Behind the Story: “Queen and Country”

Lesson one on writing a spider story: Never write a spider story.

Don’t do it. It’s been done. Since mythological times. Spider women. Tangled webs we weave. Innate fears and phobias. The built-in burdens alone will wrap poor writer you in literary silk. See what happens with spider stories? The metaphors have started already.

Lesson two: If you’re going to write a spider story anyway, have a plan.

A better one than I did, when in 2013 I started on something called “Orb Weaving in Wonderland.” There was this professor guy Nick, and he was using a field trip in the French Camargue to romance the fetching young Rachel. The story, soon retitled “Nephila Rachelis,” had it all, if all means an uncentered blech of sci-fi, Western, morality play, and mixed message. 

Lesson three: If you’ve started a spider story, know when to de-tangle and walk away.

The thing was, now “Nephila Cassandris” (Rachel/arachnid, too on-the-nose, that metaphor problem again) had energy. The beauty of the French Badlands. Multinational mega-money after a giant golden orb weaver for a MacGuffininspired by a real species that eats birds and snakes—that spins a teasingly strong silk ideal for modern biotech. Lightweight body armor, parachutes, clothing, sutures, the works. It’s a thing. And “Cassandris” had a voice. Point-of-view Nick Torthwaite, a sort-of notable arachnologist, brought a comically self-absorbed filter about his certain fame and fortune once he’d captured and bred this rare orb weaver–if only he could stay focused on the job. And Nick wasn’t even the best character on the page. That was his field partner Josie, a female Crocodile Dundee only more kickass. “Cassandris” had me spun and wrapped.

Lesson four: If you’re keeping after your spider story, understand the lit mag rejections are telling you something.

Doing you a favor, honestly. You were warned at the get-go that editors aren’t looking for more spider stories. And yet. Through fits of work and writer’s despair, the now-titled “Fool’s Harvest” has gotten better. Tighter. In the chase of a mystery spider, Nick showed more expertise, Cassie more inner strength. The metaphorical cloud remained. Continued rejections agreed.

Lesson five: if you’re giving up forever on your spider story, good.

Whatever you do, don’t try the same damn thing but with cane toads.

Lesson six: if you’ve managed to escape your spider story, don’t keep thinking up tweaks and improvements.

Look, you’ve even tried changing spiders out with cane toads. That’s low. Let the piece be, reassured on some creative level that lots of writers have a spider story lurking around their hard drives. And yet–again. “Nephila Amalinus,” as it came to be titled, broke loose and ate my no-go vow alive. Amalinus, because the name Cassandra has its own metaphorical creature issues. I made her a French local, hence Amalie (“hard-working,” but with a friendly air) and rugged like her setting. Her strength forced our hero-ish Nick to think and interact differently and explore his deeper motivations for pursuit. If only the stage wasn’t so crowded. The spider story claimed another victim besides me. Field partner and best-drawn character Josie hit the compost pile so that Nick and Cassie were alone in the wilderness. The demented dream of a spider story scuttled forward. And get rejected.

Lesson seven: if after years you’re dead-set consumed on a spider story, at least have it make sense.

Ah, the hard way. I sharpened my spider research and made the giant queen more realistic and more vulnerable, a clearer parallel to Amalie. With realism crept into play, Nick had every reason to be skeptical the mystery orb weaver existed and to romance Amalie instead. Now he had an arc, to realize over time both the spider and the danger were more real than he’d believed. And I solved a core problem by avoiding it. With today’s high-tech gear and tracking equipment, and with trillions of dollars apparently on the line, there is simply no way my huge mystery spider could be long chased undetected. Solution: Move the whole thing back to the Cold War, with its serious intrigue but only the early glimmers of high-tech. Now things had a cut-and-thrust, and doubts and ulterior motives could amp the tension. The comedy, ahem, found a bite.

Lesson eight: It’s the spider’s world, and you’re just living in it.

If against all good judgment, you’ve written and re-written and re-written a spider story, and if you’ve gone through titles and species and the blood of darlings is on your hands, you might as well submit the thing one more time.


“Queen and Country” appears in the March 2018 Mystery Weekly Magazine.

3 thoughts on “Behind the Story: “Queen and Country””

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *