The Birth of a World

Reading the brief note, I felt like a historian of my own mind.

Yesterday, I was tidying shelves in my study. I found a spiral-bound notebook, a multiple-subject one with interior dividers, rather old and battered. For some reason, I leafed through it, checking to see if it was unused, I think.

Most of it was. But in the third section, there were a few pages of notes. The date on the top of the page was December 22, 1997. Twenty-three years ago, plus a few days. The first part of the entry was banal, comments on the weather (cold). But then:

The idea of an alternate world, a separate reality, similar to those of LeGuin in the EarthSea trilogy or Lynn, in the Dancers of Arun trilogy, is appealing. Into this world I could fit not only Lena, but Widowmaker, and, in a different form than first envisaged, even the story of my Norfolk family – all but the murder mystery, which is an entirely different genre.

Sometime over the holiday I hope to sketch the world, clearly Europe but modified – and perhaps do a rough timeline.

I just stared at it for a minute. I was 39 when I wrote those words; I’m 62 now. In that brief paragraph is the genesis of the world and characters that have lived in my mind for over two decades, and an acknowledgment of the two major influences in my world-building, Ursula LaGuin and Elizabeth A. Lynn. I felt like a historian of my own mind.

Several reactions occurred. (One of which was ‘good gods, my handwriting was nearly legible back then’.) Surprise was dominant: surprise that Lena – my MC of the Empire’s Legacy trilogy – had a name, a presence, as early as 1997. There must have been some work done, some notes or early paragraphs, because I’d treated Lena as a title, underlining it as academia taught me to (a habit I’ve never broken.) Another surprise was that my decision to create an alternate world, my analogue post-Roman northern Europe, was a conscious choice: I thought it had just emerged as I’d written.

And then there was the mystery: what was Widowmaker? Again, underlined, so a title. Of what? I had no memory at all of it…but as the afternoon progressed, and I thought about the word’s connotations for me (not the gun, nor the video-game character): a storm and fishing fleets, I remembered. At the time of Kenneth McAlpine, king of the Scots in the mid 9th century, the Picts ‘disappear’ from history. A theory proposed was the loss of most of their men in a ‘widowmaking’ storm while they were out fishing, leaving the women to be subsumed into the Gaelic culture. Clearly, I’d meant to do something with this concept.

Which, I believe, I did, because Empire’s Daughter opens with Lena, in her fishing boat, returning to a village devoid of men. For very different reasons…but was that seed of the idea that grew into my gender-divided world? I can’t know, so many years later. But I suspect so.

Then, of course, I spent some time leafing through other partly-filled notebooks, looking for more entries like this one, but without success. They must have existed, but in one bout of tidying up or another, they’ve been lost. Not that it matters: none would hold the wonder for me this one did, this glimpse into the birth of the alternate reality that I live in for at least part of each and every day.