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The story behind The Shadow Master by Craig Cormick

‘Excuse me, can you tell me where you get your ideas from?’

I think most authors have heard that question, and we’ve all come up with a quick and easy response. But perhaps it’s time to delve a little deeper and ask, ‘Where do ideas, really, really come from?’

Google search around and most authors will say that just jump into their head, or come from the world around them (or they honestly don’t know) – which is why the ancient Greeks believed there were Muses who inspired the arts. I mean, how else could these wonderful ideas just appear in our heads? They had nine of them. All women. And each was responsible for a particular art form: history, epic poetry, sacred poetry, love poetry, tragedy, comedy, music, dance and astronomy.

-          But you’ll notice they did not have a muse of speculative fiction.

So let’s create her.

What is she like? Well, she’s sassy and she’s got attitude and she looks quite different to different people and doesn’t take to sitting around under willow trees on sunny days and whispering rhymes into your ear. If you want her, you have to go questing for her, and even then that’s no guarantee you’ll have any success. She can be slippery and tricky to pin down. She is just as likely to sneak up on you while you’re not aware and whisper a gem of an idea, and then slip out of earshot just before completing the sentence. Or she’ll drop an idea into your head in the depth of night, so when you wake up you have to fight to catch it before its slips away in the morning’s light.

But she’s good! She’s very, very good. Her ideas are jewels, and even more valuable are the doubts she sews into your writerly mind. ‘Are you sure that’s a wise plot move?’ ‘Why did that character do that?’ ‘WTF were you thinking?’

She sneaks up on me when I least expect her to – sometimes slipping into my bed in the depths of the night and is gone before sun-up, but she’s just as likely to creep up behind me in a crowded street and drop a gem into my ear and flit away.

As an example, on the day the idea of the Shadow Master came to me I was in the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. I’m lucky that my day job as a science communicator has taken me all around the world, and I had been at a conference on science communications for three days, and was now enjoying learning about the history of Florence.

So I was walking around the museum, looking at all the ancient telescopes and chronometers and things and she snuck up and said to me, “What if science behaved like magic?” That was it. I turned around, and of course there was nobody there. But I went back to looking at all the devices in front of me and thought, yes, what if when Galileo invented the telescope it actually transported you across to what you were looking at? And what if the early chronometers actually slowed down time? And what if Leonardo da Vinci’s marvelous inventions were the same? What if you donned that flying harness of his and you actually transformed into a giant bird?

And the book all started forming out of that magical moment.

By the end of the day I had the bare bones of it in my head.

Imagine a city something like Florence. A walled city, to protect it from the plague that is ravaging the countryside. Then imagine two warring houses, the Medicis and the Lorraines. Both are battling for control of the city. And next imagine each House has in its employ a learned man – Galileo and Leonardo, who are versed in the arcane arts of science, that can control time and space and the very laws of nature.

Then imagine two lovers – Lorenzo and Lucia, who discover that together they too can change the natural laws of the world. But each belongs to a different warring house that refuse to let them be together.

And amongst all this there is a mysterious stranger – the Shadow Master. He is a hooded man that carries technologies not known in this world. He seems to understand all the mysteries of the Walled City, and even the long-lost secrets of the ancients, who built the walled city. And he possesses the knowledge as to how Lorenzo can save Lucia - and save all of civilisation while he is at it.

After that it was just a matter of writing the book – so I took some time off work and finished the first draft in two months, writing like a fury. And I ended up with a kick-arse tale of alternative history, love and conflict, madness and magic, with sword fights and mad clerics and assassins and bombs and magical shape-changers and dark catacombs and tall towers and an army of plague people – with everything except a car chase. 

There were a few moments where I lost track of the story a bit, of course, but that mysterious Muse of spec fiction was good enough to come and drop a few more gems into my ear, and even let me think they were my own brilliant ideas. You gotta love that don’t you!

Like you gotta love getting to the end of a re-read of your book and thinking its feels believable to you. That there was a time when science really did work like magic.

I mean it’s not bigger a leap of the imagination that believing in a Muse that whisper inspiration to you.

Craig Cormick
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