Story from the Start – 2: Digging In

So, on with our stories.

Story 1. “Magic in the Darkness.” When we left Imre and Csilla, we had established a broad setting (Budapest, modern day), and two characters – Imre the mage, and his Familiar and seeing-eye dog Csilla. Csilla is a Hungarian Kuvazs, weighs 45 KG (100 pounds) and will herd her charge whenever the opportunity arises. This could be good or bad, depending on how the plot develops.

The story begins with Imre working, repairing a piano. Blind piano tuners are not all that rare, so this fits his character. It is assumed in the Familiars universe that one cannot make a living from magic alone, so he has a “regular” job. More setting, and a reason for him to go places, with tools and with a seeing-eye dog.

This is a short story, so we need a story-problem or plot driver early on. Imre is not a shadow-mage, so he does not go looking for trouble. That makes things a little more difficult. Trouble has to come to him, or he has to stumble onto it (metaphorically speaking, if Csilla is doing her job). So . . . What if we have a person with an unusual instrument that needs to be tuned. A person with something odd about them? He is working on a spinet piano that has seen better days as the excerpt begins. (Maria is his wife).


Imre worked steadily. He wouldn’t try to tune it until he’d gotten all the wires replaced. Csilla snored a little in E flat, her dominant chord, and he ignored the sound. Maria had helped set out all the wires in advance, double-checking the packages and contents. She’d saved him from mildly expensive mistakes on more than one occasion.

After he’d finished an octave, Csilla yawned. “I need out, please.” And he needed to ease that catch in his back. Imre stood, stretched from side to side, and let her out the dog-door he’d arranged in the back of the shop. The landlord charged him thirty extra Koruna per month, but tidied up after Csilla. She in turn used only one spot for her needs, making everything easier. “The sun is still out, and it is warmer, but the wind carries a chill.”

“April will do what it wills,” Imre sighed, adding water to her bowl and feeding her some of the kibble food the thaumatovet had recommended. After the slurping sound stopped, he patted around until he found where Maria had left Csilla’s brush and gave her a few swipes. He was rewarded with a resigned sigh and a brush filled with both coarse and soft hair. She was shedding both coats. A fog of white likely surrounded her when she went out and shook. Imre removed the hair, rolled it into a ball and dropped it into the waste basket. “How much of you is on my trousers?”

“None at all, sir, I assure you.” She nudged him, gently trying to herd him back to the piano of the week. He ran his hand over the heavy wool and felt more fur. “Other than that little bit,” Csilla added quickly.

Imre frowned, removed the fur, and returned to work. He managed most of the strings before the workshop door’s bells chimed. Csilla walked to the door. “A customer,” she called.

Imre stood and walked to the front of the workshop, pushing the switch to unlock the door and let the visitor in. Quick, fast steps entered the workroom, then stopped abruptly. “Mr. Farkas?” The woman sounded out of breath.

“Yes. How may I help you, ma’am?”

“I have a piano, a very valuable piano, that has crept out of tune.” Something in her voice sounded odd. Or was she merely out of breath and concerned about the instrument. “Can you come this afternoon and tune it? I am hosting a concert on Saturday.”

Imre blinked. Unless something odd had happened, today remained Tuesday, and the time already past noon. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It is too late in the afternoon, and I have two pianos already scheduled.” He did not mention the spinet in the workroom proper. “I can tune the instrument on Thursday, barring difficulties.”

She inhaled sharply. “That’s notβ€”” Her words cut off. Imre felt something shift, something magical, and heard the sound of dog nails on the floor. Csilla walked up beside her mage. “Very well. If that is the soonest, then so it shall be, Master Farkas.”

What transpired? Imre shifted one step to the left, away from Csilla, and then backed, turned, and went to where he kept a Braille frame and stylus. “May I have your name and address, Mrs?”

“Nagy,” she told him, then recited an address on the north of Buda Hill, in the ancient Roman area. “What time, Master Farkas?”

Imre considered. “Two in the afternoon, Mrs. Nagy.”

“Two. Excellent.” She sounded eager. “Thank you very much. The piano is a family treasure, and I so want it to be in tune for Saturday night.”

Csilla moved to stand beside him once more. When Mrs. Nagy did not elaborate, he asked, “What kind of piano, Mrs. Nagy?”

