The ideas that kept haunting me until I finally wrote Storm Dancer.
May 21, 2013
“You’re a writer? Wow.” Pause. The next question is almost always, “Where do you find your ideas?”
The truth is, I don’t find ideas. Ideas find me.
Like ghosts, they seek me out, haunt me, and don’t let go until the story is written.
My mind is like a revolving drum filled with hundreds of jigsaw pieces, each representing a story idea. Sometimes two or more pieces click together, and that’s when a story takes shape.
The idea for the dark-epic fantasy novel Storm Dancer first came to me in Mongolia. I was on a short-term assignment there, to help launch the country’s first-ever women’s magazine. I was staying in a ger (yurt) on the edge of the Gobi desert when an idea clawed into my brain and wouldn’t let go.
I saw two people hating each other yet needing to become allies to survive. Although they have previously betrayed and harmed each other, they must now learn to trust.
Next came an image of those two people trapped by devastating storm. By now, my imagination was kindled and burning in bright flames.
Although I worked on other projects over the years, Storm Dancer kept haunting me, and I returned to it again and again.
One of the characters, Merida, is an expert magician who can change the weather with her dance. Her government sends her on a mission to bring rain to a distant, drought-parched country – the equivalent of a modern development aid worker. My own experiences as development aid worker inspired some of the scenes. For example, I was sent to edit language teaching materials in northeast China. I had been promised a heated, furnished flat with running water. When I arrived, the flat was a ruin, a blizzard was whipping through the broken windows, there was no furniture, no water, no heating at all. I survived the freezing night by piling all my clothes on top of me. When I confronted my employer the next morning, he told me he was too busy to honour promises made in a contract.
So when Merida arrives, she finds that the promised private apartment doesn’t exist and she has to sleep in a crowded, dirty dormitory instead. When she complains, the ruler tells her he doesn’t have time to keep promises.
I also used my experiences of teaching and performing bellydance for the scenes where Merida bellydances in a tavern.
The theme “We’re not responsible for what fate deals us, but we’re responsible for how we deal with it” inspired much of the plot.
Dahoud is a troubled hero, possessed by a demon, a djinn that drives him to subdue women with force. The djinns in Storm Dancer are devious spirits. They target young, vulnerable males with the promise to fulfil their deepest desires. Once the human consents to the pact, they twist those needs and drive their host to commit more and more evil deeds. The djinns feed on the evil. The more the human complies, the stronger they grow. When the human tries to resist, they torment him with temptations, desires, and unbearable pain.
Dahoud was a lonely adolescent when the djinn lured him with the promise that he would get female attention. He joined the army and became a feared siege commander. Siege warfare in the Bronze Age offered ways for a man to force female attention – and the djinn in Dahoud thrived on these deeds. When Dahoud matured, he came to understand how wrong it was. As an honourable man, he tried to cease, but it was too late. The djinn had already grown powerful and impossible to defeat.
The only way to gain a measure of control over the djinn is to weaken it by depriving it of fodder. Dahoud had to get away from the lures connected with siege warfare. He sacrificed his career, his identity, everything. He faked his own death and built a new life as a lowly labourer. For three years, he has succeeded in resisting the djinn’s painful demands. He has won some control over his dark need and is able to live without harming women.
But the ruler tracks Dahoud down and forces him to once again lead a siege and subdue the people. If Dahoud succumbs to his dark need even once, the djinn will grow to its former strength and unleash unspeakable evil. When the women he protects repay his devotion with betrayal, his control over the djinn breaks.
To what extent is Dahoud responsible for what the demon makes him do? Is the djinn really an external creature, or is it the dark part of Dahoud’s own psyche? By writing about how Dahoud copes with the djinn, I explored how people deal with their demons. The djinn can be a metaphor for alcoholism, drug addiction, criminal urges and sinful desires.
Further inspiration came from the places where I’ve lived and travelled in Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, and ancient cultures, especially the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Hittites and Persians. There are also elements from ancient mythology, and even a story from an apocryphal Bible story of Judith, the heroine who decapitated the enemy general with his own sword. However, these stories are so much changed that few readers will recognise them when they read Storm Dancer.