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Welcome to the TaleSpeaker Blog

You have wandered here through the labyrinthine twists of the Internet. Some of you may know me already, either through my non-fiction or my work on TV. For others here, this may be your first introduction. Either way, this page is one of discovery. I am not as widely known for my fiction, and many of the fans who have discovered me through television are still learning that I began as — and will always be — a writer. Fiction and poetry, lyrics and songs, these things rest close to my heart, yet ironically, they have become not the focus of my career, but an addendum to it. In many ways, they are my refuge. But they remain a significant part of who I am.

As you will learn in reading this, many of my stories come from dreams. I have always been a vivid dreamer, immersed as I sleep in epic tales with intricate storylines and full casts of characters. Many of these dreams are reflections of bits and pieces of my waking life, but others seem spun from whole cloth, occupying vast worlds to which I happily return. Not all of these translate into full stories. Others consume me until I’ve written them out in some form. As the years have worn on and I have focused on my non-fiction writing, too many of these tales have languished on my hard drive or in notebooks — some as fragments, others as brief snapshots of scenes, complete unto themselves yet hinting at a larger work. So I’ve decided to make a place for my fiction here, to share.

Not everything you read here comes from dreams, of course. And not every dream is radiant or beautiful. There are dark twists and passages in the deep places of my mind, and I make no excuse for them. The eldritch children of those shadowed realms entertain me as much as a writer as the comely and elegant ones. I’ve been reading Edgar Allen Poe since 2nd grade, and Bradbury, Lovecraft, and Stephen King since shortly after that. October Country remains one of my favorite collections to return to again and again — I think it shows.

I share things here because the life of story is in its telling, and very few of these tales will ever find an outlet by any other means. And if these little tales manage to inspire your own stories and dreams, so much the better for all of us.

–M

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Diversity in Fiction: Changing the Narrative

I grew up in a tiny Midwestern town where the only people of color in my school were the Ahmeds. Everyone else was some flavor of European descent. The Ahmeds were Muslim, but I didn't learn this until some time late in high school. No one ever talked about the family's religion, just as no one ever asked why none of the Ahmeds were ever around for lunch (they very quietly went off to pray to Mecca at noon, as is the custom of that faith). Since nearly everyone in the school had been raised in some form of Christianity, it never occurred to us to consider that someone might not be. This is relevant to my work in fiction. I'm sure you've heard the catch phrase, "Write from life." Well, even if a writer isn't consciously drawing upon their own life experiences, that's how creativity works. The worlds and stories in our heads are cobbled together from what we are exposed to, day after day. When we people our inner worlds, the characters are drawn from what is most familiar to us -- at least, that's our default if we don't make an effort for it to be otherwise.

If, like me, you happened to have grown up in predominantly white, predominantly Christian Middle America, where a person could stand out simply because they dressed differently, that means your default inner world isn't a particularly diverse one.

That is not to say this diversity is lacking due to a conscious decision to exclude other races or religions or lifestyles. It's simply human nature. We default to what we have always known -- the people, roles, and situations we have consistently been exposed to.

TV reinforces most of the things I grew up with -- over and over again, the situations portrayed on television feature predominantly white, predominantly Christian, predominantly straight male protagonists. Are the writers of your favorite show being intentionally racist and sexist when they pen episodes where women and people of color are consistently cast in minor roles -- or where they only appear as victims or villains? Not necessarily. They're just parroting back the world they have been exposed to themselves, a world reinforced by other writers doing the exact same thing.

It's a vicious cycle, and it's one that needs to stop.

The world we live in today isn't the whitebread Middle America I grew up in. Especially because of the advances in media communications, we live in an increasingly global society. Straight, white, European men are only a small part of that. When I grew up, race was an issue of black people and white people -- we didn't even know what to do with the Ahmeds! They didn't fit the script, so we treated them as outliers. We really had no clue. And maybe at that time, we had some excuse. But these days, with the wealth of races and cultures people are exposed to? We have to think differently.

And some of that must start in the stories that we tell.

Again, I'm going to stress that this is not about conscious racism, sexism, and exclusion. It's about a quirk in how humans order our world in our heads, and how everything we subsequently imagine is then shaped by that order.

Humor me for a minute. Imagine a little scene -- let's make it a bustling cafe. Picture the tables, the chairs, the counter, the sign with all the prices and names of the drinks.

Now populate it with characters. People sitting at the tables. People standing in line. People behind the counter. Imagine the scene as clearly as you can.

