Keeping the Door Cracked Open

Today Mary E. Lowd is with us to talk about her upcoming novel, The Bee’s Waltz, Book 2 in the Celestial Fragments trilogy, and the latest offering in the Labyrinth of Souls project. Release date 11/7!~ Christina Lay

Keeping the Door Cracked Open

by Mary E. Lowd

I got invited to write a Labyrinth of Souls novel because of a coincidence.  I had recently finished writing the third book in my Otters In Space trilogy, and it had been a brutal experience.  I’d spent months stuck in the middle, muddling about, unsure of how to proceed with the book.  And I didn’t ever want to get stuck in the middle of a book like that again, so I decided it was time to learn how to outline.

I’d had some luck using cards from a storytelling game deck as writing prompts for flash fiction, so I had an idea:  I would draw Tarot cards and use those to design the outline for my next book.  I happened to be talking about this plan at a writing date, and one of the other writers there told me about Matthew Lowes’ card game based on a Tarot deck and the upcoming novel line inspired by it — like I said, it was an amazing, perfect coincidence.

The very first game of Dungeon Solitaire I played was epic — on the way down into the dungeon, I gathered companions; at the bottom, I won treasure; and on the way out, I faced a treacherous battle right before reaching the surface, but all three queens showed up and blessed me.  I made it out and won!  I also won the perfect outline for a novel.  If you’ve already read The Snake’s Song: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel, perhaps you can see the resemblance.

Since I like writing animal characters, I decided to make the hero of my book a squirrel — a creature of treetops, trapped deep underground where she doesn’t belong — to increase the tension and stakes.  But I also knew this might make my book, when it was finished, a hard sell to a publisher who focuses on dark fantasy, since animal protagonists tend to lighten a work.  Animal stories are strongly associated with children’s literature, and I needed to make sure my book would be dark enough to interest Shadow Spinners Press.

Throughout The Snake’s Song, as I wrote, I made sure to press into the morally ambiguous nature of the actions the squirrel protagonist had to take to protect herself and how her journey was hardening her.  But at the end, I took my real stab at making the book dark:  I killed off the lovable, goofy otter sidekick.

I think, at some level, the way I sacrificed Fish-Breath on the altar of darkness at the end of The Snake’s Song was inspired by Martin the Warrior.

I was eleven when Martin the Warrior came out — it was the sixth book in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and I’d spent the entire previous year reading the first five over and over again, obsessively, on loop.  So, obviously, I was out of my mind excited to have a new Redwall book to read, and I devoured it immediately… only to be heartbroken by how Rose — a new mouse character — was unceremoniously murdered in the final pages, leaving the titular Martin bereft as he walked out of the new book and back into the first book I had ever read in the series, Mossflower.

Martin the Warrior was a prequel to Mossflower, and the budding writer in me (yes, I already thought of myself as a writer at eleven) was amazed by how this new book had reinvented the way I saw the beginning of a book I’d already read many times.

But the girl in me who hadn’t yet realized that feminism hadn’t fixed sexism before she was born was faced with a blow that would become all too familiar over the coming decades:  the character I identified with had been sacrificed on the altar of giving the central male character feelings and motivation.

So, of course, in writing my own book, I had gender-flipped the situation — Witch-Hazel is the hero, and Fish-Breath the one who must be sacrificed to prove the truly harrowing nature of the journey she survives.

But… I still remember being the heartbroken girl who didn’t understand why Rose and Martin couldn’t continue on together.  And so, I left the door cracked open.  Fish-Breath didn’t exactly die; he was saved at the last second by the All-Being who helps him ascend to her castle in the sky.  Something between death and life.

Skip ahead a few years, and a number of my readers saw the end, as I’d chosen to write it, as a cliff-hanger.  Certainly, Witch-Hazel must find her own way to the All-Being’s castle and rescue Fish-Breath! they argued.  And in all honesty, the thought had occurred to me.  I could see The Snake’s Song as the first chapter in a three part story — in the middle, Witch-Hazel would need to try to rescue Fish-Breath.  And I’d even done some brainstorming and outlining for what else Witch-Hazel would discover in the magical world she inhabits.

This is where coincidence intersects these books again.  The very day that I finished writing the third book in my space opera trilogy, The Entangled Universe, my beloved dog Quinn, who the main character’s best friend was loosely based upon, got sick.  By the end of the week… he was gone.  And I felt as bereft as Martin when he lost Rose or Witch-Hazel when she lost Fish-Breath.

A lot of the protagonists in my novels have a best friend who’s kind of goofy — usually an otter or canine — and Quinn had embodied that role for me in real life.  I still miss him so much, even though a year has passed, and I have new dogs in my life who I also love.  It is, of course, not the same.

Quinn died during the height of the pandemic when puppies were hard to come by, because everyone was home making sourdough starters and getting new puppies.  So, we got put on several waitlists for sable Sheltie litters, and I steeled myself for a long patch of living without a Sheltie grinning at me every day.

And then I started work on The Bee’s Waltz.  Writing Witch-Hazel’s journey through an enchanted world to find her lost otter friend was what got me through the months between Quinn dying and us finding a one-year-old tri-color Sheltie, Cole, who needed a new home.

When I saw Cole’s grinning face, it was like the lights turned back on in the world.  And he sat beside me — as Quinn would have a few months earlier — as I finished writing The Bee’s Waltz.

I’m glad I left the door cracked open between life and death for Fish-Breath, so that Witch-Hazel’s journey could continue through two more books.  And I’m even more glad that I had an imaginary world to disappear into for comfort when I desperately needed it.

I hope my books can provide that refuge for other people too.

Available November 7, 2021