Though it is the longest story to be found in A Consternation of Monsters, it is also probably one that was one of the quickest for me to develop because the core idea for it arrived in my head close to fully formed. Though I hinted at this recently in my interview with J.D. Byrne, there’s a little more to tell about the story.
For a while in the early oughts, I was a part of an email writing and critique group consisting of several writer friends of mine from college. And because it began in the year 2000, and we all loved David Fincher movies, we were obliged to call ourselves Write Club. (And subsequently make the joke “First rule about Write Club is… well, you know,” let’s say 480 times.) For a handful of years there, we took turns issuing monthly writing challenges to one another, with solid, umovable deadlines that often became less solid as they approached. But eventually the deadline would fall and fall solidly and we were honor bound to turn something in for the others to critique. Early drafts of a few of the stories in Consternation were spawned by this method, including “The Hocco Makes the Echo,” “Nigh,” “Old Country,” and, of course, “Limited Edition.” In fact, I give credit to the very Write Club member who dreamed up the prompt that brought “Limited Edition” into being as part of the dedication to Consternation. “…to Joe Evans, my ideal reader, who also gave me the line about the fork.”
The “line about the fork” was a simple one. It was Joe’s turn to issue a writing prompt to the rest of us and his was this: we were to write a story that must include the phrase “Something told him that in all the world, there was no other fork quite like this one.”
As a writer, I’ve had a handful of what I call Blues Brothers moments in which I–much like Jake Blues in the church at the beginning of The Blues Brothers–receive, seemingly from on high, a direct transmission of knowledge propelling me on a mission from God and/or from my subconscious. These are magical moments in which a mosaic of images and information seem to fall into place in my head and my visualization and imagination centers go into overdrive as they struggle to process the info dump they’ve just received. In the moment, I feel almost pinned in place by the celestial beam from above.
An instant after I read Joe’s line about the fork, one of those Blues Brothers moments happened to me. I was pinned in place in my office chair and suddenly knew exactly what the fork in his sentence meant, the implied-yet-still-loose-enough-to-maneuver-in backstory of not only it but similar and related objects, how this fork would come into the story, who would possess it, who would want it, and a the most logical and fun setting in which such a story would occur. I also knew which pre-existing character of mine would also be appearing in it, due to the fact that her known occupation–as seen in “The Wise Ones”–synced up nicely with the subject-matter. I even knew why she would be there. Those were the basic beats that fell into my head and those beats never changed throughout the writing process. (I take such gifts from my subconscious quite seriously and try not to deviate from their structures, lest I do damage to plot points put into motion of which I may not yet be entirely aware. I’m a firm believer that my brain is smarter than I am and that it’s often watching out for me when I’m not paying attention.)
Now, it’s one thing to say that a story fell into your head and another thing to write it. There are all sorts of details about the story that I was not given in my Blues Brother’s Moment download, which I would have to either imagine or, as turned out to be the case, heavily research. My setting for the story, granted to me by my noggin, was a tour stop for the American version of the Antiques Roadshow–the public television show in which antiques appraisers offer commentary and assign value to items brought in by the general public. It was a show I liked, though not one I was in the habit of regularly watching at the time being as how I didn’t get PBS. However, I adored the BBC America broadcasts of the original UK version, so I was familiar with the basic format. Fortunately, there’s quite a bit of information about the show and its mechanics to be found online. Quite a bit. I was able to learn how it was shot, how the tour worked, who the appraisers were, who the hosts have been, who the executive producers are, how the antiques that made it onto camera were chosen, how many items actually made it to camera in a given stop, how the antiques were categorized for review, and, most amusingly, which practically worthless antiques repeatedly turn up in the mitts of folks who hope and fervently believe they are about to become fabulously wealthy. (At the time of my research, it seemed to be the one that turns up in the opening paragraphs of the story.) In fact, there was so much information about the show that I decided I didn’t really need all that much, beyond a few key pieces to help establish the tone of the setting, and the sort of locations the show is usually filmed within.
