Where do story ideas come from? Many of the seeds of my stories go so far back that I can’t put a finger on just how they started. THE BARD’S GIFT is not one of those stories. I can trace its development very clearly. Here’s how it happened.
Back in February of 2010, a writing challenge was issued on one of the writers’ forums to which I belong (Hatrack River). This isn’t uncommon. We have several challenges a year. I’ve only entered a few because they’re all for short fiction–often very short–and, well, I don’t write short well. The last thing I started that was intended to be a short story or maybe a novella is now almost 90,000 words long. However, if an idea comes to me, I will give one of these challenges a try, mostly just to stretch myself.
Some of these challenges have a trigger or writing prompt. The trigger for this one was “Slave to the flame” and I came up with a story about the first dragon to learn to breathe fire, initially titled “First Flame.” It was written as a fable.
My story didn’t do very well in the challenge, partly because I killed off the main character (a dragon). There was nothing else I could do in the word-count allowed for the challenge (3,000 words). The voters also didn’t think he was really a slave to the flame.
Freed from the constraints of the challenge, I added some more to the ending which allowed the main character to survive, although badly wounded. But, it was still a fable. So, I created a framing story, about a girl with the gift of telling the exactly right story at the exactly right time. I put her in a desperate situation and let her tell the fable. This version was 5,000 words long, 4,600 of which was the fable.
But, it left me with a lot of questions. How had the girl come by this ability? How had they gotten into this desperate situation? And, of course, what would happen next?
Some of the things in that framing story made me think it was meant to be in a Norse setting, but not in the Norse homeland. So, I did some research and eventually, in 2012, I wrote it as a young adult novel. That original story is still there. It makes up Chapter 36. Here’s a taste:
Astrid drew a deep breath. “Some dragons can breathe fire. Did you know that? They couldn’t always breathe fire, though. And while some dragons, like Fafnir, are known to be smart, they weren’t at one time.
“It all goes back to the time of Wyreth the Wise. Now Wyreth was small for a dragon. He could do well enough on his own, but he only survived the dragons’ mating season because he was quick and because he was smarter than the other dragons. And maybe because he was stubborn, too.
“When there were many dragons together he was always last for everything. Dragon society is built entirely on who can bully everybody else. If you’re bigger or stronger than the others, you eat first, you get the best and sunniest sleeping spots, and, if you’re a male, you get most of the females come mating season.” She stole a quick look at Torolf under her lashes, here. “Wyreth was the smallest dragon. So he always ate last, had the worst and coldest sleeping spot, and none of the females even looked at him.”
“Whenever Wyreth killed a deer or a pig–cattle were entirely too big for him–one of the other dragons swooped in and stole it from him. The worst offender was Zilthss, Wyreth’s egg brother and the bane of his existence. Zilthss was big and strong, more than strong enough to kill his own prey, but he preferred stealing Wyreth’s whenever he could.
Because he was big and well-fed, Zilthss slept in one of the best spots and his scales were a beautiful burnished copper. All the females turned their heads when Zilthss flew by, even out of mating season. Wyreth’s scales were an unremarkable dull metallic red.”
Several of the children stole a glance at the shiny red scales behind Astrid.
“Because he was quick and smart, Wyreth usually dragged his kill into the dense brush, where the other dragons wouldn’t easily fit and gulped down as much as he could before they powered their way through to steal his meat. Bolting his food like that gave Wyreth indigestion, but it was better than starving.
“Now, at the time of this story, Wyreth had had a particularly bad week. Mating season was about to begin and the male dragons were more than usually belligerent. Zilthss had trailed Wyreth around like a hound on a scent and stolen everything he killed–even the pitiful little rabbit–before Wyreth could get so much as a bite.
“After losing the rabbit, Wyreth flapped off feeling sorry for himself. He had learned long ago that if he flew up the steep slopes of the cone-shaped mountain, the others wouldn’t follow him. There was nothing of interest there, certainly no game to hunt.
These dragons were creatures of mountain forests and no trees grew on the glassy slopes of that mountain, but at the top there was a round, rocky valley where the stones themselves were warm, even at night. Since Wyreth couldn’t get any of the warm, sunny sleeping spots in the rookery, he’d taken to coming up here. The sun was strong, but the heat from the ground was stronger still and comforting.
“That is, it was usually comforting, but not today, because Wyreth’s stomach was so empty. Even the warm rocks and the sun on his spread-out wings couldn’t ease Wyreth to sleep when his stomach growled so loudly. In desperation, Wyreth chewed on the yellow rocks. The yellow ones were much softer than the shiny black ones; a dragon could break his teeth on those. Some pieces of the yellow rock were small enough to swallow. Not exactly nourishing, but at least it filled up that hollow feeling inside for a while, though Wyreth suspected that they would be the very devil to pass. Well, that was tomorrow’s problem. Wyreth stretched himself out on the heated rocks and slept.
“He woke with a mighty belch. That wasn’t unusual for Wyreth. What was unusual was the gout of blue flame that leapt from his mouth along with the burp. Wyreth back-winged in surprise.”
Several of the older boys laughed at this. The younger ones giggled uncertainly. The oldest boy essayed a burp of his own and that sent the little ones into gales of laughter. Astrid glanced up from the children. Several of the men had looked over at the sound of laughter. Torolf was watching her. Astrid smiled and went on with her story.