A long hesitation, and the sound of hands rubbing. “A [brand] concert grand piano.”

Imre caught himself before he boggled. Who had that sort of instrument in a private home? And how had they managed to hide it? “Thank you, ma’am. That will assist me in bringing the proper tools. The instrument must have a fascinating history.”

“Indeed, Master Farkas. I know only a fraction of it. If only the instrument could talk, yes?”

“Yes, Mrs. Nagy.”

Once the door had closed, and the sound of steps faded, he reached down. Csilla’s thick mane of fur stood not quite on end. She’d raised her hackles. Imre closed his eyes and called up his mage sight, looking for traces of spells. He saw Csilla as a glowing presence, and something . . . “How unusual,” he observed. Csilla left his side and walked around the spot on the floor, sniffing intently. “Magic that is not magic?”

The Kuvazs looked up to him. “Something that once had magic, but has leaked it away, perhaps? As if she were not a magic worker or user, but came into owning an enchanted thing?” She returned to his side. “I do not know.”

End Excerpt.

I’ve trimmed away some of the material, to show the “bones” of the plot. Is Mrs. Nagy an antagonist, being used by the antagonist, or ancillary to the story? I don’t know yet. I do know that I need to dig around and find out which piano companies were selling instruments in Europe before WWII, and fill that in. We also have Imre’s full name, Imre Farkas. “Nagy” is the most common family name in Hungarian, the equivalent of “Smith” in English, so that might or might not be her true name. In this story world, names have power.

We now have a setting better defined, a hint of Csilla’s personality, and a puzzle for them to solve.

Story #2. Walls of the Fifth River

Last time, we set three characters, a problem, and a hint of the antagonists. Now we back-up a little, ten months in fact, to when the clan first arrives in the area. Do we want to show the antagonists up front, and what they did to break the Laws, or should there be some character building and world building?

I opted for world building. This story is place-driven as much as people, in fact more so, since it is a culture vs. a culture, struggling over a place. There will be personal conflicts as well, but at this moment, world-building and rules-setting are probably more important. I backed up to when the clan first arrived. They’ve sent a scout out ahead, and he’s returned, given his report, and the clan leader is taking a look, deciding when they will move. They cannot go back the way they came, and the clan head is tense and unhappy. How to show all that?

Excerpt 2.

“You were right,” Mahon admitted, nodding toward the great sweep of land falling away from where the clan had stopped at the edge of the way through the mountains. “The world changes here.” The wind blowing up from the plains shifted his heavy plaid back over his shoulders and stirred his greying hair. His mare stamped, then tossed her head.

Foy bared his teeth in a grin, then resumed a respectful sobriety. One did not challenge the clan leader without good reason, nor did one challenge him. Standing beside Foy, Vashlo nodded, agreeing with the older and the younger man. Foy had been right, the land before them belonged to a different world than the dry places behind them.

“What lies beyond?” Mahon murmured, nodding toward the west and south, where the green strips faded into blue at the edge of the world.

Foy inhaled. “Dravanae has not looked closely yet, Elder, but he believes that more mountains rise there, penning in the waters below us, and holding back the western sea. Until we know more of what lies below, he felt it wiser not to look too closely.”

Mahon grunted his acknowledgment. All men with sense knew that the People were not the only clan with seers, and attracting attention was not always wise. Three birds soared up, riding the wind, and the men bowed in their saddles. Two eagles and an eater-of-the-dead climbed the invisible wind, mounting into the soft blue sky. The eagles turned north, gliding parallel to the mountains. The bare-headed, bony-footed carrion eater lingered over the men, then turned west, as if inviting them to follow. The eagles swooped back and followed the black shape out and down, into the green world below.

The land below the mountains resembled one of the walled gardens of the river cities to the east and north. The white teeth of the peaks combed out harsh weather, or so it appeared, and protected the rich green stretching to the west. At least two rivers flowed through the valley, flashing in the afternoon sun. Patterns of light green gave way here and there to squares and splotches of paler green, and two large rectangles of white perched on hills beside the rivers. One rectangle gleamed in the center, a splash of water perhaps? “Good grazing,” Vashalo observed.