Now ... take a look at the scene you have built in your mind. What color are the people? If they're all the same color as you (or nearly all of them), ask yourself why. And if your answer is something like, "There's always more white people in places like this," really give that answer some thought.

Is the person serving behind the counter a girl? Why? What narratives have you been consistently exposed to that make women your mental default for a service position? I'm sure you weren't thinking about it that way, but that's how these persistent narratives get insidious. We don't see them as necessarily sexist or stereotyping. We see them so often, we simply view them as normal.

Speaking of "normal" -- what's everyone wearing? What kind of diversity (or lack of diversity) do these outfits suggest? Dig deeper into why this would be your default choice. And then ask yourself -- is it a truly accurate portrayal of people these days, or is it merely the projection of the same old stereotypes we are all exposed to through mainstream media, day after day?

The only way to change that default so it more accurately reflects the diversity that truly exists in our world is to change the narratives. To be conscious of when we are defaulting to an assumed projection of how the world looks, as opposed to how the world -- right now as we are living in it -- actually is.

And you might ask -- if you're writing fiction, why is it important to accurately reflect this part of our world?

Maybe you can get away with not changing the narrative if you're writing high fantasy in a setting specifically built upon white European culture -- but I think, even in that circumstance, it is crucial to ask yourself why that white European basis is important to the story. If the only reason is familiarity, then maybe you should rethink that.

The genre I've chosen is called Urban Fantasy -- although there's magick, the stories don't take place in Middle Earth or Westeros. Urban Fantasy happens right here -- preferably in a big city that becomes something of a character itself. An important part of any city is its diversity. To make that setting genuine in fiction, you've got to capture that diversity.

That means white people and black people, brown people and yellow people -- straight people, gay people, Christian, Sikh, Jew, transpeople, differently-abled people -- all the exciting and varied flavors of humanity peopling our world.

If we are serious about telling stories in books, on TV, and in the movies, we have to stop recycling the same worn, paste-board cut-outs we've been fed over and over again. They no longer show things as they are -- assuming generously that they ever did. If all we ever do is repeat the same tired narratives, those stereotypical defaults living in so many of our heads will keep us blinkered to the world as it really is.

And the real world is pretty damned amazing.

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The Writing Process

Writing is a madman's art.

(or mad woman's, or mad gender-non-specific's -- the madness doesn't care).

I usually reserve this blog for the finished product of that process -- stories, snippets, little prose windows into larger narratives that may be finished in some later form. But I think there's some value in talking about how those words come to be.

And they ain't kidding when they call it a "process." It's not a particularly pretty one.

Sure, there are days where the story flows like water and the fingers race to keep up. But that's not every day. And if you want to be a writer and you only ever write on those days, you will probably be one of thousands of "aspiring writers" who never makes it all the way to the end of a book. Because books don't flow like water. Parts of them do, but rarely the whole thing. The parts that don't flow like water are born in blood -- you rip them piece by piece from your screaming brain and reconstruct them on the page.

That reconstruction takes a lot of work. Blood, sweat, and tears -- it's a cliche because it's true. 

There are "writing process" memes that circulate on the Internet. If you write or you know a writer, you've likely seen some variation. It's a list that describes the cycle of "I love this, I hate this, why do I do this to myself?!?" that every writer goes through. That meme is pretty spot-on. I don't want to say you're not a "real writer" if you never reach a point of utter loathing for a work - a work that excited you just the day before - but it might be fair to say that you've never been fully swept up in the process if that hasn't happened yet.

Stories, when they still live, unrealized in your head, are easy. They're beautiful and perfect because they are not yet real. Bringing them into reality takes us right back to the bloody work. Victor and his monster. You stitch the words to phrases, graft the phrases into chapters, and when you have something vaguely story-shaped, you cut and cut and cut, deft as surgeon so the scars are never where the reader can see.

And sometimes, you end up with a piece close the vision that once lived inside your head. Sometimes, you get Victor's raw-boned and misshapen Adam, a miserable creation that shrinks from the world.

And every once in a while -- when the qualities of persistence and skill and imagination achieve elusive balance -- something tremulous and breath-taking arises from that pile of blood-ink and verbal viscera. It stretches impossible wings -- and soars

 

--M

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The Tale of the Long-Suffering Queen

Author's Note: I lost my mother to breast cancer not all at once but in bits and pieces after a long and protracted battle over many years. This tale was inspired by the experience. It made my step-father angry at first, because he felt that I was demonizing him in the figure of the king. But really, the story has a larger scope than that. He is not the king any more than my mother was literally the queen. Fairy tales are less about individual people and more about concepts, figures, and archetypes. They do not show us a world that is real, but perhaps a world that should be. This is one reason I enjoy playing with the genre -- the stories are universal rather than specific and they allow the exploration of profound and perhaps impossible ideas. However, the tale certainly holds an echo of what I witnessed my mother endure for nearly thirteen years, especially toward the end -- so it may not be an easy thing to read.  

