by Sheila Finch
When I retired after more than thirty years teaching, I decided it was time to pursue volunteer work. My Episcopal church in Long Beach runs a program on Saturday mornings for the homeless, offering a shower, a change of clothing, and hot food. So I signed up for one morning a month. It was a little intimidating at first, over a hundred people of all ages milling about in a small courtyard waiting their turn, some with mental or substance abuse problems. But as time went by, I got to know many of the regulars and learned something about their backgrounds and their unique stories, something akin to finding buried treasure for writers.
A number of the Saturday morning visitors are veterans, and one day in the middle of November, a gentleman told me how angered he’d been to read that vandals had desecrated graves in the VA cemetery in Westwood. “I took the bus up to LA,” he said, “and I helped clean up the mess! It was the least I could do for my buddies.” I was very moved by this story, but it took several months before I could see a way to use it. First I wrote a story about a homeless woman—a composite of many such women who came to our shower program—and a visitor from the future. That one (“Field Studies”) appeared in Asimov’s in the May/June issue of 2017. I worked on other projects after that, but the veteran’s story wouldn’t go away. Then one day I had an insight about how to use the material, and “Survivors” was the result.
I’ve been writing all my life. My mother told me I announced when I was five that I wanted to be a writer and a teacher, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a career as both. I grew up in London during World War 2, and because of the daily bombing raids, the schools were often closed. Fortunately for me, the public library managed to stay open, and I used the time to read as many books as they’d let me bring home in a week.
But after graduate school, and three babies, I wasn’t getting much writing done. I used to like to write when the family were all in bed, and into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes I’d write with such intensity I’d go for hours until I almost fell off the chair. Can’t do that any more, alas! The early stories I wrote were mainstream, but the first season of Star Trek astounded me. Here was a way to say things I couldn’t possibly say in a mainstream story! Soon editors who’d previously liked my work began rejecting it because they didn’t publish SF, and I had to learn all about a new field—books and magazines and conventions and fandom. In graduate school I’d studied medieval history and linguistics, two wonderful fields for growing science fictional stories. For a while I immersed myself in stories about a Guild of Xenolinguists whose members are trained to make first contact and set up communication with aliens, and all the trouble they get into pursuing that goal. I seem to have given the lingsters a rest in their adventures lately, though I continue to read most of the new theories that are published by experts about language and its beginnings. I may be returning to the Guild one of these days.
I’m also fascinated by history, and last year I detoured out of SF into historical fiction, publishing a novel about a puzzling Roman villa in first-century Britain that happened to be found not far from where I started my undergraduate work in England. Recently I’ve been working on a short novel set in England during World War 2 that draws on my own experiences as a child, and those of my father as a soldier. With a science fictional twist, naturally. It’s probably impossible for a writer to totally avoid writing about the times she lives in, even without meaning to. Science fiction has been called the new mythology, and it is that too. But I don’t set out to write political or social commentary or even mythic themes. After I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about a subject, my subconscious takes care of that much better than the conscious, bossy part of my brain could ever do. Some writers, especially newer ones, think of this as “inspiration.” What you call it doesn’t matter (mine is called Murgatroyd); just never wait around for it to hand over fully developed plots. Inspiration usually only arrives after much perspiration on your part.
My favorite writers range from Kipling and Hemingway to Ursula Le Guin and Nicola Griffith, Ian McDonald and John Crowley. But I also enjoy suspense novels—though I’m not inclined to write them—and I go through periods when I devour the work of writers such as James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly. I learn a lot about plotting from those two. Right now, I’m reading Daniel Silva’s latest spy novel. To tell the truth, I’m addicted to reading, always have been, the kind of person who reads every word on the cereal box if there’s nothing else around. Who knows? Maybe Murgatroyd will find a story idea there some day.
You can find my web site, bibliography and all, at www.sheilafinch.net, or on Facebook at “Sheila Finch’s Guild of Xenolinguists.”