The Big Idea: Bishop O’Connell
From small beginnings, big things can arise — and when they do, suddenly you may find yourself doing a lot more worldbuilding than you originally planned. In this Big Idea, author Bishop O’Connell goes into detail about how the world of Two-Gun Witch became a more intensive project than its tuneful origin might have implies.
The original Big Idea for Two-Gun Witch came from a 70’s country song called “Big Iron.” Technically, it was the rockabilly cover of it, sung by Mike Ness (Social Distortion). The song is as western tropey as they come. A stranger rides into town with a big iron (gun) on his hip. Turns out he’s a lawman and looking for the outlaw, Texas Red. They face off, forty feet between them, but the lawman is faster and out draws Red.
*cracks bullwhip* RAW HIDE!
Sorry, wrong song. The more I listened to the song, the more my brain started asking questions.
What if a D&D fantasy world progressed into the old west?
What if, instead of gun slingers, they were spell slingers (wizards) facing off?
And what if, instead of regular wands, the wands looked like revolvers?
NO! What if they were revolvers? But instead of bullets, they held spell components, and when you pull the trigger, they shoot spells!
Thus was born the short story, “Big Iron.”
Fantasy flourishes were added. The lawman became an elf; the outlaw corrupted by dark magic; a dwarven bartender with mechanical prosthetics. The usual. Short fiction isn’t my forte, but this felt special, so I shared it with some friends. One said it wasn’t a short story, it was the first chapter of a novel.
*Narrator voice* And they were right.
The problem was that a duel doesn’t make a very interesting book. Even as the ending, it’d fall flat. I mean, I suppose it could work, but I didn’t want to read, much less write, that novel.
It was time to find a new Big Idea.
That’s when I thought of the show, Firefly. Specifically, I thought of how the creator set out to write a story about characters on the losing side of a war. I love the show and the movie that followed. However, I did not love how it’s ‘civil war in space—without slavery’ gave aid and comfort to the Lost Cause Myth.
It’s not subtle either. Mal is the noble, freedom-loving soldier of the confederacy (of planets and moons that formed the Independent Faction). He fought valiantly and honorably against the more powerful, oppressive Union (of Allied planets) but was forced to surrender. Hell, in episode 2, he literally says “I think we shall rise again.” Neither did I love how space cowboys and reavers (savages) was really just the old cowboys and Indians (savages) trope.
Cue Bender from Futurama. “Screw you! I’ll make my own Firefly! With blackjack! And hookers!” Err, I mean magic!
As a general rule, I try not to be the asshole. However, for the Lost Cause Myth, I’d make an exception. My story would be about people fighting and losing for an actual good cause. And wouldn’t you know it, that period of American history was flush with people fighting for their freedom and/or survival (not the freedom to enslave) and, sadly, losing.
This was when alarms went off. I’m a cis-het white dude, born with big ass boots of privilege. Thankfully, I’d managed to pry my head out of my own ass enough to recognize that stories about oppressed people should be told by those people themselves. But I didn’t want to write (yet another) story about a white dude saving the day, especially not in nineteenth century America.
Fantasy tropes to the rescue! The main character would be an elf, a fictional group. I also decided to make her a woman, because, why not? Bad ass women protagonists are, well, bad ass!
Clever as this solution might be, I recognized that didn’t mean I was in the clear. It’d be way too easy for Talen (protagonist) to become a stand-in for Native Americans, or any other real group of people. So, my elves needed to have their own distinct culture. I didn’t want the usual noble, wise, and beautiful Tolkien elves, but I did want them to feel familiar to readers of fantasy. They’d also have to be different in a way that those in power would feel justified in othering them.
Yeah, I know, Herculean task. Bigotry is so complex, right? Spoiler: no, it’s really not.
Well, elves literally aren’t human. Which would’ve been more than enough on its own, but I didn’t want anything that simple. I quickly arrived at “fuck it” and decided to go all-in.
