Thursday, June 07, 2007

Explaining Aliens: SEALED IN BLOOD Excerpt

When reading SF and fantasy, I often find that the passages of exposition or extended dialogue explaining the biology and culture of the aliens are my favorite parts. As a writer, though, I know editors and readers want exposition interwoven through the story in subtle and intriguing ways. One method of getting around the problem is to include an essay in an appendix, laying out all the details not covered in the narrative itself. I always enjoy reading and rereading the appendices in S. M. Stirling's alternate histories, for instance. A way of incorporating this level of detail within the narrative is to have a character openly lecturing. In Suzy McKee Charnas' THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY, Dr. Weyland, the vampire, delivers an ostensibly speculative lecture on "how nature would design a vampire." The female viewpoint character's suspicion of Weyland's vampirism and the professor's give-and-take with the audience keep the scene lively.

How do we integrate information feed directly into dialogue without having characters tell each other things they already know (the infamous "as you know, Bob" technique)? Often we can provide a character who serves as the reader's stand-in by being ignorant of the facts and having a plausible need to learn them. For example, Hugh, the protagonist of Jacqueline's HOUSE OF ZEOR, being new to Sime Territory, fills this role. That's the technique I most often use in my "vampire as alien" fiction. An ordinary mortal who has just learned that vampires (or werewolves, demons, etc.) really exist naturally wants to learn as much as possible about them (if she doesn't instantly run away in panic, but then she wouldn't be a suitable paranormal romance heroine, would she?).

As an example, this is part of the scene from my novel SEALED IN BLOOD in which the heroine first discovers that the hero is a vampire.

Excerpt from SEALED IN BLOOD (Amber Quill Press,

The mugger let out a gurgle and released her. Sherri whirled around to see him stumble backward.

Impossible--how could he share her delusion?

The monster was flying straight at her. She threw herself sideways, landing on the leaf-strewn ground with a bruising thump to one hip. Instead of fleeing, the mugger brandished his knife underhand and rushed the winged creature. Maybe this thug had also decided the apparition didn't exist.

His defiant karate yell died in his throat when taloned hands grabbed his shoulders. He slashed the thing's chest. Its grip slackened. The man squirmed free and dashed into the woods.

With a loud moan, the creature sank to all fours. Sherri sat on the ground paralyzed, her head spinning, while she watched the wings shrivel up and disappear, the ebony fur melt away, the catlike ears shrink. The man levered himself into a crouch and stared back at her. His eyes gleamed crimson in the twilight.

"Nigel?" The ground lurched under her. Earthquake? *No, just my world-view turning upside down. No problem, folks.* He held out a hand. A chill swept over her. In the next instant it metamorphosed to a hot flush, as she realized his posture wasn't attack, but supplication. *Idiot, he probably saved your life! And you thought you were so open-minded!*

She scrambled to her feet and scurried over to Nigel. Squatting beside him, she took in the ripped shirt and the red patch spreading on it. "You're wounded."

"Excellent powers of observation." His voice slurred a bit, spoiling the sarcasm. When Sherri glanced nervously over her shoulder, he said, "Don't worry, he's long gone. Damn--didn't mean to scare him away. Wanted to question him. Clumsy."

"We'd better get you inside." When he grasped her outstretched hand, his weight almost overbalanced her. They both managed to stagger to their feet, though, and they trudged up to the house with his arm draped around her shoulders.

As they climbed the deck stairs, the cat hissed, then darted away to leap over the side. "Funny, Quark isn't usually shy of people," Sherri said.

"I make animals nervous," said Nigel as she opened the door. "Don't you lock it?"

"Just to go jogging? Don't be silly." She attempted a brisk tone to counteract her delayed reaction. Now that the crisis had passed, she felt the thudding of her heart and the cramps in her bowels.

"How do you trusting types survive?" He lowered himself onto the couch she steered him to. "Your cat's name is Quark?"

"Because he has strangeness and charm."

"Logical," he said. He closed his eyes.

"We have to get you cleaned up. Stay right there."

"I assure you, I'm not going anyplace."

Stumbling into the kitchen, Sherri realized her hands were shaking. She clutched the edge of the counter until they steadied. She drank a glass of ice water from the refrigerator dispenser, then refilled it for Nigel. After soaking a couple of washcloths in warm water, she carried them, with paper towels and the full glass, into the living room.

She glanced around at the newspapers on the floor and the galley proofs strewn on her desk. "I apologize for the mess."

Nigel opened his eyes and said with a sardonic quirk of his lips, "As well you should. Disgraceful--never saw such chaos. Don't know if I can bring myself to collapse in here."

"All right, it was a stupid remark," she snapped.

He leaned forward with a groan, resting his head on one hand. "Teach me to make inane jokes within minutes of getting knifed."

She perched on the arm of the couch. "Sit back and hold still." She unbuttoned his ripped shirt. "I'm afraid this is ruined." With his cooperation she drew it off. He winced at her touch and averted his eyes when she switched on the end table lamp. "Sorry, I have to see what I'm doing." He gulped down the glass of water as she swabbed sticky blood from his chest. After the second washcloth was stained red, she got a good look at the knife slash. The incision, closed to a thin red line, appeared hours old.