“Aye,” Foy said. “Grazing, and crop lands, grain and other things. I did not see god-weed, but I did not search for it, either.” He snorted. “Those living below do not trust the night, and I did not care to die after being taken for a night-eater.”

Vashalo snorted a little in turn and rolled his eyes. “Even Lyria has sight enough not to make that mistake. It would be awkward to explain to the Lord of Under, though.”

“The Lord of Above will smite both of you if you do not shut up,” Mahon growled, turning his mare’s head and nudging her into motion. “A proper stillness shows wisdom.”

The younger men looked at each other. Foy shrugged. He’d seen the land, and he knew the dangers. If Foy did not sense danger, then why should any man fear? Vashalo shrugged in turn. Foy pressed his knee against his gelding’s flank, and the winter-shaggy horse shook its head, then turned and followed the mare. Vashalo’s own mare wasted no time lurching into motion to follow her herd mates. Sure footed, strong, but not smooth-gaited, Vashalo grumbled yet again. He had ridden her once to race. Once only, and had been cured of that desire. She was a good horse, and behaved herself around stallions, unlike some. Vashalo glanced back once. An eagle had returned, or was it a third eagle? He made a god-sign at the omen and turned his attention to the trail ahead of them.

“Is there room for us and those below?” Vahsalo asked Foy after they returned to camp and dismounted.

Foy turned his left hand palm up, curling the fingers in as if cupping water. “I’d say yes, from what I saw. The land is richer, with more water, so we need fewer miles for grass. But those below might disagree.” A hard look settled into his dark eyes, and he ran his left thumb over the scar on the back of his right hand. “Or they might not, if they are wise.”

Vashalo nodded, not speaking again until they had finished removing saddles and bridles, and brushing their mounts. Words did not come as quickly to him as to some, and words carried weight. Mahon’s return also inspired silence. The clan leader glowered from under heavy, brushy eyebrows as he stomped through camp. Something irritated him, but what?

Kelinda stopped, re-balancing the buckets of milk she carried on her shoulder-yoke. “Did his senior wife burn the noon meal?” Kelinda muttered, glaring at Mahon’s back.

Foy helped her adjust the yoke. “He worries about the land ahead of us, if it is tainted in some way,” the scout murmured, so quiet Vashalo could barely hear. “He remembers his sire’s mother’s words of the gods and Pu’taba.” All three crossed the fingers on their right hands and waved them, warding off the evil. “And he knows we cannot ride the return road.”

“Likely that is what worries him,” Vashalo whispered. “Although all men should be wary of the fate of the dead city.”

“Aye.” Kelinda lifted one foot and set it down again. “The gods remember slights even longer than we do.” She walked toward the tents of her family, leaving the men to their own work.

End Excerpt

We now have a few hints of background, a sense of the culture of the horse nomads, and an idea of the land they are going into. Foy is a scout, confident and hard to upset. Vashalo defers to him, and doesn’t speak unless he has something to say. The first woman has made her appearance, and we know that there are some magical or psychic things that will go on in the future. And we are dealing with a polytheistic religion of some kind, probably one what shamen or other spirit-seers. We also know that the people have to enter the new land for some reason. What is that reason? Does it matter to the story? Perhaps.

Because this is part of a novel, the exposition takes longer, with more scene setting. We have time to build the world at a more leisurely pace, provide more details than we do with a short-story. I also tend to write “slower” stories, with far more slice-of-life details and world-building than do many. This is a strength and a weakness. Not all readers want that sort of thing. The action can be buried in details, and I risk boring readers by wandering off into side-canyons. Your style is different, and you should not try to imitate me if that’s not your thing. I don’t write thrillers or action-movie books.

(C) 2020 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved


13 thoughts on “Story from the Start – 2: Digging In

  1. I still say Imre’s familiar needs to be a fish. You know . . . a piano tuna.


  2. Couple offhand thoughts:

    I like Imre; he reminds me of the rabbi who slept late, and I wish to know more about this odd piano. I don’t believe in Csilla. Maybe it’s that her thoughts are too human, so she’s not a dog that has human thoughts, she’s a human in dog form. (Now there’s a familiar’s job in magicland — “Sign up for just ten years as a dog and retire a wealthy man!”)

