This past weekend, Jim and I went to a “Space Station” themed Halloween party. Probably because I’ve written stories for so many theme anthologies, I couldn’t resist the challenge of coming up with a costume that would fit the theme.
What I didn’t realize was how much the process of designing my costume would be similar to how I write a story. Since “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” is the question writers get asked most frequently, I thought I’d take you through the journey.
When I started designing my costume, almost immediately I thought of a Chinese-style brocade tunic that my friend Kathy Hedges (wife of author Walter Jon Williams) had given to me some years ago. The tunic is lovely, but the fabric is beginning to perish. No sooner did I have the torn hem fixed than I noticed that the back of one shoulder was ripping out. Still, damaged or not, I couldn’t bring myself to throw the tunic out. Now it would provide the perfect foundation for my costume.
The tunic also gave me the beginnings of a theme. I wouldn’t try to hide the tears or fraying elements. I’d celebrate them. “Tatterdemalion” is a word that means “ragged or disreputable.” I adapted it, and my yet incomplete character became “Tatter D’MaLeon.”
Next I needed something to wear on my legs. A trip to a thrift store supplied me with a magnificent pair of metallic bronze trousers. Many years ago – possibly long enough ago that my hosts had not yet been born – I’d indulged in a pair a fringed leather moccasin boots. The cats had chewed the laces, so I took this as inspiration to replace them with a silvery grey parachute cord that contrasted nicely with the pale, shimmery gold of the tunic.
I decided that this party was the excuse I’d been waiting for to decorate a mask. I’d already purchased a form from a craft store. Now I pulled out some permanent markers and started ornamenting the surface, beginning around the eyes and working outwards. I deliberately went for asymmetry to further develop the evolving theme of mismatched elements.
As I was working on the mask and contemplating what jewelry might go with the costume, I remembered some charms I’d purchased on clearance at an arts and crafts store. I sewed three of these onto the tunic, then carefully drew the same shapes onto one cheek of the mask. I highlighted these with faux gemstones, placing just a few others here and there. While the “gems” that ornamented the charms were colored, the others were in an aurora borealis finish that highlighted, without distracting from, the other decorations on the mask.
So, as is so often is the case when I’m writing a story, various elements – some completely unanticipated at the time – came together to create a working whole: an old tunic , an even older pair of boots, a set of charms picked up on impulse. The desire to decorate a mask created a character who would inherently be mysterious. My friends’ space station theme (itself owing not a little to hostess Rowan Derrick’s desire to wear a particularly fetching alien costume) gave me the setting.
Since my character was original, I provided myself with a badge announcing: “Tatter D’MaLeon. Your problem isn’t mine… Unless you want me to make it so.”
Ah, but the final part was yet to come, the twist that can make or break a story. As anyone who has ever worn a costume based around a full-face mask knows, there is a problem with such masks. You can’t eat or drink without considerable effort. (Cale Mims, who came as the Scarecrow of Batman comics notoriety, drank his wine through a straw for part of the evening.) Full-faced masks can also get hot (something we amended with the judicious use of a drill to create a pattern of air holes) and make it hard to be heard when you talk. However, if the mask is removed, much of the costume’s effectiveness is lost.
I really didn’t want to drink my coffee (provided by Melissa “Wonder Woman” Jackson) through a straw, so I planned ahead. I found a set of temporary tattoos built around the “tribal” theme that is quite popular. Most were a dark greenish-black, although a few were accented with color. With these tattoos, I constructed a secondary mask directly on my face. I very much liked the contrast of these dark tattoos to the bright colors on the original mask.
I wore the full-face mask until most of the guests had arrived. Then, when Melissa reminded me she had made me coffee, I removed the first mask and revealed the second. The response was more than I could have hoped. The best part was having Kibeth (the family dog, named for the character from the Garth Nix “Old Kingdom” novels) sit and study my face, trying to find my eyes within the twisting patterns.
And, yes, a story is evolving, a story about a mysterious figure who can be found on certain space stations or even on the deserted decks of ships sailing the void. If you have a problem you can’t solve, you may appeal to her. But beware the consequences. You may get more than you bargained for…