A Return to Orangey Sky – Life to Setting to Character

Were I to go through my drafted novels and list all the influences it’d require a lifetime. Quite often, I pull from multiple influences in the same paragraph. Just as my characters are composites, so too are my locations. This is the tale of a single location, its influences, and how it became a character. This is my return to Orangey Sky.

Photo: CA Hawthorne
When the smoke arrived. Photo: CA Hawthorne

*This is called Return because I touched on this topic on the old website and a few might remember that post. That post, though, is gone and this will be a far more in-depth examination.

Influences are as diverse as all the stimuli we encounter at any given moment. I’ve suffered the bad (oxygen deprivation) and the good (surviving a pandemic). Today, though, I’m talking about locations. I’ve been to countless places, from cities (Seattle) to the historical (Sagamore Hill). I’ve been from the Adirondack Mountains to the Rockies. I’ve stood on white sand in Florida and black sand in Alaska. I’ve gone down into Carlsbad Caverns and gazed up at Devil’s Tower. There’s even been remote places like the Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming.

Vital to this tale are natural phenomena like extremes in temperature, severe wind (I’m looking at you, Wyoming), and even minor earthquakes. Recent events, though, have reminded me of the 2015 Smoke Season here in Montana.

We suffer a little smoke each year, but in 2015 the winds were just right and it became trapped in the valley, growing worse by the day. I’d been living here about eighteen months and was running into roadblocks in my attempts to yet garner a referral to a pulmonologist despite well documented lung disease.

Sun setting behind mountains you can’t see. Photo: CA Hawthorne

The valley filled. The mountains disappeared for six weeks. Visibility dropped from miles to yards. The sun became an orange glow. I suffered the usual headaches, burning eyes, and scratchy throat. It also triggered my Chronic Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis. I was coughing up mucus all day long, the experience launching me into a downward spiral that led to my referral, but not until January 2017.

Being a writer, no matter how awful an experience, I’ll see its storytelling potential. Being forced to rock climb with Acrophobia (Torment Surfacing), for instance. At first, I viewed my smokey experience from an unadulterated perspective, storing it away for when a smokey scene might someday be required. In November 2016, when my HP relapse was at its height, I drafted A River in Each Hand while oxygen deprived (I don’t recommend it).

Much of the novel takes place in the ancient ruins of Meldenphire, the former capital of the Aramon Kingdom (not exactly, but the truth is a major spoiler). Slumped over my desk, I wrote about overgrown buildings and a whole lot of fog, which I knew well from Seattle. There was also residual magic that seeped up out of the ground and had been mutating creatures that ventured into the wrong places, like humans searching for treasure. There was some minor mention of the residual magic causing some confusion among those who possessed a gift (magic), but, otherwise, that was it.

Then, after a pulmonologist basically saved, then changed, my life, there came an edit. It was so much easier to work with needed oxygen at my disposal. It became (wait for it…) the magic of editing!

Meldenphire came alive. Literally. The ancient city was more than willing to protect itself. Meldenphire, the city everyone believed was dead, had an agenda. Meldenphire had become a character in the story.

The fog? It remained, but I combined it with the smoke of 2015 to create an oppressive, orange presence that limited visibility to yards/meters and that never lifted. It possessed the smell of decay, sounds the lone indicator of what was waiting. Overgrown buildings became caves, vines snaking across the broken streets. There were all manner of creatures, including what Riparia calls clickers. They are, of course, her worst nightmare.

Oh, but that’s just the beginning. The city also became a mystery because the remains and ruins that Riparia and the others were finding didn’t make any sense. Meanwhile, as in the original draft, there were competing factions in the city trying to prevent each other from finding the greatest prize.

So, Meldenphire became a soupy mix of sickly torment full of mysteries and intrigue. There are also Riparia’s more personal goals and the drama within her group. Yet, by far, none of that is the best part of what transpires. Orangey sky is just the physical manifestation of the residual magic. As I revised, I realized the best part was the psychological cost to the gifted characters. The residual magic of Meldenphire slipped beneath the skin and invaded minds.

For inspiration I had to go no farther than combining oxygen deprivation with the Prednisone overdose doctors subjected me to for six weeks in 2010. Needless to say, it wasn’t a revisiting I was anxious to make, but, well, anything for story…

Courtesy: Pixabay

Spinning away, she crossed the broad corridor in the slithering orange glow. It whispered, promised her a special gift, if only she’d open her mind.

She spun away to face the massive, octagonal courtyard that’d become a wilderness. At its center was a massive—octagonal, of course—concrete platform rising fifty feet. An open staircase curved up its outside.

Did it have a purpose? Five hundred years ago it did.

The haze erased the scene. No sun. No sky. The cursed fog wasn’t really orange, it was burnt, dirty, a byproduct of Meldenphire’s torment.

Her breathing quickened. Shivering, she rubbed her arms through her blouse, the touch remote. Was it too late to save her identity from a city that invaded minds?

She retreated, but she couldn’t retreat from herself.

Meldenphire was a waking nightmare in a copper haze refusing to acknowledge it wasn’t a dream. Creeping plants slithered. Cracked statues, their empty gazes broken off their dead faces, gasped in the ocher swirl.

It was crawling up her back. The sticky, invisible film of Orange was on her every minute, every second, and if she brushed it away it was on her hands like the unrelenting humidity—

©2021, Christina Anne Hawthorne

It becomes worse, much worse, especially for this character, who isn’t Riparia. This excerpt is from soon after the group’s arrival. There are those who suffer permanent change in ways I can’t discuss here. A River in Each Hand is Riparia’s Bk2. Thus far, I’ve only looked at it twice since drafting. The first time was virtually a rewrite. I had some great ideas while oxygen deprived. I also wrote a lot of nonsense.

Meldenphire is, in many ways, the gift that keeps giving. Even the second time I revised I found a host of ways to enhance the experience (for the reader, not the characters). The psychological and visual soup that is Meldenphire’s residual magic begs me to dig deeper and deeper when I work on it. It was also a learning experience and has become the model for every location I’ve drafted or revised since.

Always I tell myself, “Remember what you did in Meldenphire.” That’ll be on my mind when I draft the last two books, 4 and 5, this autumn. The Cirque of the Towers that I mentioned early in this post? It’s going to have its Ontyre moment.


About Christina Anne Hawthorne

Alive and well in the Rocky Mountains. I'm a fantasy writer who also dabbles in poetry, short stories, and map making. My Ontyre tales are an alternative fantasy experience, the stories rich in mystery, adventure, and romance. Alternative fantasy? Not quite steampunk. Not quite gothic. In truth, the real magic is in those who discover what's within.
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2 Responses to A Return to Orangey Sky – Life to Setting to Character

  1. rosettayorke says:

    Wow, you’ve had such a lot of dire stuff to deal with, Christina! You make it all sound so vivid, just in this blog post, so I bet these elements will be really powerful in your stories.

    Good luck with managing your health challenges, especially with the adverse conditions. Hope the situation improves soon. 🍀

    • Thank you, Rosetta! All is well, and all that happens is the stuff that powerful stories are made of. Even the bad in life, if we’re brave enough to look it in the eye a second time, will reward us in story.

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