Okay, it’s time for another blog entry in the Story Behind The Story series where I give you a little background into how the individual stories in the Grace & Witherbloom series came about.
Same old warning applies – I’ll be talking quite freely about The Village That Sleeps, so if you haven’t read it yet… I’d suggest coming back here after you’ve finished.
Now, if you’ve not read the prototype web comic for Grace & Witherbloom, you may want to do that now as well. It’s very short, and the origins of this particular story lie there.
I had quite a few story ideas for the premiere story in the web comic, but the one that appealed to me the most was the concept of the living and the dead trading places. You get VERY little sense of the larger plot from the web comic because so much time is spent setting the story up. It’s a failing of the way it was written and is probably part of the reason Zuda rejected it. If the web comic had continued, you would have found out that a scientist had created a device that somehow reversed life and death. All of London (modern day London, as the web comic took place in the present day unlike the book) had fallen under this. What you see in the comic is their neighbor stumbling into Helen and Josiah’s house while on a run (notice the trendy at the time iPod Shuffle he sports) and dies. We also find out a mummy Helen had kept in the basement had escaped. Thus, the living were dying and the dying were rising from the grave.
There were a few problems with this concept, some of which plagued me through to the novel. What was the machine DOING exactly? I wanted some idea in my head even if I didn’t get into it in depth. I had planned to show these skeletons and half-rotten people just milling about doing their business. There would be a skeletal postman delivering mail, rotted bus drivers driving their routes and so on and so forth. I thought it would be a surreal picture. The point was that these resurrected dead didn’t realize they were dead. This would be exemplified by a young female reporter who would seek out G&W for their help. She’d realize something wasn’t quite right (as others of the newly undead) but couldn’t quite figure it out. But how do skeletons move? All the dead couldn’t come back… some were just dust, right? And if all of them came back it’d get very crowded. If all of London was affected, how would the rest of the world react?
I never really got that far in answering those questions. I was confident I could figure it out if Zuda selected the comic. But, of course, they did not.
When it came time to write the novels, the basic notion of the living and the dead coming back to life resurfaced in my head. The female reporter was the first thing that went. The book took place in Victorian times and female reporters were very rare back then and certainly wouldn’t be investigative journalists. At least not at the time G&W is set. Without her, I lost the compelling and personal emotional component of the story. I also decided to move the story from London to a relatively isolated village in the Welsh countryside. This was far easier to handle in terms of scale. Also, it allowed me to play with the mystery of it a bit more before the big reveal of what exactly was going on. The idea of the undead postman returned, but he was the more more “fleshed out” (if you’ll pardon the pun) character you see in the book. It was his plight that then became part of the emotional core of the book.
In many ways, the pieces of the puzzle for “The Village That Sleeps” fell into place relatively easily. The new format of the book actually solved a lot of the problems I had with the story originally. The scientist wasn’t an independent madman with some undefined purpose. He was just a desperate man trying out one of Ashmore’s machines. As I crafted the book I thought of the scene with the scientist and his wife. It was a fairly complex task figuring out how to give the audience a few hints as to what was really going on without making it seem to implausible. But I was really happy with the twist at the end and the emotional impact it had. Plus, I got to have a mysterious village, a spooky little girl, and roving masses of mindless undead all in one story.
On top of that, it gave Josiah some time away from Helen, which I think his character needed. It was interesting to see how he operated without Helen. There is a sense in the first couple of stories that Helen is driving everything, I think. You don’t really know if Josiah is just going along with everything or has a drive of his own. I think here you see very clearly that he is very much his own man and capable of operating independently of Helen. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this would become pretty critical before the end of the book.
One thing I never really did dive much into though was the “how” of what was happening. I’m really not much for technobabble, and let’s face it… any explanation I would have given would have been pure technobabble nonsense. It was enough to me to address it slightly—and in a way that I hope seems relatively understandable, if not plausible—and move on. Re-reading it again, I think this was the right direction. Although it’ll be a story or two before people understand the nature of the devices Ashmore creates, at least in hindsight the rather fanciful nature of some of them should make total sense.
Writing “The Village That Sleeps” was something of a breeze. The only big change was that I originally was going to have a whole subplot of Helen getting forcibly taken away and cared for by the concerned and strong-willed woman we meet right before G&W enter the town of Ddubryn. I thought it might be a fun set of scenes to see them sort of bounce off each other as Helen resisted the woman’s good-natured and motherly attempts to take care of her. But, I realized these scenes really didn’t have a point in the greater context of the story, and would probably feel like padding.
One note of trivia – the town of Ddubryn is entirely fictional. I named it by combining the welsh words for black (Ddu) and hill (Bryn.)
Next, up, I’ll talk about Book 4, “The Light On The Moor” – which I’ll just say right now was probably the hardest one to write of them all.