the initial concept of a tale about Darwin.

Much harder was the job of making the language feel authentic.  Since I'd chosen to use an epistolary format, the whole text had to be plausible for a letter written in the year 1859.  It's a delicate task, since a single slip can break the reader's suspension of disbelief, and destroy the atmosphere of the story.  Fortunately, I'm a member of a writers' group full of knowledgeable people.  When I posted a draft of the story on Codex for critique, one of my colleagues pointed out to me that I'd included the word "agnostic", which only came into use a decade later.  Whoops!  I was very grateful to have that pointed out, so I could correct it.  If there are any remaining errors in the text, please let me know....

Page last updated: 22 May 2015