Mechanically patting his cold, white skin dry with paper towels, she said, "I do not see this."

"Sure you do," said Nigel, "just as you saw what happened outside. Don't lie to yourself; you're no good at it."

"Then those pictures of your sister weren't a special effect at all."


She withdrew her hand from his chest.

Something like sadness flickered in his eyes. "Relax, I won't bite. Not unless severely provoked."

Ashamed of fearing him, even for a second, after he'd rescued her, she finished cleaning the wound. "Doesn't even look like it needs a bandage. Nigel, how did you do that?"

"The change? A psychic skill we learn in adolescence. It's a purely superficial shifting of molecules, with more than a trace of illusion--how we look depends a lot on what the observer expects to see. That's why those last snapshots were foggy. The underlying body structures remain the same."

"Why did you do it?" she said. "The risk of being seen--"

"Error in judgment," Nigel sighed. "It seemed a good way to make sure he couldn't describe or identify me later. Besides, confound it, changing feels good." He touched the cut over his ribs. "I paid for it."

Reminded of how bad he must feel, Sherri jumped up with a guilty start. "What can I get for you? A drink?"

"Milk," he said. "Laced with the highest proof alcohol you have."

Since she seldom drank anything stronger than blush wine, she had to mull over her supplies for a minute. "Maybe Amaretto?"

Nigel grimaced.

"Oh, I just remembered the bottle of brandy I got for a present last Christmas--hardly been touched. Is that okay?" He nodded. Hurrying to the kitchen to pour the drink, she recalled first aid cautions against administering alcohol to an injured person. Nigel, however, ought to know better than she what his own metabolism could handle.

When she gave him the glass, he downed half of it without pausing for breath. "At least I should have taken off the blasted shirt first," he said. "Including clothes in the change takes a lot more concentration. It wasn't quite dark enough, either. I feel...drained. We're hypersensitive enough as it is when our molecules are in flux that way. That's why being stabbed hurt so much. In normal shape I'd have been able to suppress most of the pain."

"What else can you turn into?" she said. "Wolf, giant rat, glowing mist?" She sat beside him, forgetting all nervousness in her fascination.

He emitted a weak laugh. "Sorry, that's it. Aren't you satisfied with a six-foot bat-winged panther? And a singularly useless skill it is, most of the time."

"How can you be sure nobody saw you on the way here?"

He laughed harder, ending on a groan. "My dear girl, did you think I flew up from Berkeley? I am not Superman. My car's parked at the bottom of your lane."

"Oh," she said sheepishly. For a moment she silently watched him sip his drink. The superhero reference reminded her of other aliens in films and TV shows, and the planets they hailed from. She decided she had to ask. "Nigel, where are you from?"



"That 'alien' label was Brewster's guess," Nigel said, "and he was wrong. We're not interstellar invaders; we've shared your world for millennia. I'd be glad to give you the complete lecture and answer all your questions--later. We have more immediate problems. I've discovered a few things about Brewster. Pooling what little knowledge we have might enable us to end this harassment you're suffering."

"Have you considered giving my anonymous caller what he wants and washing our hands of it?" Sherri said.

"No longer an option," said Nigel. "I don't have the photos either. I turned them over to a friend in L.A., who will certainly destroy them. He's probably done so already."

An almost forgotten detail from the snapshots floated to the surface of Sherri's mind. "If your sister's shape-changing wasn't a special effect, then neither was anything else, was it? Including the blood-drinking."

Nigel turned his head to meet her eyes. "If you're suggesting that milk punch wouldn't be my first choice, you are right."

Her gasp held more delight than fear. How other fans would envy her if they knew what she'd stumbled into--not that she could tell anyone. "You're a vampire!"

"Close enough," he said. "We use the term for ourselves, though it's misleading in some ways. As you must have figured out, we aren't corpses animated by the Devil. We're a long-lived species with a few peculiar habits."

How long-lived? she wondered. "How old are you?"

"No more than I claim--forty-two, still in my first youth. And Laura's even younger. Good grief, can you imagine someone with centuries of experience getting into the trouble she's in?"

"So you're convinced she isn't in the coven voluntarily?"

"She was at first," he said. "I have a feeling things have gotten out of control."

"I suppose you're planning to play detective and rescue her?"

"What else?" He shifted position and winced again. "As soon as I've had a few hours to recover."

"You can stay here tonight, of course. You don't look in any shape to drive. You're still hurting, aren't you?" He averted his eyes from hers. Drawing a deep breath, she laid her head on the back of the couch, exposing the smooth arch of her neck. "Well, go ahead, I guess I owe you."

"No, you don't; I got you into this in the first place. My dear, you look like a martyr presenting herself for the headsman's ax!"

She raised her head and glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. His head was bowed, one hand shading his own eyes. "Sherri, I can't afford to turn down your offer. But it doesn't have to be like that."

"Why won't you look at me?"