The Tale of the Long-Suffering Queen

Once there was a glorious kingdom on the shores of a faraway sea.  A tall and proud king ruled this majestic land, and his beloved lady ruled at his side.

The queen was a young and beautiful woman, and never a day passed that the king did not profess his undying love.  He heaped upon her every kindness, giving her anything her heart desired.  The queen herself asked only that he love her, and this made him more devoted to her still.

All the subjects far and wide respected this great lady, for she was kind and patient, very giving and very strong.  And then something terrible occurred. The queen, beloved of king and people, grew sick and began to waste away.  In spring, the bloom of her cheeks had faded, and by autumn, she could barely leave her bed.

The king was driven to distraction.  He deeply loved his lady, and he could not imagine his life without her.  He spent hours at her bedside, weeping and holding her hand, but the court physicians could do nothing to cure her illness. They could barely forestall her impending death.

When it was clear that their treatments had failed her, the king fired one and all.  Then he sent word throughout the kingdom that anyone with healing skills should come to the palace at once.  He offered a great reward to any who could halt the illness, and if she was restored, he promised greater treasurers still.

For months a stream of healers, surgeons, and physicians poured through the doors of the palace.  Each was given the opportunity to treat her, but each and every one of them failed at their task.  Whenever a new physician would see her, he would shake his head and sadly declare that nothing could be done.

The king, in a state of desperation, threatened to put them to the lash.  Although they doubled and redoubled their efforts, the queen continued to fade.

Angry now, and more desperate, the king called for his soldiers.  He ordered them to search the surrounding lands.  Far and wide, he sent them looking for great healers, and they were to kidnap these, if necessary, and return them to the palace, under guard.

High up in the desolate hill country, the soldiers heard stories of an old and wise man.  This wise man, it was said, was half magician, and he held the secret of an elixir that could keep even a dying person alive.  This substance, extracted from the roots of plants that grew along the highland waste places, could not cure illness, but each time it was administered, it would prolong life another day.  Their search was almost at an end.

Diligently, the soldiers scoured this foreign country, until they came upon the wise man in his cave.  They asked the old hermit about the fabled elixir.  He acknowledged that he knew its secret, but swore he would not administer it willingly to any, on pains of death.  At this the soldiers smiled wickedly and, knowing well their duty, they struck the old man a resounding blow to the head.  Senseless, they dragged him away.  Then they gathered up all his various bottles, jars, and herb-chests and packed them, along with his unresisting body, upon their horses for the long ride home.

At the castle, the soldiers brought the wise man in chains before the king.  The plight of the queen was explained to him.  His two dark eyes, one partly shut still with a bruise, were fixed upon the haggard face of the wretched king.  When at last he was asked if he knew the secret of the elixir, he gravely nodded his head.

“Then you will use this stuff,” the king said in a stern, quiet voice, “to cure my queen.  And if you do not, my men will see to it that you suffer ten times the agony that has made my lady waste away.”

The old wise man regarded the king in silence for a while, trying to see the young and happy ruler through the care-worn mask that now etched his pallid face.  He was certain that the lady lay beyond all mortal hope, but he wondered if there were hope yet for the king.

“My lord,” the wise man said gently, “this elixir cannot heal your lady.  It should not be mistaken for a cure.  Certainly, it can prolong her life, but the pain it brings is amazing and severe.”

“She will live?” the king said, a spark of hope in his haunted eyes.

“But she will suffer,” replied the wise man.

“Yet she will live,” insisted the king.

The wise man sighed heavily and tried once more, though he already knew it was in vain.

“I caution you king,” the old man said, “to consider some other course.  The people of my land do not use this as a medicine at all, but in certain forms of torture reserved for men who have committed the most heinous of crimes.  I can see that you still love her.  By that love, I beg you, do not make me give this to your queen.”

“Do it, old man,” the king commanded.  “Do it, or I shall have my soldiers torture you to death.”

The old man lowered his eyes and nodded his head.  And to himself, he wept, for he was not brave enough to risk death and disobey.

And so the queen, who already had suffered, began a new exquisite torture, for the elixir was like fire, and each drop seared her aching throat.  Every day, the wise man came and placed three drops upon her tongue.  Every day, the soldiers bore him away, but through the door and down the hall, he could hear her ragged screams.

