Here is a man who spent a great portion of his life making this private history. Yet he did not know where he was going when he started the tale. By legend, the writing of The Hobbit started when he wrote on the back of an exam paper: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' And when he wrote this he did not know what a hobbit was or why he lived in the ground. To me, these comments say something interesting about the creative process. How private it is, and how it comes from inside.
The Tolkien comment illustrates for me that if you want to write, you should just get in the trenches and write without expecting to know how it will turn out. So in that spirit, here is something I'm working up for a Changeling character's background.
One seldom mentioned advantage to being an only child is having free run of the family car's back seat. Erin Goodwin, aged 6, Daddy's Princess, took full advantage of this. The girl bounced from window to window, staring at the scenery with her nose pressed flat against the window so that each pane of glass was decorated with little oval smudges. With a little cardboard frame, she took endless 'photographs.' Even at 6, she knew it was unrewarding to try to take still photographs through the window of a moving car. Her little camera stayed in its case. The cardboard frame had its advantages over a lens. Each time she peered through the frame she took a picture for her memory. Driving along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, she found ample beauty. The colors of sea, sky, rock, and forest played infinite subtle variations on a theme of grandeur that exalted the child beyond her capacity to put into words.
Recently, her mother had read her a fairy tale in which the hero had worn three league boots. Each step spanned nine miles. As she looked out the window, Erin imagined herself striding along the landscape from mountain top to cliff, vaulting the evergreens and hopscotching the rocky inlets while the white sea foam showered around her. On impulse she rolled down the window and put her face into the blast of frosty early autumn air. Crisp and sweet, it burned her lungs and tickled her nose with the scent of evergreens. Faintly, she tasted the saltiness from the ocean.
"Erin! Roll that window up, it's too cold," her mother protested, "Put on your sweater and get warmed up again." Mrs. Goodwin settled back into her seat as her daughter put on her cardigan, warm from sitting in the sunshine falling through the rear window. Erin was tall for her age, one of those thin bony children who constantly outgrow their clothes to the dismay of less prosperous parents than the Goodwins. Her hair was tow-colored, tamed into pigtails. When Erin grew up the color might be called a more fashionable platinum. Against the summer's tan her eyebrows and eyelashes were gilded; her eyes greeny-gray with a pale grey ring around the pupil. The Goodwins were heading south, back to their home in Santa Cruz after a long last summer of road tripping. Mrs. Goodwin was Canadian, a freelance commercial artist who could work anywhere she could carry her materials. Mr. Goodwin was an information systems consultant. She and her husband both enjoyed the frequent travel his job demanded, and regretted that their lifestyle would soon be tied down by Erin's entry into grade school.
Erin tired of the sea vista and switched to the other window. It was still a couple of hours before noon, and backlit by the sun, the mountains cast deep purple and green shadows over the evergreens. The softer greens of the leafy trees were being taken over by autumn shades so that the edges of the leaves were red and gold in the sunshine. The girl peered through the frame, making little clicks with her tongue imitating the shutter of a camera. The parents in the front seat exchanged patient looks of amusement and irritation of their daughter's tireless game. Mrs. Goodwin turned on the radio, switching frequencies hunting for a program worth listening to.
Music and voices interspersed with blasts of white noise static. Erin blinked, then mashed her face against the cardboard and the window. It was like a dream...
Each time she heard the static, then, for a space of time no longer than an eye blink, she saw a creature. A deer, a white stag crowned with a broad spread of antlers.
Curious, how much detail she thought she could see in those blinks, like the crude animation of a drawing that seems to dance across a pile of flipped index cards. The stag's hide was dappled with blue-green shadows. As he moved, the shadows glided across the whiteness as if he swam through the forest hindered by neither bough nor bush.
And the stag looked at her. A blink where eye met eye as sharp and definite as if they were nose to nose. The stag had eyes like rubies.
"Mom, look: look out the window," Erin urged, her voice awestruck.
Mrs. Goodwin obligingly turned her head. "What are you looking at, honey?"
"It's a deer. A huge white deer. Over... over there?" Erin couldn't see it any more. The sun shone through a gap in the mountains making glare on the window.
"I don't see any deer. I must have missed it. You were lucky to spot it in the woods. It must have been an albino. Some animals are born without any pigmentation. That means skin and hair color. It happens to people, too. It makes them sensitive to the sun."
"It had red eyes."
"Albinos often have reddish eyes." Mrs. Goodwin, having attempted to instill knowledge into her child, resumed her hunt for a decent radio station.
Erin lay her arm against the top of the car door, and her cheek on her arm so that she could comfortably stare out the window. She had to mostly close her eyes against the sun. The stag did not appear again, and as the moving light and shadow stuttered over her eyelids, Erin dozed off. In her dreams, she wore the three league boots and leapt over hill and stream chasing the stag. She could not tell if she were trying to catch it, or playing a game of tag in which she would in her turn be chased.