"Because I don't want to be tempted to use hypnotic coercion on you." He clasped her left hand and raised it to his lips. Again she noticed their feverish heat, in contrast to the overall coolness of his flesh. Still holding her hand, he put his free arm around her shoulders. To her surprise, she felt him trembling. "Relax for me, Sherri. I won't force you to; I want you alert."

"I want to stay alert, too. I don't want to miss a single detail."

He responded with a shaky chuckle and began licking the inside of her wrist. A shiver coursed up her arm. "What's that for?"

Giving her palm a light kiss, he paused to answer, "Our secretions contain a mild anesthetic, to which we ourselves are immune, of course. The last thing I want is to cause you pain." His tongue resumed its tantalizing strokes. The delicate skin of her wrist tingled with a warmth that slowly seeped up her arm and settled between her breasts. She noticed the nip of his teeth only as a painless prickling like a mild electric shock. He didn't suck the wound like a film vampire, but continued to lick. In the midst of the lassitude creeping over her, she managed to remember her scientific curiosity about the process and fixed her gaze on the cuckoo clock on the opposite wall. No more than three minutes passed before Nigel released her and sat back, closing his eyes with a long sigh.

She sat frozen, gaping at the minute, painless incision from which blood still trickled. After a moment he opened his eyes and said, "Are you sure you want to bleed all over the couch?" Digging a handkerchief out of his side pocket, he pressed it to the wound.

"Thanks." She closed the fingers of her right hand around the makeshift dressing. "I didn't see any fangs."

"What do you think I am, a rattlesnake? An object needn't be pointed to be sharp. Like a razor cut, that will be scarcely visible by tomorrow."

"Convenient. No punctures to hide." She studied his face. Still pale--naturally pale, no doubt, but the blue tinge had faded from his lips. "You do feel better, don't you?"

"Oh, yes. God, yes." He squeezed her hand. "It's just that I'm worn out. All this--the change, the instant healing--is a hell of an energy drain."

-end of excerpt-


  1. Interesting. I just assumed no one would care about geneologies and the introcite interworkings of alien languages and such unless my last name was Tolkien. Which it's not.

    Of course, I have it all worked out why Junior and Olivia are called the Holy Bennu and the Sacred Mother by the Menelaens, while Junior's father is a non-entity in their pantheon. It's because the Holy Bennu represents female power in their religion and so her lineage is traced through the maternal line only.

    Maybe I won't delete my worldbuilding notes after all. I know it's too easy to get carried away worldbuilding. I've also seen how much dimension working things out like this can bring to a novel, regardless of whether it ever gets an appendices or not.

  2. Anonymous8:30 AM EDT

    Nice excerpt, Margaret. I like the subtlety of the character's actual physical characteristics. It makes for a very plausible blend-in-with-the-crowd species. And true to the nature of handed-down lore, it also lets the superstitions far exceed the facts.

    Kimber An, yes, definitely keep your notes. In world-building it's interesting to take a look back and see how you got where you are, after you've arrived. I find your matriarchal lineage model intriguing. Not so much because my corporeal aliens exhibit a patriarchal system, but because the etherals' changeling offspring are always female -- they model their changeling form after their surrogate birth parent -- and are inseparable from the culture's social/religious practices.

    I've posited that a foriegn species wishing to incorporate itself into an existing socio-ecosystem with the least amount of resistance would do so by accommodating the pre-existing system whenever possible. That they would tweak that system to suit their needs is inevitable, but not necessarily destructive to the original.

  3. Ooooh, that's intriguing, David! I like it! It kind of reminds me of my studies of the various groups of people who've immigrated to the United States over the last couple hundred years. Some had their children die in the gutters while others worked like dogs to successfully send their children to medical school. Some integrated quickly, but lost valuable connections to their birthcultures which ate away at their souls. Do you go into the long-term effects on the changlings?

  4. Incidentally, using the matriarchal lineage idea was drawn from several human cultures too, such as the Iroquois Native Americans.

  5. Kimber an, of COURSE keep your worldbuilding notes (and on paper, too; pixels are fragile). Why would anybody ever NOT keep such things? After all, you may need them for sequels. And after your book is published, many readers WILL want to know that stuff. Post it on your website as a "bonus."

  6. Anonymous10:12 PM EDT

    Kimber An, for the most part, yes, I know the long-term effects. They're rather simple, though significant: the memories of experiences and feelings they accumulated while in corporeal form. When the changeling reaches maturity, it assumes ethereal form, taking these memories with it. The changelings are the communication link between the ethereal population and the native corporeals. Within the family, a changeling is looked on almost like a live-in, family priestess, the ethereals being viewed by the native species as a higher life form. In turn, the ethereals see themselves as something of a priesthood to the natives, with an ingrained sense of noblesse oblige to their companion species. Some of the dynamics of this are rather bizarre, as some of my human characters have discovered for themselves.

  7. Anonymous7:47 AM EDT

    And relating this back to the original topic, how better to explain the whole scenario to the readers than by way of the family's tutor instructing the newly adopted humans in the ways of their new family?