She shrieked with pain till her voice was hoarse, then she shrieked, voicelessly and without sound.  She sweated, she vomited, she trembled, she grew pale.  She could not eat, and yet she could not die.

The king, who would visit well after her treatment, felt it was a great success.  Day after day, when there had seemed no hope, his queen yet lived.  To be certain, she was so weakened by the treatment that she could but murmur and press his hand.  But she was with him.  She was, though barely, alive.

Once she managed to tell her king that she thought she would no longer be able to take the terrible, burning “cure”.  With a trembling voice, he vowed to her that she would never see that day.

“If you are too weak, I will see that it is given you, even if it must be force-fed down your throat.  You are too precious to me, darling,” he swore.  “I will never let you die.”

At this, the queen wept bitterly, despairing at her fate. And he, in his delusion, felt she wept tears of relief.

Not long after, when the soldiers brought the old man in his chains, the queen weakly bid that they all leave.  The soldiers, unwilling to disobey either king or queen, hesitated, unsure how to proceed.

“Leave my physician with me,” the queen whispered through the rags of her once-sweet voice.  “I would talk with the man who cures me.  Only await – the screaming – and then you can bear him away.”

The old man, who had been weeping, as he wept nightly and desperately prayed, saw something in the eye of the lady.  The soldiers left and closed the door.  The queen beckoned the old man near.

“Sir, I understand that my husband has threatened your very life,” she began weakly.  “So I do not blame you for what you have put me through.  He doesn’t understand that I was ripe for death months ago, and happy with my fate.  I only fought the sickness for what my death would cost him.  But now I am tired beyond measure, and he cannot see.”

“Hush, lady,” the old man soothed.  “I have been a coward and a fool.  In my own land, death is nothing to be feared.  Through it we simply move from one state to the next.  And yet I feared it,” he whispered, “and through that fear, I have cheated you, lady, of the dignity of your own death.  I will no longer.”

He pulled two vials from his pocket.  One she recognized, and its very sight made her stomach clench.  The other, purest crystal, held a clear blue fluid that shimmered in the light.

“This one, well you know, dear lady, will painfully prolong your life.”  He raised the second vial of crystal.  “This one is sweet and a single taste brings easeful death.  I leave them both for you.”

He set them gently on the stand beside her bed.  He knew what would happen next.  The queen grabbed for the crystal vial with a desperation that gave her strength.  With a smile and a prayer, she took a long and longed-for sip.  Just then there was a stir outside the door.  The king burst through, his soldiers fast behind.

“What is going on here?” he demanded, and his eyes were wild.

The queen, her face suffused with an unearthly glow, serenely smiled.

“I love you, dear, but cannot stay.  If you love me truly, let me go.”

She stretched one thin and pale hand his way.  She sighed once.  Her eyes slid closed.  The king shrieked and pressed her hand.  No pulse beat in her throat.  He dashed the vial to the ground, then struck the wise man a vicious blow.

“Seize him!” he bellowed to the soldiers.  “Bear him to the dungeons below!”

The soldiers crowded into the room, but even they stopped at the sight of the queen.  Serene and lovely she had grown, and she wore a smile none had seen since her treatments had begun.

The wise man stared at the frenzied king. In a low and even voice, he said, “I submit gladly to your torture, sir, for I have committed a terrible crime.  For months, out of fear, I have tortured your queen, prolonging her life against her will.  I stripped her of her dignity; I gave her only pain; I robbed her of anything worth living for –“

“You killed her!” cried the king.

The soldiers seized the little man and with a voice that trembled still, knowing of things that were to come, he said, “That alone may redeem me.”

--M. Belanger

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A Place for Fiction

So I've had some requests for my fiction. I indulge in fiction only rarely these days, as so much of my time and attention goes into non-fiction and related research. But I still write stories now and again. Perhaps my best fiction writing has gone into character histories for role-playing games. Most of these don't translate easily into a traditional short story format. They're often written in the second person, addressing the reader directly, and they are almost always in the present tense, to provide a sense of immediacy to the action so the reader better connects with the character in the tale. These are stories that will never make it to anthologies, not only for their formats, but also for the rights issues on the RPG worlds in which they are set. But I may share some of them here. Other bits and pieces will find their way here occasionally, stories old and new.

I rarely write anything PG-13. Gothic, horror, dark fantasy -- these are themes that have always appealed to me. There are some truly twisted recesses in my imagination. You have been warned...

--M

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