Behind the Story: Montague's Last

I'm a fan of behind the scenes specials, and I wish I could peep into the artistic process of all my favourite stories. So I'm going to attempt to offer some insight into how I came to write my short story "Montague's Last", an alternative history piece about a regretful slave seeking redemption in the final moments of his life. 

First and foremost, if you have not yet done so, you may read the ebook on Amazon.com before reading the article below, as it contains serious spoilers. You have been warned!

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Still proceeding? Ok then! I'll assume you've read the story.





It took me three years (on and off) and 8 drafts to finish Montague's Last from conception to final draft. It started as just another one of my notes with raw ideas sprawled on them, usually without order or any semblance of plot. I didn't even have a title, I just had one sentence I liked. "They say great things can be achieved in the dead of night." That sentence remained on its own for over a year, plot-less, characterless, and pretty much meaningless except for the mysterious vibe I liked. Then one day, for reasons I'm still not sure of, I decided to pick it up again. Ideas began to flow…

The first concept which came to me was fatherhood. What if a man had missed his chance to be a father to his daughter, albeit through circumstances outside himself (enslavement), and wanted one last chance to be that? I wanted his attempt at redemption to take form of a key invention, one that also changed the course of human history, then write an alternative history version. I was also intrigued by a complex character, one who was evil but evil had also been done to him, strong in resolve but weak in moral character, and hard with a soft spot in just one aspect of his life.  He is trying to earn redemption for his soul, but he is almost certain that his actions at this point won't be enough.

I wanted the character to be strong in circumstances which intended to make him weak. He could easily have justified everything he did (torturing innocents, being an absent father etc) by saying his circumstances made him that way. But he chooses to take responsibility, which is a trait I find most admirable. There are many people in our society who always blame external factors for their circumstances. It's easy. You can look in the mirror and see a victim, which you'd think is better than a villain. But thinking that way also means you can never be a hero - either for yourself or anyone else. I also think it is the ultimate form of humanisation - he treats himself as a man responsible for his actions. Taking that away from him would turn him into the sub-human his oppressors intended him to be.

From the angle I chose to approach the story, I could have chosen any invention. Although there are many inventions which were invented by black people and are not widely known (such as the ice cream scoop, traffic lights and open heart surgery), I chose the sewing machine (not attached to a black inventor, for the record) because my background research showed it has a mysterious origin. There are several possible inventors cited, and I think one source concluded that the modern sewing machine was probably a combination of the various designs which came out at the time, and it was a matter of who got patented first. The character of Barthélemy Thimonnier was cited as one of the French inventors, so I started at that point and ran with it. What if Barth took the credit for the machine, but its origins ran further back, more mysterious than they appear at the first impression? What if he was merely an undertaker with a side smuggling business, and found himself being the bearer of this most important invention? This was a concept that intrigued me.

As I developed the story, I pulled in other themes, how slavery dis-empowered people, identity loss, gain, and transition, and true strength and weakness. This last one was expressed in the final showdown between the head guard Pierre and Montague, where he shows true strength by fighting back even though it means certain death, and Pierre shows weakness by retaliating only when Montague is already down, and it is out of rage and humiliation rather than any justifiable reason like self-defense or guard duty. The ideas of identity loss and gain are based around his name. He has been completely absorbed into the society as a slave, so his name forcibly becomes the name of the family who owned him. I felt it was poignant for his last words to be a self-affirmation of his true birth name.

The tragedy of the story is that he will never know what a positive impact it made, how his existence was wiped from its origins, and we will never know if he earned his redemption in the afterlife.

So that's how I put it together! It was simultaneously fun and hard work, with many inputs from great writers as well as feedback from beta readers. If you liked the story, do forward it to a friend, it is absolutely free! You can find it on Omenana and on Strange Horizons in both readable and audio versions.

Comments

  1. Thank you very much for your story! I liked it quite a bit! :)
    And thank you for the insight in the creation process. It was nice to compare my thoughts with the ideas behind the story. Imamu was a very interesting character to follow through the story, flawed and evil to a point he also shows a lot of strength and determination which makes him a strong personage. I liked the magic bit and that the mystery surrounding his creation is revealed only at the end.
    Thank you again!

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    1. Thank you for your comment Mihai! I am glad that the story entertained you and made you think, and I'm always interested to hear a reader's thoughts - I like to see if I hit the mark I was aiming for.

      It worked logically as well as dramatically to reveal what the invention was only at the end, because throughout the story the sewing machine doesn't exist yet. In the last line I had to pull out of the story, so to speak, to reveal what it was. I am happy that everyone who has read it so far is surprised by the ending.

      I'm curious, how did you hear about the story?

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  2. You've built the momentum very nicely. I guess the environment and the condition of the main character made me think of some sort of vengeful legacy left behind or something only for his estranged daughter to see and use, a form of seeking redemption in her eyes. However, as surprising as it was the invention also offered something more powerful and long lasting than those things that crossed my mind.
    I read Strange Horizons as often as I can and I discovered some wonderful stories in there. I am happy I discovered yours too. :)

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  3. Jonathan EdelsteinMarch 31, 2016 at 3:43 AM

    I found your story and this blog through Rocket Stack Rank.

    I enjoyed the story a great deal, both for the themes it explored and the way you managed to keep the ending unexpected. I wasn't certain what the machine would be, but anticipated a sorcerous device that might free Montague's daughter from slavery or avenge her death. Only at the end was it made clear that the device was mechanical (albeit possibly built through magic) and that the way it would free his daughter was by easing her labor. I might have liked to learn more about the daughter - whether she was free or slave, how Montague had shielded her from the crimes he and his master had committed - but maybe the sense of mystery was better.

    Anyway, as one author of a south-central-African-derived Strange Horizons story to another, I hope I see much more of your work.

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    1. Thanks Jonathan!

      Your voice adds to the many who say the story makes them want to know more. I can't make any promises to write more, but I am glad it felt part of a bigger world - that's what I was going for. All of my favourite fantasy series never feel quite complete, and I usually take that as the author handing it to the reader to continue the tale in their own minds. I hope I will continue Montague's story/backstory one day, after I scratch the itch of writing my first full length novel.

      I have actually listened to your story, Do No Harm - I like it! The ending was tragic and thought provoking about the morality of medical advancements. You handled two sides of the argument quite well, and did it using good characterisation and plot development. Of course the African theme was another bonus for me, especially since hearing types of food I recognised made it nicely familiar. It gave me a few pointers on how to pull off a world that is both strange and familiar. You fit in tribalism, elitism, elder-youth societal structures - all familiar in mordern Africa; then you juxtaposed them with fascinating microtech and the merging of religion and science, which was a unique way to go - most stories predict it will be fully one, or the other.

      Looking forward to new material from you as well!

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    2. Jonathan EdelsteinMarch 31, 2016 at 4:55 PM

      Leaving the reader wanting to know more is not a bad thing! A sense of mystery can add to a story, and it sometimes enhances the story if there are things the reader can only guess at even at the end. This is especially true in fantasy where - as with Montague - the characters' acts and motivations, and the laws of the universe, are often not entirely natural. The story worked.

      (If you do write more, it's Montague's daughter that I would be most interested in hearing about - is she, too, a sorcerer? Will she return to her homeland? Will anything interesting happen to her in the revolutions of 1830 or 1848, the former of which is only a year or so after Thimonnier's historical sewing machine?)

      I'm glad you liked First Do No Harm. Since you appreciate "story behind the story" discussions, I was primarily interested in exploring two themes. The first was the conflict between the scholastic and scientific approaches to knowledge - the former can be valuable during a dark age when preservation is all-important, but it can also hold back progress when society starts to advance again. The medical field, where attitudes toward knowledge can make the difference between life and death, makes the conflict particularly acute as it did in our own history. And the second theme was the blending of tradition, modernity and future aspiration which you noticed and which has always been what fascinated me most about modern Africa (I have been an honorary member of a Yoruba family for some years, and if you've ever been to Lagos, you'll know what I was aiming for with Chambishi Port).

      For reference, the language in the story is mostly Chilamba and Chibemba and many of the customs are also from that area - not Chewa but also not so very far away! Of course no culture can remain pure (or want to) over 30,000 years, so there are also elements drawn from various parts of West Africa and others that exist nowhere on earth.

      BTW, would you mind if I friend you on facebook? I often put drafts of my stories up there as notes, and I've written a few more in that universe, along with some Pacific/Austronesian-based fantasies, that I'm currently trying to place.

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  4. Your behind-the-scenes makes a lot of sense. I could see that particular debate about knowledge was a key part of the story. Good job for not making it a boring in class debate between student and teacher. Instead you put a life at stake. Well done! Chichewa is for sure close to the languages you used, I guess they are all Bantu. Very interesting, it would be cool to read more from that universe and others.

    Sure, go ahead and send me an FB friend request, I don't mind.

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    1. Jonathan EdelsteinApril 1, 2016 at 3:08 AM

      Yes, both languages are Bantu - Lamba is from the Copperbelt of Zambia and Bemba is spoken in Luapula and Northern provinces. The Bemba-speaking region is very close geographically to where Chewa is spoken so I'm not surprised they would be similar.

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