    β€œOr they might not, if they are wise.”
    This is where I decided I dislike Foy and distrust these characters’ motives. But it’s a very real thing for herding nomads to say.

    1. Csilla will become more doggy later on. She’s based a little on a Doberman I worked with. The Doberman and her owner/handler were both intensely professional and more than a little scary. (He [the human] did interesting things with the military but was supposedly no longer on active duty. I . . . suspected otherwise.)

      Foy is not a nice person when he’s prodded. But they will also have a reason to dislike the city dwellers, besides the ancient nomad v. farmer conflict. I suspect this book will end up like _Blackbird_, where I respected the MC but he was not a nice person. Sympathetic, but deeply flawed.

  3. Oh wow, I finally know how Stanley Woo feels. He was — is? — a QA guy at BioWare, who mentioned being jarred when characters in Jade Empire had names of friends and relatives. “Mrs. Nagy” had me thinking, “Oh, that would be Jesse’s mom.” He was a boy I knew in elementary school. And now I know they were Hungarian. Back in day I thought every person with a “complicated name” was Polish. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized they might also be Armenian, or Hungarian, or Romanian…

    This line confused me in the second excerpt:

    “One did not challenge the clan leader without good reason, nor did one challenge him. Is Foy or Vashlo the “him” apart from the clan leader? I thought Foy was the clan leader at first, but further on it turned out to be Mahon.

    By default I’m inclined to side with settlers vs. nomads. I prefer homeowners to renters for the skin-in-the-game factor. But, I’m prepared to be sympathetic to these seemingly sinister nomads, because of something I remember from Peter Heather’s book about the fall of Rome. He mentioned that anthropologists set historians straight about the Goths and Huns seemingly materializing out of the ether on the Roman frontier. Nomads don’t aimlessly wander, the anthropologists said. If they suddenly appear in places they’ve never been before, it’s because they’re driven by an external pressure. Whatever is driving your nomads, it looks like their problem is cool and magical. Their motivation promises to be complex, and not “simpleminded evil for the sake of twirly mustaches,” a promise that assures me of a good story here.

    I liked the details about the eagles and gods. Any chance we’ll see some falconry — hunting with golden eagles, perhaps? Pets are a huge blindspot for me; I never had any, so I never think of providing “animal companions” to characters. At any rate, I’m seeing a lot of good bones here. “Slice of life details” makes a story richer to me. Thanks for these diverting Sunday reads πŸ™‚

    1. From what she posted earlier, the nomads are the good guys (or at least they have good reasons to battle the city dwellers). πŸ˜‰

    2. Foy is “him.” You are seeing the very rough first draft, before I go through for initial edits and typoo cathces.

      1. To be clear, it wasn’t a criticism, rough drafts are gonna rough πŸ™‚ Just coming cold, I wasn’t sure of the relationships. With Foy being the “him,” I like the potential for conflict if neither Mahon nor Foy are used to being questioned.

        @Paul, good to know. I hope I don’t sound snarky; I’ve been seeing so many stories with cartoonish villains lately that I cheered when I saw this. “Oh that’s right,” I thought. “This is what the good stuff looks like. I was starting to forget what brain cake tastes like.” A brain cake is better than brain candy, because there’s more nutrient in a nice Black Forest Cake than there is, in say, gummy bears. Yet it’s still tasty treat. Good guys, bad guys, the nomads promise complexity and mature storylines, AND a fantasy that doesn’t hold back on the fantasy elements. I’m there πŸ™‚

  4. What you’re doing with the first one is working for me. I want to know what the deal is with that piano. The dog isn’t doggy enough to be an actual dog, but I can live with that. Its a magic dog, after all.

    The second one… I’m thinking what that old nomad bastard is going to say if he meets up with some of my hard-ass Scots ancestors in that valley. Or a lippy robot spider as big as a school bus. (Maybe I’m just cranky today. Corona-Chan is grinding my gears.)

  5. I like where both stories are going and want to read more. I also like world-building and action.

    I agree with the comments about Csilla. When she’s protecting him and figuring out the leftover magic spot, she acts like a Familiar. But, when she’s just hanging out, she’s less-dog like. Your other Familiars alternate between being their animal selves and their Familiar selves quickly and easily.

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