It started out simply enough. It was winter in Ohio, and I was stuck in yet another a dead-end job, living in a small town with no one interesting to talk to. TV was not an option, as my rooftop antenna had blown down the previous spring. Radical political posturing on the internet had grown stale. My bookshelf was full of once-read and many-times read novels, but I’d had a great deal of difficulty lately finding anything at the bookstore that I was actually inclined to continue past the first chapter. Everything on the market seemed to be either a boring repetition of something I’d already read, or so janglingly urban and “cutting edge” that reading it was an exercise in nihilism. I wanted to visit a strange new world full of old-fashioned virtue and timeless valour, where predatory self-interest and stabbing one’s comrades in the back wasn’t an accepted social norm, and it seemed that the only way I was going to get it was to write it myself.
I’d written two unpublished novels and a half-dozen short stories before, but this time, all I intended was outright theft. I’d given up on the idea of getting paid for writing when I ran out on my marriage and my good job to deal blackjack in an Oregon casino. But I needed entertainment, and regardless of what others thought, I have always written primarily for an audience of one: myself. I wasn’t planning on creating a masterpiece. I merely wanted to spend the next three snowed-in months somewhere else. For that I needed a plot that could be embellished with the things that really pull me into a story: strong but emotionally fragile characters, exotic settings carefully detailed, magical powers that didn’t offend my own forty years of study and practice, and preferably a complete escape from the Modern Era. And since I’d always found the plot to be the most difficult and least rewarding part of writing, I had no concern about following the advice of Robert Heinlein and stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down with railroad ties.
I’d already used The Prisoner of Zenda for my second novel, transposing it into the middle of a space opera set in cavalier California. No, I haven’t tried to publish it. Ask me nicely, and I’ll read it out loud late at night, after we’ve finished The Eye of Argon. And after filing off the names and personal identifying data of all the characters stolen from Real Life, some of whom were still alive at last check. Anyway, I did like Prizoner of Zenda, but you can only do that once. My eye hit upon a line of old Andre Norton novels collected long after I had originally read them in my teens. Short, efficient plots oriented towards males between the ages of twelve and seventeen, and I still adore them so that shows you where my development got arrested. Surely there was something in there that could be adapted to suit.
Not precisely, of course. Most of Norton’s juveniles can be summed up in a few lines: naive young outcast is denied a place in society, jumps or falls into an unexpected situation (kidnapped by aliens, crash-landed on an alien world, accidentally dumped into a medieval fantasy land by stepping through the wrong door) and survives by making common cause with an “older brother” figure that he/she initially distrusts. After exploring a strange and dangerous territory to reach an expected safe haven, they discover and confront one or more Evil Parental Figures, with a happy but believable resolution. Big Brother then introduces the protagonist into the society from which he/she was previously excluded.
All right, this isn’t hard. In fact, it worked well enough for Norton to pump 300 novels out of it. I especially liked one that was set in an obscure Eastern European nation – rare during the Cold War era of my childhood. Exactly when was another matter, as the historicity was rather sloppy and couldn’t decide if it was taking place in the 19th century (swords and cavalry charges) or the 20th(automobiles and communists). Where was also questionable; a decidedly imaginary location somewhere in the Balkans. It wouldn’t hurt, I thought, to improve upon it just a little. Fill out the somewhat cardboard characters, especially the villains, as I firmly believe that villains have a right and responsibility to be People, too. Clean up the history – I abhor bad history. I could work in the lead-up to WWII, with all sorts of possibilities for an extended Steampunk theme (my apprentice Donal had been mad about Steampunk lately). And while I was at it, I could replace the non-existent werewolf. I mean, really. The Grand Mistress of fantasy writing a novel with a “werewolf” who was only pretending to be a werewolf to impress the peasants? She should have been ashamed of herself. Of course, I had no intention of publishing such a derivative work. How could I? I fully intended to steal the plot wholesale. I was only keeping myself sane over a very long, very cold and dreary Ohio winter.
Three months later I was staring at a hundred thousand words and was still only two-thirds of the way through the plot, which had begun to wander away from plan before the end of the first chapter. A firm date had been attached, with historical details appropriate to an alternate universe separated from ours at a precise date. I indulged in historical tourist attractions: a ride on the Hindenburg, a dance in a Paris cafe, sausages and beer in Munich, and monster movies at Adolf Hitler’s mountain chateau, all copiously researched online (I LOVE Wikipedia) and tied together by the emotional trauma of an adolescent who wasn’t sure whether or not his father had been a werewolf. A half-dozen new characters were born out of febrile imagination, including a cameo appearance by Hitler himself. Others diverged so far from the originals as to be unrecognizable. Constanti took on the role of a sibling rival, while the parental Generals became all too obviously human – not to mention subtly revealing a relationship that would never have been acknowledged in the 1930’s, and certainly not in a children’s story. Vlad, who had been created as an apology to Vlad Tepes for writing him out of history, was approaching mythic proportions. Appropriate magic had been introduced based on my own practical experience, and a Wolfskin practice grounded firmly in local folklore and traditional practices. Nothing remained of the original plot except a protagonist with a hyphenated name and an outlaw king who now really was a werewolf, or at least one of those animal-spirit warriors from whom werewolf stories derive.
And the location . . . well, I had intended to move it from an undefined somewhere far too close to Germany to the highlands of Serbia. But topography was important for a story poised on the brink of WWII. I didn’t want Hitler’s tanks to have an easy time of it if they eventually invaded. I Googled a satellite map of the region and began searching for a valley on the edge of nowhere, surrounded by high peaks and nasty mountain gorges, caves to hide in and racing rivers to drown unwary invaders. And I found a high plateau ringed by forests and mountains, halfway between Greece and Germany and on the southwest border of Russia. It was perfect. It also turned out to already have a certain literary and historical reputation. The Hungarians call it Erdely, and the Romanians sometimes change that to Ardely. But in English-speaking nations, it’s more commonly known as Transylvania.