She still had the back seat to herself. A baby brother had been stillborn, and her mother had not gotten pregnant again since. The Goodwins' only child was a fine and healthy girl, a blessing to set against this sorrow. Fourteen year old Erin was taller than any boy in her class and the star of her school basketball team. Her hair was still in braids, long shining gilt ropes down to her waist. She had blacked the eye of the last boy who had called her Rapunzel to her face. Otherwise she was a model student, holding an A minus average and active in the school photography club. As Erin sat in the back of the car, she read a photography magazine that held her deep in the toils of shutter speeds and focal lengths. She did not sit staring out the window into the evergreen forests, looking for a white deer. That had been imagination, surely: a six year old seeing a white rock and a dead bush and mistaking it for a living thing looking at her.
Erin rarely thought of it. Sometimes she dreamed of it, sometimes in waking a fragment stayed with her. She had hunted deer with her father, and the dead carcass of the animal was such a real and vivid thing. This blood they had spilled, this dark eye they had dulled, the heart stopped. If in her dream she should touch the white stag, would it have the animal heat? Would that ruby eye roll white with fear? Her father worried occasionally at how solemnly his daughter reacted to the hunt. He would not have her callous; he himself enjoyed hunting in a simple and direct way. Mr. Goodwin was scrupulous in his sport: never shoot a doe; never shoot at all unless you're absolutely sure at what you are shooting; and shoot only if you have a shot that makes a quick and certain kill. Mercy is the swift death and the use of the meat you make. Have the respect not to be squeamish of the hot and stinking results of the kill.
He told Erin in the beginning, "We are meat, too. When people die, they are just as much meat as this dead deer. Dead is the same for everything. So don't think you're special because you have a gun. You're lucky to be the hunter."
"Why hunt at all then?"
"I do it because I enjoy it."
"But why do you enjoy it?"
" Not sure I can put it into words for you, Erin, but I'll try. When I go out hunting, I'm not looking to just kill. I'm not thinking: I can kill, I am powerful. Killing is easy, everything dies, honey. I come out here, I pick a spot to wait and watch. You've seen how if you sit still long enough, all kinds of animals come by. I don't shoot the bear or the squirrel. I came out here to shoot a deer. And I might see a lot of deer, but I don't just blaze away at the first deer I see. I look around me and I
know where the wind is blowing and where the sun will shine. I know that it's worth it to wait to get the right shot, the sure kill. And when the deer comes, it's like it comes to me, for me. Like it chooses to be killed. We're in the death together, me and the deer." Her father's words trailed off, his face was reddened after the way of an American male who has found himself talking a little more than he meant to. Erin had nodded, her face solemn as she mulled over this answer.
Now Mr. Goodwin was cursing to himself occasionally as he drove on the snowy highway and wondering once again why he didn't just fly to Canada to have Christmas with his in-laws. Mrs. Goodwin kept tactfully silent, her gaze sharp on the road. Suddenly Erin's mother put her hands against the dashboard and cried, "Look out, look out!"
Erin looked up from her reading. Snowy white shapes flashed across her vision as the car swerved wildly. The tires lost their grip and she felt the vertiginous frictionless sensation of sliding on ice.
Directly ahead stood the white stag. Unreal in its size, but she could see every detail in the most un-dreamlike way. Hoarfrost on its chin, from the breath freezing there after puffing in clouds from its red nostrils. An eyeblink's sighting.
The car spun. Erin flung her hands out to brace herself as the world reeled. Her mother's scream blended with the sounds of wrenched metal and tortured brakes. Just like a car insurance claim joke, the tree ran out into the road and hit the car.
Chill. And... not chill. Cold like the cold you feel through a window: it is out there waiting to sink icy teeth into your flesh but you are safe inside from winter's bite.
Erin opened her eyes, in the dream. It can feel like that, to wake into dream, and fall asleep out of it leaving behind the true world locked inside your box of bone and flesh. She was lying in snow, at night, and the moon shone down making diamonds out of the whiteness all around. Trees fretted dark branches against a star-strewn sky. Moist heat puffed against her head. Looking over her shoulder, Erin saw the stag. It was standing above her, its head bowed snuffling her hair and the antler crown lowering so that she dared not lift her head. The horns laced the sky like tree branches. Ruby eyes gazed at her, unreadably alien. Erin's eyes slid shut; she sank down. Slept.
When there was a world again, it was white: hospital white. A chaplain told Erin her parents were dead; she had not been badly hurt in the wreck. A persistent dream, things happened in sequence and as they ought. Yet it all no longer felt real to her. She spoke of the stag; they said, resigned, that deer caused a lot of car accidents. Car headlights confused the poor creatures.
She sympathized, had that feeling of standing in the road with lights bearing down on her. Erin had lost her parents. Everything dies, honey, her father had said. But no one had told her that she could lose her place in the world. Stop reading a book, but don't mark the page. Come back and try to find where she left off. Did she end here? Did she read this part already? Wait for a white stag to come bounding across the page.
All vision now was like looking through the camera lens. Boundaries were an illusion, she could choose how much she wanted the camera to see, and in what focus. If she could take the pictures she wanted, maybe she could build of them the vision of a world she could live in.