In the Origin of the Story series I’ll be sharing insights of how some of my stories came to be. What inspired them, and what kind of process followed it. All of that spoiler-free, so you can still enjoy the story if you didn’t have a chance to read it yet.
Today, I’m going to share a story of the piece that I’m particularly happy with, the quasi-steampunk (or magical realism, if you prefer) short story, Mr. Roache’s Drummer (Polish: Bębniarz pana Roache). It was first published, long with its counterpart story, Seven Percent Chance (Siedem procent szans) in a Polish anthology by RW2010. Its English version is available as a part of my collection, Scourges, Spells, and Serenades, and you can get it for free.
As usually, it started with a random thought. It was during my time in college when I was traveling a lot around the city, because our University had its faculties spread across Poznań. It meant I had a lot of time to do my homework when I was on a tram (try writing Japanese characters while en route!), or for my thoughts to wander.
One day, I was pondering the rhythm of the human heart for reasons I’ve long since forgotten. It led me to a thought:
What if everybody had their own drummer, beating the rhythm of their heart?
I also thought that it would me neat, if the story’s title was Mr. Roache’s Drummer. It was an interesting idea, so I jotted it down in the notebook and considered it done as many such snippets never get used. But the image wouldn’t let go, and slowly it grew up into an idea.
The story I wanted to tell, didn’t rely on a very unique setting, and in a way, I didn’t want it to be very distinct. I felt it would pull the attention away from what the story was about. I pictured it similar to the late 19th century in Europe, or maybe the beginning of the 20th, and since I didn’t need or want too many details, I loosely based my setting on that period. I pulled the names from different nationalities, to make it both familiar and odd as Polish, English, and French-like names mixed in the society I created.
The only distinct difference from Europe was the Church of Rhythm and the worship of the Gods of Rhythm, both linked to the reasons the drummers came to be.
In the end, not everybody had a drummer in that world: only the rich and powerful. Mr. Roache, a horribly rich and an incredibly old entrepreneur was among them. He and the secret of his drummer would be the heart of the story.
The first attempt
I don’t remember exactly when I first wrote this story, but it must have been around 2006 or 2007.
The story was told through a young nobleman’s eyes as he met Mr. Roache. Franciszek faced a choice of walking away or getting involved in the matters that seem shady at best, and his decision could influence the whole world.
I wasn’t entirely happy with how it turned. It had some cheesy parts to it – something that my beta readers caught, and I felt the way I wrote it wasn’t the best. Even though I loved everything about the idea, I just couldn’t get it right.
The long aging of a story
I didn’t know how to fix my story and I wasn’t even sure what exactly was wrong with it. So, like many projects, I put it aside. If I was lucky, one day I’d come back to it with a clear solution in mind. Except that it didn’t happen.
Years had passed, and Mr. Roache’s Drummer was still only an unfinished, unpolished draft. Every time I thought of it, I found the same love for it, but sadly, no solutions presented themselves for the problems I had with it. It seemed that “the drummer” as I referred to it was to forever remain in the folder of the stories that just couldn’t work.
The second chance
Come 2016, and Dawid Juraszek, an editor I worked with on two other anthologies, emailed me that he’d be editing a double anthology about life and death. I was fresh after a trip to Connemara in Ireland, and one of our guide’s stories sparked an idea that would be perfect.
Two intertwined stories, across two continents, but connected with the common motif and historical facts, one bringing death, the other one – life. I was enchanted with the idea and with the challenge of making two stories connected in such an unusual way.
Then I started digging and I realized that in no way I’d manage to do such a vast amount of research before the deadline. I pretty much gave up on writing something for the anthology, when another email from Dawid urged me to try getting something before the deadline.
This was when I thought about Mr. Roache’s Drummer. It would be such a great story for the death part of the anthology! I also had something that could work for life. I would have to give up the idea of connected stories, but I felt I could make the deadline.
The aging of the writer
I knew the Drummer would need a major rewrite, and as I re-read the story as a part of the preparations, I finally understood what didn’t work.
Told through Franciszek’s eyes, the story slowly drifted away from Mr. Roache. With every scene he became less and less important, and I never got back to him at the end. And this was always supposed to be his story, the story of the man who lived too long.
I was also older than I was. I had more insights and understandings, and I could better understand reasons why would someone be tired with life, tired with living it. I might have been unable to relate, but I could immerse myself in such perspective enough to write it.
Mr. Roache’s Drummer
As I began working again on the story, I chose to alternate the points of view, between Franciszek and Mr. Roache to show both perspectives and to reveal the relevant secrets. I tossed away the cheesy parts as I didn’t need them anymore. This story wasn’t Franciszek’s, so he didn’t need a clear and any resolution. His story would go on past Mr. Roache’s Drummer and change – or not – the world. That would remain for the reader to decide.
The new structure worked very well, and I was exhilarated how the story turned out.
The English version
While I was working on my rewrite, I found a plot hole. I couldn’t come up with a reason for one of the secondary characters to do what they were supposed to do. It seemed minor, but without a good explanation, the whole story could lose its credibility.
This was when I turned to my well-tried writing buddy, JR Bee. I was honest with her: this was a story in Polish, and I’d have to explain to her the whole setting and the plot, including spoilers, for her to be able to help me. She agreed, and after a lot of my typing, she produced several possible solutions to my problem.
With Bee’s help, I finished the story, but by that time she was already intrigued and insisted I had to translate the story. I’ve been working on translating some of my texts to share with my English speaking readers, but it wasn’t on my priority list. Well, at least not until Bee “gently encouraged” me to make it priority. She motivated me with her constant “Is it done yet? I want to read it!”, and I’m quite certain that without her, Mr. Roache’s Drummer would still be a Polish-only text. So if you liked the story, be sure to thank her for making the English version happen!
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.