For the last six days I have been holed up in Brooklyn, blissfully enjoying a writing vacation that I’ve spent working on the second draft of a new manuscript that, at the moment, I’m simply calling Charlotte Underground. Yesterday I wrote a page for the beginning of the book, introducing the location. As you might’ve guessed, as I’m posting this here rather than on my “professional” site at www.clockworkfoundry.com, this story is set in Nagspeake.
Charlotte’s story touches on a lot of the things I love about this city: feral metallurgy, architectural drift, the legendary smuggler known as the Gentleman Maxwell, and Bud Chell’s wonderful Shore to Shore radio program that, unfortunately, currently only broadcasts in Nagspeake and along the Odd Trail. The opening page doesn’t remotely get into all of that wonderfulness, but maybe it gives a little bit of the sense of the city anyway. In any case, writing it made me a little wistful and homesick–if the term can be applied to a place that isn’t, technically, your home–for my little flat in Shantytown with its restless fire escape, Annabelle Bechamel’s homemade lavender madeleines and rotgut gin, and the constant warring of the muddy, vegetal smell of the Skidwrack River with the clean brackish breezes off the Magothy Bay. And since I haven’t posted here in ages, and since it’s Burning Day, which despite my mixed feelings on the subject seems to demand some marking of the occasion, and since anyway I have no way of knowing if this page will survive the next draft, here it is.
There is a city on a bay.
It is a city of shifting identity: it has been a pirate stronghold, a smuggling hub, a derelict ruin, a major beach destination, the victim of ruinous plots and depredations, and the architect of others. It is a city of shifting nationality: it speaks the languages of nearly every country that ever colonized North America or sent ships in that direction (you have to really, if you’re going to be a halfway-decent pirate hotspot), but it had never truly belonged to any of them. These days it is connected by train, one mostly-forgotten road and a very patchy uplink to the country it shares a continent with, but those are the extent of its ties.
It is a city of shifting history: several times every century the citizens burn the Archives building and all the records in it, then spend the years until the next burning vigorously debating the past they spent so much time and effort erasing the evidence of. It is a city of shifting alliances: it has sheltered thieves and lawbreakers, maniacs, visionaries, dissenters, and saints; it has been under the thumbs of terrible mayors, a despotic mail order catalogue empire, and at least one prophet (there might’ve been more, but if so, records of them have been lost). Sometimes it has even turned on itself like a snake rearing back to bite its own tail. And that’s just the citizens, doing what people who live in close proximity with thousands of other people sometimes do. But cities are more than just the sum of the people who live in them.
This is also a city of shifting waterlines. It is a city of shifting sands: great dunes that sweep across streets and have to be fenced in. And it is a city that sometimes simply, inexplicably, shifts itself. Sometimes the shifts are small and amount to nothing more than disorientation and inconvenience: a fence, a balcony turning up in an unaccustomed place, or a garden one day having two gates rather than one. Other times (to the eternal annoyance of tour guides and printers of street maps) they are larger ones that require people to file changes of address with the postal service. To be fair, though, these bigger shifts are rare enough that most people in the city ignore them, if they believe in them at all.
Happy Burning Day, Nagspeake.