The Big Idea: Ian Tregillis
Author Ian Tregillis had an interesting challenge while working on his debut alt-history/fantasy novel Bitter Seeds: dealing with a character in the book who knew where the story was going better than he did. How does a character — a creature of the author’s own mind — end up having that sort of power? I knew you were going to ask that. So here’s Tregillis to explain how that happened, and how he worked with such a perspicacious character.
When people ask me where Bitter Seeds came from, I tell them to blame Tom Cruise and Lord Mountbatten.
There’s a scene in the movie Minority Report (I know, I know…) that was, for me, one of those wonderful but all too rare moments when science fiction sidles up, whispers in your ear, and breaks your head. (Minor spoilers follow in the rest of this paragraph.) Our Hero, Tom Cruise, is on the run from Bad Guys. But he has at his side a lady who just happens to see the future. By using her precognition, she tells him exactly what to do, and when to do it, so they can make a clean getaway.
I loved that scene. It blew me away. But the movie didn’t take it far enough. I started to wonder… What if, instead of thinking 30 seconds ahead, the precog had been thinking 30 YEARS ahead? And hey, while we’re at it, what if she were a sociopath, too? (You know, just for fun.)
The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that accurate precognition should be an unbeatable superpower. I could be wrong, but that’s how it seems to me. I’m not talking about vague premonitions, or the kind of clairvoyance that comes with plot-preserving ambiguity. None of this “fog of possible futures” stuff for me. No, sir. I wanted a precog who could see as far as she wanted and understood what she saw.
So that’s how Gretel was born. But I didn’t want to tell a story about her. Not directly. I wanted to tell the story of the poor bastard stuck trying to deal with her.
How do you fight somebody who has all of her contingency plans in place — every “t” crossed and every “i” dotted, down to the very last detail — years before you even know she’s your enemy? That’s an easy question, because you can’t. Best case scenario? She makes you her puppet. Worst case scenario? Well… it’s pretty bad.
Once I had the idea for Gretel and her adversary, I needed a setting. The second major influence on Bitter Seeds (or first, chronologically) was a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction, so-obviously-insane-it-must-be-brilliant piece of World War 2 trivia called Project Habakkuk. During the darkest days of the Battle of the Atlantic, when Nazi wolf-packs were ripping apart Allied shipping convoys, the Admiralty seriously considered building ships out of ice. Not just any ships, either: they envisioned aircraft carriers in the form of immense powered icebergs. (The American television show Mythbusters did a segment on this.) Lord Mountbatten was a proponent of the project.
After reading about this, I couldn’t dispel that image of vast bergships plying the North Atlantic. What if Project Habakkuk had worked? What if it threatened to destroy Germany’s control of the seas? What would the Third Reich do? Well, obviously, they would send a pyrokinetic spy to sabotage the icy shipyards. And what if the ships didn’t rely on refrigeration plants to prevent melting, but instead contained imprisoned elemental spirits?
Well, the ice ship never made the final cut in my trilogy. But it became the springboard that launched the whole concept: Nazi supermen on one side, British warlocks on the other. With a sociopathic precog traipsing about in the background.
Setting the story during the war was a gutsy move. I’m not a historian, amateur or professional, and World War II pretty much defined the 20th century. I’d always been interested in the period, but I quickly discovered there’s a big difference between casual interest and writing as if I knew something. I tried my best to learn what I had to know, but there were nights when I looked at the constantly growing pile of research materials and wanted to give up.
But the hardest part of writing Bitter Seeds (and the sequels) was plotting around Gretel. Every single thing she says or does (or doesn’t say, or doesn’t do) comes about because of her knowledge of the future. Which meant I had to know the second and third books of this trilogy in painful detail before I could begin to write Bitter Seeds.
There were times when I wondered if I’d made Gretel too powerful. She is, after all, the one character who knows (almost) everything I know about the trilogy. It’s a little bit odd, writing a character who continually threatens to blow up the book from inside. Hell, sometimes she knew things before I knew them. It was eerie.
The plotting challenge, combined with the research requirements, made this a meatier project than I’d been aiming for. This is not a project I would have recommended to myself if it hadn’t fallen in my lap.
In fact, if I’m being brutally honest with myself, I was even too naïve to realize the story wouldn’t fit comfortably in a single book. I’d honestly thought it would make a standalone novel. (When I look back on those days, I just sigh and shake my head. What in the world was wrong with me?) But as soon as I started kicking this concept around with some of my pals — and I mean, literally, within minutes — they convinced me it was a trilogy. And they were right.
Of course, the story changed in the telling. Because of Gretel.