Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Filing the Serial Numbers Off Part 3

Part the third and last!

Yesterday's piece was harder for people to guess even though it was actually much closer to the original. Black Flag, a pirate adventure, was based tightly on the pilot of Farscape. (I feel that I have to quote Vala Mal Doran in the SG-1 Episode 200 when she observes that nobody's ever seen Farscape...) John Stafford, astrologer, is John Crichton, astronomer. Captain Velasquez is Captain Crais. MacClees is D'Argo. Pelagia is Moya. And of course Amadis de la Vega is Aeryn Sun.

It's the latter that threw people off because Aeryn is genderswapped. And that in itself is an interesting choice. It's not that there can't be female pirates in this era. This is the 1720s. There are plenty of real female pirates. It's not even that you can't have a woman dressing as a man to be in military service. The real Mary Read has done just that before becoming a pirate in this era. But one of the keys to Aeryn's character is that up to this point in her life she's always played by the rules. She's obeyed orders. She's done what she was supposed to do even when it was sketchy. Even when it was wrong. A woman in the Spanish navy is already breaking rules, already deceiving, already on the wrong side with enormous secrets and hidden truths. A woman in the Spanish navy wouldn't be Aeryn. And so it's the character's internal workings that cause the genderswap.

Which brings us to the next bit -- sometimes what you really want is the character. You just love this character. You want to write about them. The setting is secondary. The story is secondary. This character (or characters) are the thing you want to keep. And in a way, that's easy. All you have to do is find a milieu where they fit.

But that can't be just anywhere. Just as Aeryn would be a completely different person if she had already built her life on a deception, you can't just plop any character down in any setting. It has to have the same elements of backstory that make them the person they are, or they won't make any sense. If your character is Alexander the Great, you can't make him a barista! Because he wouldn't be. He'd be a barista for approximately ten minutes before he convinced Don Draper to hire him and in two years he'd be deputy mayor. A character whose essential qualities include leadership and risk taking is always going to make choices that include those two things. What works is when you put them in a setting where there can be formative experiences that are similar enough that the character remains the one you love and want to write.

Today's example is from one of my published books, and here's the backstory. When I was working on Moebius Squared, Vala moved in. I love Vala, and Moebius Squared was the first chance I'd had to write her professionally. (I managed to get her in for a couple of short scenes in The Inheritors subsequently.) But Moebius Squared was a big team adventure, with no less than nine members of SG-1 running around, and there simply wasn't much time or space to focus on Vala. But Vala wouldn't leave. Vala moved into my brain. She wanted more, and Vala can be very persistent. And so when the plot of Steel Blues called for a jewel thief pretending to be a countess who has stowed away on the plane during the air race, guess who popped up, bright eyed and ready for her casting call? "I can do 1930's crosstalk, darling! I'm perfect for it!" Hence Stasi in Steel Blues. (And Silver Bullet. And Wind Raker. Vala's staying.)

Here are two short scenes from early in Steel Blues. Stasi's been caught stowing away on the team's plane with a stolen necklace, and in the process nearly crashed the plane. This is immediately after they land, and then that evening in Flagstaff, Arizona. See what you can spot!

For a long moment everyone just sat there, Lewis with his hands still clenched, Mitch with a silly grin.

"Ok," Alma said. Her voice wasn't shaky at all. "Ok. Let's taxi around if we can and see the board."

"Fourth," Jerry said as their tail swung and he could see. "Fourth. We're right behind that damn Fokker from Bestways."

"Fourth out of nine," Lewis said, a dismal tone in his voice, blaming himself for something that couldn't be helped.

"It could be worse," Mitch said. "We could be dead last."

"We could be dead," Jerry pointed out. He gave the Countess a dirty look. "No thanks to you know who. Call the tower and call the police."

Lewis picked up the radio.

"Please don't!" There was an actual note of panic in her voice, and Alma looked around. The other woman's hands clenched on the seat back. "Please don't. There's no harm done. You've got the necklace and you're safe in Flagstaff. You didn't crash and you aren't in last place." She looked at Mitch imploringly. "You said I could go when you got to Flagstaff if I didn't make any more trouble."