What few gender roles these elves had, would be opposite of “traditional” human roles. They’d be matriarchal and revere mothers. Because of the system of magic I created, the warriors would mostly be women, while the men would tend toward care givers and crafters of magical wares. Also, they’d be dark-skinned with vitiligo-like patterns over their whole bodies. And just for funsies, mostly pansexual and physically stronger than humans.
The magical system I settled on provided yet another way to make Talen an outsider. In order to make magic revolvers (spell irons) worth inventing, magic couldn’t be cast. Rather, it would be an energy that had to be channeled through a device (amulet, charm, etc.). To give it a little more nuance, those who could craft magical items couldn’t use them, and vice versa. Add to that, only 10% of humans would be crafters (elves evenly split) thus making magic a limited commodity. Drawing on common folklore and legend, these charms could only be used/activated with the right hand (power is drawn in from the left side and projected from the right).
BUT—wait for it—some elven women (and only women) could use magical items with both hands. They’d call themselves dual casters, but since they’d carry two spell irons, humans would call them two-gun witches—
Holy shit, I just found the new title!
As an entirely unique concept with absolutely no basis in history (he said sarcastically), I decided to create a group of religious zealots who believed “right-hand magic” was the only proper magic. Use of the left hand would be a sign of evil.
I know, where do we writers come up with such strange ideas, right?
Now, I needed a war. I could’ve just made one up, but why? Actual history is filled with untold, righteous fights. After a lot of research, I had it figured. In this alternate America, the elves joined with the Seven Council Fires people (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota) against westward expansion, and continued treaty violations. The alliance forced the US to fall back. In response, the government enlisted the help of the dwarves, and their iron leviathans (tanks).
As too often happened in real life, this routing of native peoples became a massacring of combatants and innocents alike. The elves, like many indigenous people, were almost wiped out; the survivors forced onto reservations in Northern California.
All this built, it occurred to me I had a great setting and interesting characters, but none of that gave me a new Big Idea. Or so I thought.
Talen is someone who lost, quite literally, everything. Her family, her people, her culture, her very sense of self. She’d done what she’d believed—what she’d known—was right and not only lost the fight, but everything else. In hopes of finding purpose, she ends up working for the very people who slaughtered hers. She hunts bounties on humans corrupted by dark magic. For money, but also because the bounties allow her to legally kill humans.
Enter the rest of the cast, all of whom, in their own ways, defy her (well-earned) beliefs about non-elves. Slowly, and reluctantly, she sees that she hasn’t lost everything, but she’d been on a path to surrender what hadn’t been taken. There’s no getting back what she lost, or replacing it, but maybe she can find a new place, a new purpose, and even a new kind of family.
The tricky part for me was ensuring this didn’t become a happily-ever-after that washed away the genocide and brutality-induced trauma. You don’t just fix loss. You don’t even heal, not really. You figure out how to live with it. Luckily, I’ve always liked my endings on the bittersweet side. I think I pulled it off, but I’m admittedly biased.
One final note I think is worth mentioning: when I finished, I knew there was one more step to take. I’d tried my best not to make my elves cleverly disguised Native Americans (or other marginalized group) but I’m not the best person to judge how successful I was. As such, I enlisted the help of friends from different groups, and hired a Lakota sensitivity reader. I happily, and gratefully, accepted all their feedback without question or argument. It was, after all, why I’d paid them.
I’m not including this to pat myself on the back. Rather, it’s because it’d be both fair and reasonable to ask me (aforementioned cis-het white dude) “what makes you so sure you didn’t get something offensively wrong, even accidently?” The truth is, even after the steps I took, I still might have. I got input from Black and Indigenous People of Color, but no one person speaks for an entire people. If I did get something wrong, that’s on me. I’ll own it, apologize, and make sure I do better next time.
I set out to write a good story. One a lot of people could enjoy. And do it without being the asshole. Where Two-Gun Witch ended up was a million miles from where “Big Iron” started. It was a hell of a journey. At the end, I found myself changed too—for the better.
At the time, I thought I’d written a story about loss. I was wrong. It is, but not just that. It’s also about having the freedom and security to be your authentic self. As Talen says, “There’s something to be said for the simple joy of not having to hide who you are.”