I also had to research my basic subject: the fork. We take forks for granted because in the U.S. we’ve never experienced a time when they were not in our lives on a daily basis. And it was the ubiquitous nature of the fork that suggested further plot avenues to take, given the nature of the fork in question. (Which, I’m a little embarrassed to say, does not actually make an appearance in the podcast excerpt. You’ll have to buy the book to learn what’s up with it.) I had to know how and when the fork actually came into common use as an eating utensil–because it struck me as logical that human beings basically just used their hands to feed themselves for most of our existence. Still, the fork is such a universally useful tool that it also had to be a very very old one. And it is. So much so that I could find no origin point for it, though the historical record gave me a date range in which they came into more common use at the dinner table–which was around the same time that the dinner table also came into popular use. The research also yielded some fun little factoids, such as the amount of suspicion heaped upon the table fork for many years after its introduction, due to its very existence being an afront to God himself by daring to improve upon the hands he had already given us.
My main character of the story, antiques appraiser C. Phillips Hovelan, walked into it mostly formed. He wasn’t a direct part of the Blues Brothers Moment, but his presence was suggested and his personality felt right. He isn’t based on anyone in particular, though he does remind me of a particularly acerbic college professor I once had. I’ve certainly never seen any appraisers on Antiques Roadshow who were such outright assholes as Phil in the story. He just seemed like the sort of character archetype who would fit the situation, and one who would be a nice foil to the other main character, my old friend Miss Zeddie.
Until I wrote “Limited Edition,” Miss Zeddie was exclusively known as either Madam Z or Omega–names revealed in other stories found in Consternation and elsewhere. The trouble is, my fellow Write Clubbers were all also co-creators in a collective fictional universe we developed over a period of years during college to serve as the setting for various role-playing game adventures. A core of three of us, Joe Evans, Sujay Shaunak, and Marcus Hammack, actually ran the RPG adventures as game-masters and each of them were in charge of their own corner of the universe. I was not a game-master, but I love to world-build and set about creating extensive databases and timelines for the characters and concepts we encountered during our games. Eventually, Sujay and I spun things off into prose stories to help fill in some gaps in our storytelling that weren’t so easy to accomplish in the games themselves.
Madam Z had first appears as a non-player character in a couple of our games. She was a wise and mysterious old woman who served to guide us during an adventure or two. And she’d been created (as I detail in my recent interview) by Marcus Hammack–who I also thank in the dedication. I was enchanted with her from the start, thinking Marcus had these grand plans for her, and imagining what her backstory might be. Only later did I learn that he had basically come up with her on the spot, had no grand plans for her at all, nor any notion of what her backstory might be. As disappointing as this was, it was to my gain, because after Marcus graduated and left town I kind of inherited her for use in my prose stories.
Because my fellow Write Clubbers would recognize her immediately, though, if I called her Madam Z, I decided she needed a secret identity for the story–one which would definitely hint at her true identity for them, but maybe not on first appearance. I called her Miss Zeddie. They could figure out it was her, of course, but maybe not at first, just as readers of Consternation might not know at first that she’s the same old woman from another story.
Z’s true backstory will be revealed at another time and in another story. (I only gave Joe Evans a glimpse at her earliest origins this past summer when I slipped him a 100 word short story the very title of which is a spoiler. It had been a secret I’ve held for over two decades now. I figured I owed him.) Knowing Z’s backstory, knowing her major goals in her apparently very long life, I knew exactly what she would do if placed into this new story, given the other factors. In fact, I saw her having a much deeper role in the mechanics of the story itself. And, given the personality quirks of my main character, Hovelan, I knew how poorly the two of them would get on, which suggested other side stories to the main one, most of which is what the podcast excerpt covers.
As I researched and began writing, I found I had two stories that intertwined–the story of Hovelan and Zeddie, their bitter rivalry, their seeming ultimate showdown, and then the rematch over much higher stakes than either is entirely aware of; and the story of the fork.
And while there are three other important characters who appear in the story, two of which appear in the podcast excerpt, one of whom also makes an appearance elsewhere in Consternation. But I will leave the matter there for now. Everything you need to know is in the story itself and to write about any of them will run into spoiler territory. Just know that there are other stories featuring most of these characters, some of which have actually been written.
As for Write Club, that was something that just kind of stopped. I think we may have all collectively missed a deadline and were too embarrassed to acknowledge it. And, after all, there’s that whole first rule of Writer Club thing. (#481) We’ve actually talked about re-starting it over the years and occasionally one of us will tell another that it’s their turn to give a prompt. I expect we will sooner or later. It’s not a bad idea. I managed to get a handful of stories I’m proud of from the process, not to mention the sage advice on ways to improve them. With my upcoming collections in various stages of completion, perhaps it’s time to head back down into the warehouse basement with the boys and chalk up our hands for more bare-knuckle writing. (Maybe we’ll pick a better name next time.)