Alma took a deep breath. "Did you actually promise that, Mitch?"

Mitch looked uncomfortable. "Sort of. Yeah."

Alma shook her head. Sometimes Mitch and Lewis were as gullible as a pair of wood sprites.

The Countess met her eyes frankly. "Come on," she said. "A girl's got to make a living." She lifted her chin just a fraction, but what was in her face was real. Fear. And after all, there was no harm done.

"Call the police," Jerry said.

"No, I don't think so," Alma said slowly, her eyes on the Countess. "The publicity would be bad for Henry and it would probably get us tied up with police statements. We might miss our start tomorrow." She watched the color come back to the woman’s face. "You can clear out. And as you say, no harm done. We'll give Henry his necklace back when we see him."

"Oh come on!" Jerry said.

"I knew you'd be ok," the Countess said with a brilliant smile. "Didn't I tell you I liked her, Mr. Sorley?"

"Um," Mitch said, sure proof she'd said nothing of the sort but he was too polite to contradict a lady.

Lewis shook his head, following the flagman around to the third hangar. He cut the engines neatly in front of it. They sputtered as they died. "Not enough fuel left to light a match," he said.

Alma got up stiffly and went back to pop the door. "Ok," she said. "You can go. And don't let us see you again."

"I can't believe you're letting her go!" Jerry said.

"Let it be," Lewis said. "You know, people who are down on their luck do some crazy things…."

"Like turn into jewel thieves? We're not talking about panhandling here!"

Mitch got down and unfolded the stairs, and the Countess hopped nimbly down. "Well," she said cheerfully, "It's certainly been fun. Toodle-oo!"

"You might want to give back the necklace first," Mitch said.

"I have the necklace," Alma said.

Mitch shook his head. "Nope. She picked your jacket pocket while she was standing behind your seat in the cockpit. Excuse me, ma'am." He reached around her and shoved one hand deep in the front pocket of her black slacks.

"Darling, I didn't know you cared," she said as he rummaged about very improperly with his big hand.

Mitch smiled as he pulled the necklace out like a magician drawing a rabbit from a hat. "Now you can go."

"That little sneak!" Jerry said.

"Out," Alma said sternly. "Before I change my mind and call the cops."

"Call the cops about what?" The first of the reporters had jogged up, following the taxi way from the stands.

"This lady was just leaving," Mitch said. He gave the reporter an urbane smirk. "You know, they follow you around like crazy. Sorry, Toots. Not interested."

Her mouth opened and closed. "My name's not Toots."

"How are you feeling about the race, Mrs. Gilchrist?" the reporter asked, shifting his attention from the all too familiar byplay. "Is a fourth place finish what you'd hoped for?"

"This was a tough leg, no doubt about that," Alma said. "But it's not the finish. This is just the first leg, and I think we've shaken a few kinks out. I'm confident we're in good shape. This is just the beginning of the race."

"What is your name then?" Mitch asked. "Trouble?"

"You know it, darling," she said. "But you can call me Stasi. With an i."

Alma was trying to keep her mind on her game.

"What kind of trouble, Mrs. Segura?"

"Just a few technical issues that need to be resolved," Alma said smoothly. "Nothing major. A desert course is a challenge for any aircraft. That's why this leg is a good test for all the planes in the race."

"Mitch," Jerry said.

"And easy on the eyes," Mitch said.

"Darling, if you're looking for trouble…."

"Trouble usually finds me."

"Is somebody paying you for this dialogue?" Jerry demanded. Lewis made a noise suspiciously like a snicker.

Alma looked around with her best irritated schoolmarm expression. "Gentlemen, maybe you had better see about the post-flight check list? Lewis? Mitch?"

Mitch looked abashed. "We had better."

"How do you feel about your starting position tomorrow, Mrs. Gilchrist?"

