Ros Baxter shares a lesson in how to write a mermaid (with very little hands-on experience).
In the world of writing, there are some areas where we can draw from personal experience. Like, okay, maybe we’ve never technically fallen in love with a Greek billionaire, but most of us have, at some point, fallen in love. So we’ve kind of got the basics. And maybe we’ve never been flown to a private island in a tycoon’s jet, right? But we have, usually, been in an aeroplane, and at the very least admired the legroom of those in first class.
Mermaids are a whole other thing. Very few of us have ever seen (or been) a mermaid. Or, for that matter, a hobbit, a vampire, or a wizard. So how do we go about building one – detailing their bodies, lives and worlds? Well, I had no idea at first. I don’t usually write fantasy, but for some reason, this hip, tough, half-caste mermaid came knocking on my door. Reflecting back, this is kind of how I went about it.
Step One. Ask WHY and then HOW. I’m basically a rule-follower so it took me a while to learn this technique to challenge the baggage of my own world. Why? Why does she talk like that? Why does she speak English? Why does she even need to speak? Oh my God, how the hell is she going to speak under all that water? Hang on, how do whales do it? Cool things happen when you test whether it has to happen the way you imagine (why) and think about how it could happen instead, if there were none of the limitations of this world (how).
Step Two. Approximate. Okay, so I don’t know how a mermaid talks, or swims, or even looks. I have no earthly (or ocean-ly) idea how she breathes, feeds or does the dirty. But I know some stuff about dolphins, whales, and other sea creatures (well, at least the internet does, and we’re really good friends). I can look at the reality and approximate from there.
Step Three. You choose. The best author talk I ever saw was from Charlaine Harris, of Sookie Stackhouse (later True Blood) fame. Lots of intricate questions about which fairy tradition she adhered to; which ethnic folklore her vampires sprang from; and so on. While I don’t remember her exact answer, it was something like “whatever works”. For her, it didn’t make sense that a thousand-year-old Viking vampire from a non-Judaeo-Christian tradition would be afraid of a crucifix, so that had to go. And I figure, if Charlaine can do it, I’m on board. So when I wrote my mermaid, the tail had to go. My underwater kingdom arose when the ancient Norse God Aegir sunk his island paradise and bestowed the gift of water-breathing on his people. My girl is a great swimmer and sings like an underwater angel; but she has no pesky tail to get in the way when she’s getting frisky on land or sea.
Step Four. The golden rule – don’t break your own rules. Believe me, this is tempting! For example, in my book, the underwater people use hydroporting to move quickly over large distances. This very cool device has fascinated lots of readers. The problem is, my swimmers can’t do a lot of it, because it takes a huge toll on their bodies. Awkward!
Finally, remember that fantasy is basically sanctioned lies. The tip is to keep a straight face, one hand on the truth and all your lies all in a row.
Dirtwater’s straight-talking Deputy Sheriff has a lot on her plate: a nicotine addiction that’s a serious liability for a mermaid, a solider-of-fortune ex who’s hooked on her Mom’s brownies, a gorgeous, naked stranger in her shower, and a mysterious dead blonde with a fish tattoo on Main Street. Oh, and one other thing. She’s scheduled to die on her thirtieth birthday – in three weeks – unless she can ‘change the course of destiny and save the world entire’. Throw in a Mom who’s the local Mayor and a Dad who’s been locked in the county jail for twelve years, and that’s all the trouble she needs without her mermaid roots coming back to haunt her. Rania’s heading home to Aegira for a family wedding but she’s starting to have a sinking feeling that’s got nothing to do with hydroporting seven miles under the sea and everything to do with some weird connections that seem to be emerging between her, the dead blonde, her Mom’s shady past and a ten-thousand-year-old prophesy. Now if she can just steal a corpse, get a crazy Aegirian priest off her case, work out who the hell’s trying to kill her and stop sleeping with the fishes, she might be able to unravel the prophesy, the mystery of the missing choirgirls and the secrets hidden in her Mom’s past. And maybe even save her own ass while she’s at it.
Ros Baxter has been writing since she was eight and penned a whimsical series of short stories about a race of tiny people who lived on a rainbow. While they were a hit in the playground, a few things intervened – including a career in social policy and four noisy children. Ros started writing again in earnest three years ago. She secured a two-book deal with HarperCollins Australia, published Sister Pact (a romantic comedy co-written with her sister Ali) and Fish Out of Water (Escape Publishing). Ros also runs a business consulting to government and the private sector. She teaches professional writing skills and has authored a writing guide, Clarity. Ros lives in Brisbane, Australia, with her husband Blair, four small but very opinionated children, a neurotic dog and nine billion germs. You can find her at http://www.facebook.com/RosBaxterInk, on Twitter @RosBaxter, or http://www.rosbaxterink.com.