Mermaids Hook – reviewed and the making of

Mermaid’s Hook has been live over at Apex for over a week and I’m rather chuffed at how well it has been received. It’s also my first story to receive a short, sweet review over at Locus.

Reading the review and various conversations about diversity made me think about how my story came about. Sometimes people use history and “that’s how it was” to justify very bland realities that are unfair to our ancestors. That sort of talk erases how interesting folks were and are. Strangely enough “that’s how it is” talk sometimes accompanies “Oh noes! The Politically Correct Brigade are going to make everything boring and won’t let us be interesting.” Certainly engaging with diversity properly can be scary, but that is not the same as boring.

Reading history and thinking about reality helped me create Mermaids Hook. Drawing on my knowledge of perfectly ordinary history my story became more diverse and more interesting.

When I was writing Mermaids Hook I tried to burrow deep into the mermaid’s psyche. I tried to experience her world through her metaphors and conceptual system and follow her reality as closely as possible. I didn’t know who the sailor was to start with, but once they got to the surface she needed to observe him. For a brief moment I found myself falling into cliche, but then I paused and really thought about it. How often do princes fall into the ocean? Why is it always a prince? The one person you’d think people would take special effort to rescue? Maybe it’s an ordinary sailor… but who? What year is it? What ocean? What’s an ordinary sailor?

I didn’t have a clear fix so I paused and thought, when did the most people travel over the ocean in boats likely to lose people overboard? What is the most statistically likely place and time for this to happen?… statistics, population dynamics, probability, some might find it boring or lead to the same old story, but applying a bit of reality turned out to be something very interesting indeed. I hoped it would, but at the time I mostly just wanted somewhere to start brainstorming.

I thought about contemporary piracy and human trafficking. I thought about waves of immigration, the settlement of America, the settlement of Australia… and then I remembered in a flash (bless my high school history teacher) the horrifying death rates of slaves brought to America. I remembered how the sick or disobedient were tossed overboard. I remembered a haunting image, of how sometimes all the slaves were thrown overboard chained together en masse  – to prevent a ship from sinking during a storm or to avoid facing slavery charges (an unfortunate side effect of the British outlawing slavery). I thought, why haven’t there been more mermaid stories with this focus when so many people drowned?

I decided my sailor was not a sailor, but a man abducted from his home and went overboard while fighting back. Through strange chance, the will to live, and a mermaid, he is the only African on the ship to survive. I still feel sad when I think about the falling people wrapped in chains. Our mermaid knows people are drowning but does not understand it, the man has no idea that all the people he traveled with get executed to give the ship extra buoyancy.

I’m glad I paused, by taking the time to think about who a person was, not going on the presumptions, assumptions and blinkers that limit a story. By applying a little bit of real history (rather than historical/archetypal generalizations) the story got to be almost as interesting and diverse as reality. The world is an amazing place.

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