“Tears from Iron” first came to life on the return drive from a writer’s conference in Vancouver, WA during the summer of 2012. That conference included workshops where we critiqued each other’s opening chapters. I had submitted an older story that I’d been working on for quite some time. It also was set in Isfalinis, but occurs about 2,000 years later when the world is much more stable, both geologically and politically. But my mind had been stirring on other ideas. I felt like I’d taken that project about as far as I could and if I was to grow as an author I needed to move on. But to where?
On that drive, I began brainstorming with a friend of mine. Of all the components that form the tapestry of a story (plot, setting, theme, etc.), the most important to me is character. But I don’t ever seem to start there. I generally pick a setting first, both a locale and a set of broader world events. Then I work on a narrower plot before focusing on the hero(es) who will travel through it. As the brainstorming began, I had three concepts that fed one into the next. These were the Cataclysm, the Syraestari, and slavery. I should also add that, at this point, instead of calling them Syraestari, I was calling them Finaestari, but more on that in a moment.
Cataclysms are a common staple to classic fantasy backgrounds, especially for stories set in complex worlds. These typically occurred long ago such as the destruction of Beleriand at the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s First Age or Robert Jordan’s “Breaking of the World.” Of course, our own world has had its own sociologically cataclysmic events in the form of “Dark Ages.” Study of such a period in European history, for example, is largely in the hands of archeologists rather than historians thanks to the dearth of written records. I’ve always been fascinated by these tumultuous periods, but novels always seem to happen long afterwards (I’m ignoring Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” because while it is wonderful, it is more of a history than a novel). I wanted to tell a tale set in the throes of ruin when everything was in chaos and survival itself was desperate. Despite this original vision, “Tears from Iron” drifted from the heart of the Cataclysm to its closing years when its worst days had already drifted into memory. The struggle for life is still desperate, but new (and old) challenges are arising as well.
In the years prior to 2012, I’d developed a basic timeline of events through the Cataclysm and several millennia after. One interesting period was when the Syraestari formed an empire that lasted approximately a thousand years. This caught my eye, in part, because my previous story work had focused almost solely upon humanity. I wanted to spend time with another of the four races.
By nature of their long lives, the Syraestari suffered less sociological and technological devastation during the Cataclysm. This placed them in a prime position to assert their authority as the world stabilized. In this way, they fit the classic model of an evil empire of oppression. But I didn’t want it to be that simple. In our world, most humans don’t see themselves as evil. Not even those who commit horrible atrocities. It is hard to name anyone more evil than Hitler or Stalin, yet neither of these tyrants considered themselves this way. Rather, each created his own vision wherein he was the hero. Likewise, while the Syraestari do reprehensible things, they don’t view it that way. My original name for the Syraestari was Finaestari which means “Dark Aestari.” This is a label applied by their enemies. The Finaestari call themselves Syraestari, meaning “True Aestari” because they believe they are living out their lives as they were intended. It was important for me to shift this label in my own mind because you can’t write honestly about a people (or a person) while labeling them villainous. Perhaps they deserve it, but clinging to that label will taint the narrative. I gave them real desires and tangible fears. For example, they long for the ideal world they feel they’re deserved and are terrified of the teeming hordes of humanity that threaten to overwhelm everything they’ve created. Thus the stage was set.
In conjunction with my thoughts on the Cataclysm and the Syraestari, my mind was on the theme of slavery… that most dreadful of institutions which has permeated human existence from the moment societies began to form in the earliest cradles of civilization, from Sumer to Egypt to China to the Mayans, and so on. Not until the 19th Century was slavery finally (mostly) eradicated from the world and, of course, its legacy still impacts our society today. Yet such complex sociological investigations seldom make for good storytelling. Instead, I think stories have a way of portraying experiences we otherwise might not discover. I wanted an element of the story to be an exploration of what slavery meant for those who lived it. How did it affect individuals and societies on both sides of the chains? What coping mechanisms did the slaves develop to endure (or resist) their plight and what impact did bondage have on their heritage? What motivates a society to enslave others and how do they justify it? Likewise, what motivates abolitionists and how do they advocate their cause, especially if they are otherwise loyal to their own society? What impacts are felt on a society that passes all of its laborious and dangerous tasks off to someone else?
These are all interesting and challenging questions which, hopefully, have the added value of giving perspective on our own lives today. But as I mentioned before, one of the keys to this theme was to weave it into the story without overwhelming it. I’ve always had a strong dislike for preachy books, TV shows, or movies. I’m sure you’ve experienced the type. The causes are usually worthy and admirable, but the story breaks down as the characters all but turn to the audience and give a lecture on the merits or the evils of a particular topic. It is wholly forced and fake.
No, the core of my story must be in the characters. It lies foremost with Vistus and Ninanna, but also everyone else they interact with. How do these people navigate through their own desires, fears, capabilities, and circumstances? They live in a time of worldwide devastation within an empire built on the back of forced labor. Each holds their own perception of the world as it is and as it should be. In “Tears from Iron” they grapple with these pressures and face them as they come.