"Well, we don't know for certain," Alma said. "After all, things may change a little in the start order with the on-the-ground competitions, but I'm confident we won't be far off the optimal time. I think we're in good shape for tomorrow's leg to San Angelo, Texas." When she looked around again the Countess was gone.

It was a real nice speakeasy. The little tables had white cloths and there were actual waiters, a little stage off to one side for live shows, a placard propped on an easel saying that the Fantastic Fernando Mariachi Players were on at 11. A bar ran the full length of the other side of the room, mirrors behind it reflecting hanging amber lamps. It must cost a pretty penny in bribes to keep the joint open, but Mitch wasn't complaining.

Several of the other teams were in evidence, the Fair Harvards at the far table, a couple of guys from Comanche at another with a guy who might have been one of the Bestways pilots. One of the reservists tipped a wave to Mitch and he responded in kind, but didn’t go over to join their table. Instead he slid onto one of the barstools at the far end by the empty bandstand. "Kentucky bourbon," he said. "With a dash of soda if you please."

It wasn't even raw stuff, but oaky and smooth, either left over from before the war or…. Yeah, that was it.

"Seventy five cents, sir," the barman said and Mitch put it out without complaining. It's what he'd spend on a whole bottle of regular stuff, but this must be aged twenty years, sure as shooting. He took another sip, savoring the taste. Smooth, rich as amber.

"Can I get a light, stranger?" She slid onto the stool next to him without looking at his face, just meeting his eyes in the mirror behind the bar, still in the same black slacks and black blouse.

"I suppose," Mitch said, fishing out his Ronson automatic and flipping it open.

"You'll have to give me a cigarette first," Stasi said. She crossed her legs nonchalantly.

He grinned. "You don't have any?"

"Did you notice a cigarette case when you patted me down?" She held out her hand. He slid one between her fingers and she bent to light it. Her ruby nail polish was chipped, and she took a deep inhale, puckering her lips on the paper. "Oh, that's good," Stasi said. "I've been simply dying for hours, darling."

"I'm surprised you're not halfway back to LA," Mitch said.

"Well." She reached for his drink but he scooted it back out of the way.

"I don't suppose you came in here thinking that you could get one of the other teams to give you a ride along to San Angelo," Mitch said, holding his drink firmly.

"You're so suspicious."

"Let's just say I think you're resourceful."

She turned her head and gave him a brilliant smile. "That's so sweet of you!"

"Well, it must have taken a certain amount of moxie to escape the Russian Revolution," Mitch said.

"Yes, terribly," she said, arching her neck and waving for the barman. "Yoo-hoo! I'll have what he's having."

"The hell," Mitch said, but he let it ride. There are some stories worth seventy five cents.

Stasi took another draw. "I'm sure I would have been killed if not for my Uncle Vanya. He smuggled me out of the country in a sled, darling. Simply covered in furs! We were pursued by howling wolves. It was utterly terrifying."

"In Minsk?"

"This was before Minsk, darling. We escaped down the Volga on the cutest little houseboat."

Mitch took a sip of his bourbon. "Playing the balalaika and wearing furry hats."

"Of course not." She downed half hers in a gulp. "The balalaika upsets the reindeer."

Mitch nearly inhaled his bourbon, which would be a pity, as it was way too good to inhale. "Eight of them, no doubt."

Stasi beamed. "How did you guess?"

"Traditional number for a reindeer team. Go on. I'm riveted."

"So there we were, galloping across the snow, just me and my dear Prince Andrei…."

"I thought it was Count Bezukhov in the book," Mitch observed. She gave him a dirty look over the rim of her glass and he shrugged. "I did read War and Peace too."

"What is it about you Americans?" Stasi demanded. "Have you all read War and Peace?"

Mitch shrugged. "I wouldn't think so. I read it during the war. It was about the only book in the billet, and I think the whole squadron read it twice each."

"Western Front?"

"Veneto," Mitch said, touching his glass to hers. "Over on the other end against the Austrians in Italy and the Balkans."

"Which would explain why you can find Budapest on a map," Stasi said.

"Can I?"

