Wednesday, 3 December 2014

This is the time that is no time... Dark Matters

I’m baffled, too, why they accredit Me with such a cheerful personality.  Even the pagans, who at least knew when I rule.  I come between Samhain and Yule.  The time that is no time.  Between the last harvest and the first planting; the barren time.  Between the sun’s slow, agonising death and its much-vaunted rebirth.  (You’d have thought that would be a hint.)  The wheel of the year always keeps turning, and between Yule and Samhain it stops.  And not but: that’s the nature of paradox.  Burn your mind with contradiction like a brand.  Don’t think you can smooth it over with a pat explanation, or it wouldn’t be paradox.  Don’t think you can sit and contemplate it like a fat man under a tree and get around it that way.  It has to hurt: it’s two ideas at war. – "Dark Matters" by Megan Kerr, Astrologica
The little blue-green clock of the world has spun back to the time that is no time, and my walks, my thoughts about VATMOSS, and my playlists are reminding me of the short story I wrote last year about the time that is no time - so I thought share the process of it as a collage of music, pictures, research, etc (including its playlist - all my writing projects end up with a playlist), and offer up the character-creation technique I used.

Recommended listening while you read: the full playlist or This Night - Black Lab

Inspiration: The brief

Astrologica is a short-story anthology based around the twelve signs of the Zodiac, edited by Allen Ashley (who always gives great briefs). I don't believe in astrology (nor does my heroine), but I wanted to write about Saggitarius, for several reasons:

I’m a Sagittarius myself and the sign’s full of contradictions, which fascinates me.  It’s described as happy-go-lucky – but extremely ambitious: that creates an instant war within the character. The sign’s personality and time of year also conflict: 23 November to 21 December is the heart of what the pagans call “the time that is no time”, a dead time before the sun’s rebirth, leading right up to the cusp of Yule and Christmas, but not quite part of it. I wanted to work out that contradiction between this cheerful, ambitious, creative personality and this leaden, barren time of year. The symbolism of the centaur himself is also contradictory, a battle between body and mind: he’s simultaneously very intellectual and very physical and sensual, a human head and an animal body.
     As I wrote, I found a fourth contradiction. The relentless ambition implies a strong internal locus of control – that is, you believe that what happens is down to you, your achievement, your responsibility, your fault. Believing in astrology, though, says you have no free will: it is fate. A Sagittarian character might reject astrology, but what about Sagittarius himself?
     The challenge then was to create a character and a story that was all those things, and marry the paradoxes. (interview with Alchemy Press)
Despite not believing in astrology, I do recognise myself in the descriptions of Saggitarius in a way I absolutely don't in the other signs - especially in that relentless optimism. With VATMOSS threatening my business, yes, I cried and panicked for a few days, and found the usual earworm coming back: "I get knocked down! But I get up again!..." and thinking in the terms I used to describe Kate Fletcher:

She’s not the kind of woman who weeps.  She’s the kind who scrubs tears off with the backs of her hands and fights on, who gets up every time she’s knocked down, a Chumbawumba chick, motivation of stampeding buffaloes, focus of an arrow held on a taut bow and aimed at the stars… But if she’s going to do emotion, she thinks wryly, it’s going to be big – and already that thought is a lifting-out.  She’s getting up again.  Fight on, she thinks, through unrelenting hours.
I don't think I'm quite as indomitable as her, but perhaps that's part of what we do, in stories and characters: part reflection, part exaggeration, creating a world more powerful and resonant than the one we live in, and that in turn reflects back and makes this world a more powerful, resonant place to be.


The story's playlist wasn't the cheerful slap-in-the-face of Chumbawumba, though; it was altogether darker and more eerie, more "DeVotchKa and Wagner: she has a thing for Teutonic grandeur, Russian pessimism." You can listen to the whole thing here. I played the songs again, and again, and again; evening after evening, staring into the dark corners of the living room or lying in the bath, fathoming out a story that for once I couldn't map out and needed to write through blankness and darkness to find. Again and again, I kept coming back to the contradictions, which I couldn't resolve, and somehow I knew it was critical not to resolve them, not to smooth it over into paradox: it had to hurt. It had to be two ideas at war.


Much of the time I listened to the playlist while staring at a particular photo album on my computer, scribbling down thoughts that I thought probably wouldn't go into the story, but might... and many, in some form, did.

