Why The Shard of Elan owes its existence to trained chickens

Okay, I didn’t realize the full extent of how hilarious that title was until I came back to it. But it’s accurate.

In August of 2004, I checked into a tiny motel in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Each of the dozen rooms was decorated with a different theme, and mine was Coca-Cola.

I was in Hot Springs for three weeks of Bailey & Bailey chicken training workshops. (This is a sort of litmus test — if you work in modern animal training, you probably responded with, “Oh! Wow, cool, what an opportunity!” If you don’t, you probably responded with, “…Wut?” Because this is the author blog and not the training blog, I’ll keep it short and say that Bob Bailey and his late wife Marian were, with Keller Breland and B.F. Skinner, some of the most important researchers and practical administrators of modern behavior science. The chicken training workshops were legendary, and I owe a huge debt of training success to their teaching.)

Anyway, I’d signed up for 40-50 hours a week of intense work, on Cuing & Criteria, Chaining, and Teaching Operant Conditioning. It was fantastic and I loved every minute, but it was very analytical, all about data and science and data. When I returned to my cozy studio, my analytical brain was exhausted, but of course I still had hours before sleep. So I needed something creative to balance out.

I did a few creative things. I made a workshop music video with footage from our training.

I baked a cake for my fellow trainers using eggs from our chickens, and I discovered almond oil is a fantastic improvement over bland vegetable oils in baking.

And I started another story, beginning with a prince and a mage trying to retrieve an artifact from a cult, and the mage’s servant was not at all what she thought. As I wrote, the prince was a lot more surly than I wanted, and I couldn’t figure out what his problem was, until it at last came out that yeah, he was the son of a king, but he wasn’t a prince.

They met with the cult leader, who set an abused servant to take care of them. And then everything began to fall together. This was Shard & Shield.

I don’t know exactly how much I wrote in those first weeks, but it was a lot, and I came home with a solid start on what became a massive project.

Image result for pleiades
The Pleiades, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The story underwent a lot of growth and revision over the years, of course, but it still shows its roots. My partner at workshop was a brilliant trainer and admirable woman, whose name meant the constellation Pleiades. I thought her name was gorgeous and incorporated it into the worldbuilding. This is why the Ai leader’s full title is the stars making up the constellation, and why the Ai champions are the Tsuraiya and the Pairvyn, near matches to Suraiya and Parveen, as the Pleiades are known (or with cognates) in several Semitic and Indo-European languages.

So that’s an interesting backstory, sure, but there are take-home lessons, too!

  • I started the many years of writing this story in 2004. Shard & Shield was published in 2019. In between, it went down a lot of dead-end roads, including staying a full year with an agent who ultimately decided not to represent it. Persistence is a thing.
  • If I had watched Survivor or been on social media or done something else instead of writing, I would have lost a lot of opportunity in a constrained, low-distraction environment. Now that we can stream video anywhere and play phone games and more, we have to be even more disciplined. Not all technology is a boon. Use your time.
  • In 2004 I was a writer, and my writing was okay, but it wasn’t quite up to the standard I had in 2019 and now 2020. Writing is a craft, not a talent, and it was worth taking the time to improve.

So that’s enough lecturing for a post about chickens and story. Remember that epic adventures can start in unexpected places, like a cheap weekly-rent motel room with cute decor, so always be ready!

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One Comment

  1. Love hearing this “behind the scenes” account of the birth of your Shard storyline. Thank you for sharing it. I especially needed the reminder about how I’m spending my time. Do I want to feed mindlessly on stories others have made, or write my own? There’s a balance there; reading and enjoying stories is a good thing, to a point. But if given uninterrupted time, I should consider using it for creative endeavors. Who knows what will come of it?

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