This is an excellent example of how to build a story world that feels real, while still telling a story about characters we care about.
It also comes with the fabulous gift of a blog post unpacking how the author went about writing it.
She’s an author with an engineer’s mind, so don’t worry if her specific method doesn’t work for you. It’s still worth experimenting with your own method for producing a lot of stories, quickly.
It’s also fascinating to get a look at all the ideas—good and dodgy—that were discarded on the way to the final story.
A Strong Opening
The opening to this story is strong in many ways.
It World-builds, Beautifully.
The opening two sentence gives us a sense of place and time, a main character [Vaughn], and what it at stake for him, right away [he is going to be late].
Outside the cracked window of the garret, the cockle-seller hollered, “Cockles an’ mussels! Cockles an’ mussels!” Her voice blended with the other London morning street sounds to mean that Vaughn was going to be late.
In the second paragraph, we find out that this is not a straight Historical Fiction piece, but rather, Fantasy:
“Botheration.” He tied off the thread in the fine blue leather of the gloves he was stitching and snipped it with the little pair of silver shears he’d snuck out of the master’s shop. Be his hide if he were caught taking them home, but worse if he bit the thread off instead of snipping it neat. No telling what his saliva would do when the guild brownie added the beauty spell to it.
All of that in a few lines. Isn’t that efficient?
It Introduces The Stakes
By the end of the first page/screen, the author has introduced a new character and complicated Vaughn’s life, setting up the stakes that will drive the rest of the story.
Don’t think this is accidental.
This is craft.
Short Stories Can Feel Rich
This story demonstrates how a short story can still build a realistic world, and give us characters and events we care about, in a package much smaller than a novel.
Granted, this is a long short story (it is 10,000 words long), but it manages to avoid that other pitfall of story-telling: feeling too long. Nothing about this story feels flabby.
Building Up Characters
Kowal very quickly shows us the characters, through their physicality and their speech,
Master Martin stood square in the middle of the workshop, glaring. “Vaughn Johnson! Do ye not hear the bells?”
“Yes, sir.” Vaughn swept his hat from his head. “Sorry, sir. Won’t happen again, sir.”
“’Tis the third time this fortnight!”
“I know, sir, and I’m very sorry.”
She introduces backstory, mostly through action:
Behind him, Sarah made a coughing grunt. Vaughn’s heart jumped sideways in his chest. Not again. He dropped the bread and spun, but not in time to catch her.
She creates vivid descriptions of the scenes to keep us in the story, and to remind us that this is not just any London, but a fantasy London with magic gloves, and magical creatures, somehow keeping hints of the society we know:
Vaughn dodged around a fine lady in ruddy silks with her fairy chaperone and slid around a pair of gentlemen, wearing green antlered gloves for cunning.
(I love that fairy chaperone. Society is still chaperoning young women, just the tools are different!)
Tell A Good Story
Quite apart from all that technical skill, Kowal tells us a good story. It roars along and you have to keep reading to find out if Vaughn ever manages to make the special gloves that will heal his sister.
The ending is extremely satisfying, because it follows the logic of the story and the language ties together themes from different parts of Vaughn’s life.
It reads like a simple story, but is, in fact, a skillfully crafted tale that hides its author’s hard work well.
More From Mary Robinette Kowal:
If you like that, try a couple of writing prompts Mary provided to StoryADay in past years.
- Rewrite a story from the point of view of a secondary character more…
- Work the words “vermillion” and “musky” into your story more…
What did you think of the story? Do you use a method for ‘breaking’ a story before you write it? Leave a comment!