I started the original draft of Cowboys and Indians almost a year and a half ago, in December of 2010. I remember the date because I had just written the first 60k words of Company Girl for NaNoWriMo and I needed to take a break before I went back and finished it (which I did; it is currently trunked and awaiting a rewrite). It’s either a rewrite or a sequel to one of the first short stories I ever wrote, called The Ghost Burn, which was one of my application stories for the Clarion Writers’ Workshop.
Pardon me. I just realized that it’s been almost exactly two years since those frenzied weeks and had a small headsplosion at all the things that have happened since. I’ll be back in a moment.
So, two funny things about The Ghost Burn. One, I had one of my instructors read it for a one-on-one session at Clarion. Said instructor rather quickly demolished it and suggested a rewrite from scratch, after which we had quite a pleasant chat about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and the writer’s life in general. Two, before Clarion, I took the leap of submitting it to a very prestigious market (my second-ever story submission to anywhere ever), who sat on it for a year and a half before sending me the most encouraging and insightful personal rejection I have received or ever hope to receive from anybody.
Both The Ghost Burn and Cowboys and Indians take place in what I call the GoATDaD universe, which I’ve been fabricating in my head for the last ten years. Indeed, the protagonists of both stories, and Cowboys and Indians in particular, are minor but important characters in a much larger story that takes place there. The GoATDaD universe is a nearish-future soft apocalyptic world in which resource wars and environmental degradation have begun to undermine the fabric of civilization. As that order collapses, a sort of magic realist cosmology begins to emerge.
I’ll leave it at that. If I try and go any further, we’ll be here all night.
So the thing about the events and the characters in Cowboys and Indians is that they’re one of the places where that emergent magic realism emerges most obviously. The members of Coyote Tribe, and Lakota Sue in particular, are on the very bleeding edge of the subtle transformation of the world in the GoATDaD universe, the particular mechanics of which have been a vexatious difficulty for me in undertaking the whole damned thing, to be honest. The science-fictional aspects of the universe have come more or less naturally, but how to handle the kinds of supernatural forces I wanted to bring into play and integrate them into the larger, more realist narrative I’ve been building has been a real challenge for me as a writer.
When I first undertook to write this story, I didn’t really realize what I was trying to do. I had a plot of sorts in mind, and a couple of characters I’d dabbled with but never really fleshed out, and a milieu in which things could happen. I spent 11000 words writing my way into it without really knowing what the story was. I read over it before I started this latest version. There was some good stuff in there, stuff I really liked even though I didn’t use any of it.
I don’t revise so much as rewrite, is the thing.
Anyway, I trunked it for over a year, and let it simmer in the fetid swamp of my unconsciousness while I worked on other things. Honestly I thought it was just a dead-end, an exercise, even. But I kept coming back to it, kept having little flashes of insight into what the story was and, more importantly, how to get where I was trying to go from where I was starting from.
A year later I had enough of it figured out to take another whack at it (my writing schedule can be a little tricksy, since I tend toward larger projects and usually need to focus on one thing at a time, so picking the next project when I finish something can be a decision fraught with consequences). The first bit came easy, just a question of setting the scene, putting the pieces into play and seeing where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do. I decided on a split POV, alternating sections between Lakota Sue and Sarge, her lover and companion, who is also in charge of protecting the tribe. Each of them, in their way, represent one aspect of the movement of the larger universe. Sarge is hard-headed and practical-minded, which put his voice well inside my personal comfort-zone of tough guy action movie noir-type stuff. Sue, on the other hand, is one of a few characters who actually embody the emergence of the magical realist aspects of the story, and the larger universe in which the majority of my work takes place. In a sense the story behind the story is the slow convergence of these separated lovers and the underlying forces they represent.
As you can guess, figuring that out has been kind of a big deal for me.
I’m really happy with the story, too. I’ve let a couple of people read it, and read it to one person, and the feedback has all been very positive. I think it needs one more going over, and maybe the final section needs a little tweaking, but I think this one is almost ready to go out into the world, and I’m really happy about that.