"I imagine you can." She shook her ash into the ashtray. "Are you really an ace?"

"Where'd you hear that?"

"One of the other teams."

"You shouldn't trust everything the other teams say," Mitch said.

She tilted her head back, dark eyes roving over his face for a moment. "I expect that's true though. Is it?"

"Yes." Mitch took another sip of his bourbon. It seemed to be disappearing very quickly. "So I gave you one truth. You give me one. Why are you still here?"

"Did you find a wallet when you were rummaging around in my pockets?" Stasi asked. "I was jumping on the plane for a moment to get the necklace back, darling. I didn't bring luggage."

"Oh." Mitch frowned. "You mean you're flat broke."

"Not a penny. No cash, nothing." Stasi took another draw and then stamped out the end of her cigarette. "Not a dime for a telegram." She looked around the other teams in the speakeasy. "I hoped someone would be…obliging."

"Oh." Mitch felt a slow flush creeping up his neck. "Well. I suppose I could let you have five dollars for the train back to LA. I mean, since it was my fault."

"Your fault?" Her eyebrows rose.

"I locked the hatch."

Her lips parted in a long, wide smile. "I suppose it was your fault at that, darling. I'd be extremely grateful. Especially since I have no place to stay."

"I don't have the necklace," Mitch said. "And I'm sharing a room with Jerry. So don't even get on that bus."

Her eyes widened. "How could you think! Why, I should be so insulted that I'd never speak to you again!"

"Before I give you the money for the train?" Mitch asked.

She smiled again, and Lord that smile was 100 watts. "After, darling. I'm only insulted after."

Mitch shook his head. "Good policy." He opened his wallet and of course there was only a ten, and it would have been awkward to ask the barman for change, never mind that it was most of what he'd figured he'd spend on the whole trip, money being tight as it was. But if they won he could afford it and if they lost they'd be so screwed it didn't matter, so he handed it over with a shrug.

Stasi frowned. "What's the extra for?"

"Breakfast," Mitch said, getting up. He drained the last of his bourbon and put the glass on the counter. "Train doesn't leave until seven. I expect you'll want some."

"Where are you going?"

"To get some sleep," Mitch said. "I've got a race to fly in the morning." She was still frowning after him when he turned the corner to the elevator at the end of the hall.

So what do you think, my friends?



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 18th, 2013 02:29 pm (UTC)
The Order of the Air is rare in that I knew it was a "file-serial-number-off" story going in, and I was actually trying to decipher it. Because of that I instantly saw Vala in Stasi, and I still continue to picture her in my head as Claudia Black. That said, she's very much her own character. I can't just plug Vala into the equation and make it work.
May. 18th, 2013 06:33 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm with you on this one, Geonn. I picture Stasi as Claudia Black, but not exclusively now as Vala.
May. 19th, 2013 03:59 pm (UTC)
Yeah, absolutely! Stasi started off there, but then she's grown. I don't think Vala would have ever been allowed to grow because it would have changed her from being the comic relief, which Stasi definitely isn't by the end of Silver Bullet. She still says things that are hilarious, but the reader has to take her seriously.
May. 19th, 2013 03:57 pm (UTC)
That's true. I started with Vala, but Stasi started growing. And it's interesting, because I don't think Vala would ever have been allowed to grow on the show -- not as much and not in the same ways -- because she would have stopped being comic relief.
May. 18th, 2013 06:59 pm (UTC)
Vala is very good at forcing her way in and then being so charming that you don't realize you're stuck with her until after the fact.

Stasi reminds me of Vala in that they are the same prototype character, but they are different, they've had different experience shaping them.
May. 19th, 2013 04:01 pm (UTC)
Very true! She does move in and make herself at home.

They do have different experiences, and in the Order of the Air I can explore things in ways that the show never would have with Vala. It would have been too dark, or too different a tone. I know I could never get a tie-in approved that actually explored what it was like to be Qtesh's host, or the things that happened after. But with Stasi I can look at the results of some really bad things and at her resilience.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )