Imagine turning over your drawing paper to abruptly find a scene of chaos in a tenth-century Norse tavern. Previously, your main concern had been to see if the other side of the paper was blank, so you could draw another picture without having to make another trip to the scrap paper box; now you’re frantically digging through that same box, looking for the paper that holds the next piece of the scene.
From about 1995 onwards, digging through the scrap paper box in our family home was a bit like literary Russian roulette. Both parents were voluminous writers, but while Dad’s scrap paper would have code sequences and technical documentation that a seven-year-old couldn’t make heads or tails of, Mom’s papers provided brief glimpses of a strange, ancient world full of culture clashes and vivid characters. It sounds like the beginning of a joke: “A Turkish nomad, an Anglian wool merchant, and a Norse whoremonger walk onto a ship …”
Not that I ever got to see those parts of the manuscript. Mom carefully pruned out references to sex and murder before the printouts ended up in the scrap box. Probably for the best, considering the amount of paper I went through and my habit of repeating interesting new words to people.
I’d always known that there were writers in the family. My eldest sister had written many short stories, some of which I would occasionally find in the notebooks scattered around the house, and Dad had a library of Linux books with his name on the author’s page. But finding those scraps in the paper box was different: it was a story in progress, a long-term project with more twists and turns than my seven-year-old mind could fathom. I wasn’t just reading a completed book, I was seeing one be created in real time, and I never knew what I’d find when I turned over my drawing paper.
Kids tend to interfere with a writer’s schedule, and when my youngest brother was born—bringing the total number of children to five—my mother cut a deal with the rest of us. For one hour, every day after we came home from school, we’d look after the baby so she could get some writing done. For an hour every day she’d vanish into the upstairs bedroom, closeted with her research books and medieval maps, while we tried to keep the noise to a minimum. I don’t know how successful we were, to be honest, but we did try.
(Most of the time.)
Mom’s book and I grew up together. When I was eighteen, first struggling with the manuscript that would later become Thief of Midnight, I was already familiar with the actions of annotating print-outs and keeping separate drafts. Through college and beyond, I would hear from her about new versions, new scenes, new concerns about this bit or that. Unbeknownst to me, and perhaps even to her, Mom was quietly conducting a master class in persistence and craftsmanship.
A few days ago, after yet another round of edits, I received an email proclaiming: “It. Is. DONE.”
I don’t think it is. No book is ever entirely done—not to the author. But for now, all the available nits have been picked, and the book has been turned over to my father’s capable hands for copyediting. And now my mother will, I hope, have a month or two of peace after twenty-four years of work.
But even if the book is done for now, its effects linger. It was, in my memory, the first real expression of what has become a family hobby: storycrafting. We’re irrepressible that way. Dad’s written a novel of his own, and my sister is a history blogger with an enviable gift for making the long-dead come alive. My eldest brother sat down and wrote a trilogy of his own because, as he said, he was bored. We’ve had worlds, languages, wars, kings, slaves, monsters, soldiers, zombies, lunatics, and yes, even mummies … I never know what I’m going to find when I open an attachment from one of my family, but I know it’s going to be good.
So here’s to the mothers who write. To the ones who start the ball rolling, who create fictional siblings for us and leave pieces of another world lying in the scrap paper box. To the parents who share stories, true or invented, with their children. (And to the little brothers who wanted Byzantium: The Apogee as a bedtime story.) To the young mothers who are even now setting a standard by filling their homes with books and their kids’ heads with ideas, and to the grandmothers who read the same old fairy tales for a new generation before handing the kids back.
And here’s to that wonderful feeling of finishing a manuscript. Congratulations, Mom. I’m proud to have been your proofreader.