On Writing Process: A Dissection (of sorts) of “Rappacinni’s Crow”


Can a raven be a sociopath?

Someone mentioned this as one of their favorite stories of mine, and I wanted, for selfish and egotistical reasons, to use it for the subject of a blog post, but I hope that I can in pulling it apart and explaining some decisions, shed a little light on both my process and writing in general.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it appears here on the excellent online publication Beneath Ceaseless Skies, or you can buy an e-copy on Amazon or Smashwords. If you’re too impatient, here are some of the pertinent details: steampunk world, asylum for those injured by the war, nurse with a secret, doctor with an evil crow, wacky hijinks ensure.

The story takes place in a dystopian steampunk setting that I’d wandered around the edges of previously in “Clockwork Fairies” and “Rare Pears and Greengages”. This story got me far enough into that territory that it spurred others: “Her Windowed Eyes, Her Chambered Heart,” “Snakes on a Train,” and “Laurel Finch, Laurel Finch, Where Do You Wander?” I’ve been calling the series Altered America, and you can see some of the images I’ve used for inspiration here.

And the amount of effort involved in writing the protagonist that appeared to me scared me. Transgendered, Native American, poor, and disabled. How could I write that other without offending someone? Better folks than I have battered themselves against that question. But you can’t do something without trying, so I gave it a shot. I strove to do my best by my protagonist: to explain his background, his history, the way he thought, and his relationship with Jesus. Which is another way my character is unlike me: he is struggling with his Christianity, while I’m Unitarian, a faith that has taught me a great deal, and which I embrace, but which draws on, rather than consists wholly of, Christianity.

I went into that attempt with good intentions, a lot of thought, and some tools provided me by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s excellent little book, Writing the Other. I hope I did justice by my protagonist, and I hope he comes back for another story or two, because I want to know what happens to him, over the mountains. I hope it involves him finding his captain — or some reasonable facsimile — again.

As all of this started to take shape in my head, I invoked my favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne story, “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” and made my antagonist part of the Rappacinni line. In doing so, I had to think about how much I was allowing Hawthorne to influence the story. Did I want to try to retell his? Definitely not, because trying to place that structure over what was already in my head was way too square peg, round hole in its feel. So instead I took enough to make it a nod to Hawthorne, an Easter egg for readers who knew what grew in Hawthorne’s fictional garden. The important thing with anything like that is that for readers unfamiliar with the text being referenced, it cannot get in the way of the story or prevent their understanding of it. Make it a plus for readers who’ve read the other text, but never a penalty for those who haven’t.

I injected some of my fascination with Victorian mental institutions, which led to a fascinating time researching. And I put in a crow, because that was where the story came from in the first place, with this question:

In fiction, we generally think of animals as good-souled, noble, and self-sacrificing. What if you had one that wasn’t? That was, in fact, a bit of a psychopath? For the past year I’ve kept peanuts in my pockets and gotten the crows around here to know me, so I was aware of how smart they are, and how much personality they can display. Mine all seem like pleasant souls, but what if there was one that wasn’t?

And thus Jonah fluttered and squawked his way into existence to squat malignantly on Dr. Rappacinni’s shoulder.

Stories are so often collisions of things, a month’s worth of influences and odd thoughts perhaps bouncing off an old obsession or two. With these kinds of stories, for me all I can do is plunge in and start writing, and watch the story start to coalesce. There’s a point where it’s solid enough that I begin to figure out what it’s about, and gradually that emerged in an unexpected shape. It was, I realized, a story about faith, which is not my usual sort of story.

I’m also fond of this story because I used it in teaching, showing students the original story map and how I blocked it out, as well as a couple of early drafts so they could see how things progressed as I was writing it. I didn’t worry too much about length, and it ended up coming in on the low side of novelette length, which limited the markets. Luckily, I knew Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies might well be interested.

Scott, whose comments are always on the mark, had me rework the ending. And having realized what it was a story about helped me reshape that ending into something that satisfied both of us. I wanted it to be a little bit ambiguous in the ending. Was God’s hand evident there or not? You can read it either way, and I like that ambiguity, a quality that fills our existence, in that moment.

Enjoy this writing advice and want more content like it? Check out the classes Cat gives via the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which offers both on-demand and live online writing classes for fantasy and science fiction writers from Cat and other authors, including Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, Fran Wilde and other talents! All classes include three free slots.

Prefer to opt for weekly interaction, advice, opportunities to ask questions, and access to the Chez Rambo Discord community and critique group? Check out Cat’s Patreon. Or sample her writing here.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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