Carrie Vaughn: Five Things I Learned Writing The Wild Dead

Mysteries and murder abound in the sequel to the Philip K. Dick Award–winning Bannerless
A century after environmental and economic collapse, the people of the Coast Road have rebuilt their own sort of civilization, striving not to make the mistakes their ancestors did. They strictly ration and manage resources, including the ability to have children. Enid of Haven is an investigator, who with her new partner, Teeg, is called on to mediate a dispute over an old building in a far-flung settlement at the edge of Coast Road territory. The investigators’ decision seems straightforward — and then the body of a young woman turns up in the nearby marshland. Almost more shocking than that, she’s not from the Coast Road, but from one of the outsider camps belonging to the nomads and wild folk who live outside the Coast Road communities. Now one of them is dead, and Enid wants to find out who killed her, even as Teeg argues that the murder isn’t their problem. In a dystopian future of isolated communities, can our moral sense survive the worst hard times?

Trust the Process

The Wild Dead will be my twenty-second published novel. I’ve written another five or six that haven’t been published, depending on how you count. And on every single one, I got to a point where I stalled out. The idea was trash, the plot was falling apart, none of the characters had any reasons to be doing anything, and the whole thing was about to disintegrate in a poof of bad intentions. Every single time, I figured it out. I learned to take a break. Walked away for a little while, worked on something else. Let my subconscious noodle with the problems. Sat down with a piece of paper and pen and outline what I had and where I needed to go. Made outlines within outlines, looking for connections I didn’t know were there. Brainstormed what could possibly happen next. Remembered that once I finished a rough draft, revising it into something good would be easier — it’s easier to revise a thing that actually exists. I’ve learned to remind myself:  this has happened every single book I’ve written. Somehow, it always works out. Trust the process.

Listen When Your Subconscious Sends Messages

For a couple of months last summer, I only watched episodes of Poirot, starring David Suchet. This went beyond binging. I didn’t watch anything else. At first I only put it on in the background while doing other things. But then I began really looking forward to spending time with Monsieur Poirot. I wanted nothing more than to sit with him in his parlor, sipping aperitifs, and being very stylish. It was weird, it was crazy, this is not my normal TV viewing habit, but it was just so comforting, despite all the murder and really awful people doing horrible things to each other in very genteel fashions. Suchet’s Poirot calmed me. Then while revising the manuscript for The Wild Dead I got to the part toward the end where my investigator, Enid, gathers up all the concerned personages and explains to them exactly what happened, how that body ended up where it did, and who was responsible. I had been channeling Poirot the entire time. My brain was so saturated with that kind of story, it wanted nothing else, hence the several dozen hours of Poirot back to back. This was my subconscious poking me:  Don’t forget, poke poke, you’re writing in a post-apocalyptic setting but this is structured like a classic murder mystery. Use that. Which brings me to:

Classics Are Classics for a Reason

Formula doesn’t have to be a straightjacket, and classic tropes don’t have to be clichés. Rather than resist the fact that I appeared to be writing a classic murder mystery, I embraced it. I could use the familiar structure to help guide readers through my unfamiliar setting. Mystery is one of the most popular genres (maybe the most popular on TV) because people really like the formula:  following personable detectives and investigators as they solve complicated mysteries in very competent manners. This became the solid framework on which I built both Bannerless and The Wild Dead.

Sometimes Being Right Makes the Job Harder

I’ve spent a few years now writing stories set in the world of The Wild Dead, and I’ve thought a lot about what a realistic apocalypse might look like. What sort of event would have to happen to make this world that I’m depicting, the scrabbling and pastoral remnants of a society trying to learn from the previous society’s mistakes. I thought of a cascading failure of civilization. Climate change brings mega storms and rising sea levels, compounded with failing infrastructure because of bad policy, compounded with a Great Depression or worse level economic crash, and compound that with a 1918 Spanish flu level epidemic. The kind of apocalypse I imagined required literally everything going wrong. It seemed a little farfetched when I started. Then came 2017. A series of massive hurricanes, recovery from which is still ongoing. Massive fires near populated areas of California. All the same infrastructure problems we’ve had before, and an administration that seems hell bent on taking away all the institutional memory and fail safes we’ve had in place to make recovering from all this easier, or even possible. Add to this economic policies that seem designed to hasten a collapse rather than prevent one. Oh, and there are also plans to defund the CDC. You know, the organization that helps prevent epidemics. Remember that big ebola epidemic in the U.S. a few years ago? THAT’S RIGHT YOU DON’T. Because there wasn’t one. Thank you, finely honed bureaucratic institutions that handle things like people bringing dangerous contagious diseases into the country. Like a lot of writers, I had some issues getting work done last year. I got work done, but boy, it was rough watching my fanciful thought experiment basically play out in real-time during stretches of last year. So, I’m now writing a cautionary tale, I guess? Alrighty then.

Trust the Process

I put this here twice because this one’s a little different. There’s trusting the creative process, the actual work of writing and crafting and turning a bunch of ideas into a compelling narrative that people want to read. Then there’s the process of conducting a career as an author. Just like with writing the novel, there comes a point when you realize that it’s never going to get any easier. Each book launch is as nerve wracking as the one before. Promoting your work is just as mysterious. And then you do something like I did, and flip the table. After spending ten-plus years writing a successful urban fantasy series, I’ve gone in a totally new direction with post-apocalyptic murder mysteries. Some people think it’s crazy. “Branding!” they scream. “What about your loyal readership?!” they wail. Eh, I replied. I don’t know. I don’t know how any of this is going to turn out. But there’s an editor who wants to publish this new stuff, and no one’s suggested I use a pseudonym, so hey, let’s try it and see. Because there are second chances in this business. And third, and fourth, and more. George R.R. Martin was twenty-plus years into his career when he published A Game of Thrones. And that’s only one example. I have a writer friend who talks about publishing as gambling. You put chips on the table and take your chances. And as long as you’re working, as long as you’re producing new things, you always have chips to put on the table and make your bets. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you won’t — but you do get second chances. It’s easy to forget that. It was scary taking off in a new direction, but I had encouragement to go for it, and I knew, creatively, it was the right thing to do even though it was a challenge. Scratch that, it was the right thing to do because it was a challenge. I wrote the first draft of The Wild Dead before Bannerless came out, and it was something of an act of faith, because I didn’t know how the new book and new direction were going to do. (On the other hand, it’s probably good I did finish it so that however Bannerless was received wouldn’t impact the writing of its sequel.) Bannerless went on to win the Philip K. Dick Award for best science fiction paperback original in 2018. So, I guess it did just fine, and now The Wild Dead has a solid foundation to enter the world on. Have faith. Make your bets. Trust the process.

* * *