Slabs of concrete, like suspended rectangles of gravel: as she climbs those steps again each day, into the Physics faculty, she tramples over memories.  She turns her face away from the view down Keble Road towards University Parks, where bright berries hold their frozen drops.

The dogwood is already bare: stark, fire-red branches in a grey whipped world.  The October leaves had their brilliance, but the rains plastered them into the mud.  A few trees fly defiant flags, unseen from beneath umbrellas.

Someone walking along the canal has had a fight with a bouquet – or an accident, or some kind of wild rite of winter.

“All just running alongside me – as if they’d been waiting, like some kind of equestrian escort –” and within her words, the horses and their mystery catch fire, and burn away in conversation.  They’re horses, after all.


I also did obscene amounts of research, especially given that it's a short story (albeit a long short). I stuffed my Evernote and my head and my satchel with research on involuntary autobiographical memory, the scientific absence of free will, the illusion of the self... "You think you’re choosing consciously, but you’re not.  It’s already a done thing.” (Much gratitude to Christian Jarrett of the BPS Research Digest, who always gives good links.) I read a great deal on dark matter and black holes, and the relationship between them. I learnt about two galaxies which NASA had just discovered must be enveloped in dark matter, the position of the pulsar star PSR J1748-2446ad, and WIMPS. I checked the exact weather in 2012, the exact astronomic events visible in Oxford, and the astrological meanings attributed to them. Thanks to the kindness of the Oxford Physics Department, I even got to go into their observatory and have a look at the telescope, while one of the post-docs took time off his research to show me around and answer my questions:

(People are incredibly kind and welcoming to writers. You think you'll never be allowed in to see stuff, but if you just tell them that you're writing about it, they're invariably so generous and helpful.)

And little by little, draft by draft, I wrangled far too much research and far too many contradictions into a story that worked. I also discovered some interesting things about characterisation:


First, "personality systems" like star signs are more useful than I'd thought. I'd dipped into them before, just for fun, but never followed a particular type through to that degree. Sticking to it completely meant I had to keep the contradictions - contradictions I might not have wrapped into the character myself - and make sense of them without negating them. I don't recommend you give every character a star-sign and stick to it religiously, but as an exercise, it's fascinating.

Exercise: Create a star character
Pick a star sign and look up its traits - this is my favourite website for that. Create a character incorporating all those traits: use them all and keep all the contradictions. Use the character's contradictions and flaws to develop their story.

Second, your characters can be the same. Received wisdom is to vary your cast, and much of the time that is a good idea. That said, having two characters who're very alike can work incredibly well: their very similarities can make them clash violently, be each other's downfall, and heighten the traits you're exploring.

If she’d ever imagined meeting a god, which she hasn’t much, she’d have expected things like reverence, transcendence, numinous awe.  Not music, sex, and good conversation.
     “Ah, but you’re one of Mine,” says Sagittarius.  “We get it, the dark and the ferocity and the fun.”
     “Still – you’re more fun than I would’ve thought.”
     “You of all people should know better than that.”
     And she realises.  How she laughs and chatters in company, always off on the next anecdote, burning with ideas – and how she is at home, alone with her aspirations and her thoughts.  How she’ll split her sides laughing with a still-unswallowed mouthful of wine, but the moment pain strikes, she’ll vanish – sociable means never doing the unsociable.  No-one wants to see the tears and the gloomy face, so the sociable reputation is never stained and only the moments alone are pained.  What is He like then, when He’s alone?  What thoughts cripple and blank His flaming mind?
     And the burning arrow.  That, too, is alone.  The outsiders, which is everyone, see the aspiration and the hope and the wild aiming, but never the cost.  And never the secret coal at the heart of it, the private intense desire, the kinetic potential that burns your soul –
     It burns and it hurts, but there has to be something, always.  No Sagittarian could live without some shining unreachable goal, what else is worth living for?  Except, she thinks, except –, but all that was torn away from her, all that has no place in the barren time which is no time, all that burns up in the fires of aspiration.  At least she knows what drove her to destruction now: a force as vast and impersonal as gravity.  Dark matter, bending her to its will as it bends the light.
     “What do you want?” she asks.
     “I’m a god,” He says.  “What’s left to want?”

Exercise: like meets like
What if your star character met someone with the same traits? How would the second character differ as a person? How would they relate / collide / clash? What would happen, between them?

You can read an interview with me about "Dark Matters" here, a review of Astrologica here, and buy it here. You can also read another snippet of it on my personal site here.

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