Behind the Scenes of “Transmutation”

Yay! My latest flash fiction story “Transmutation” is available to read for FREE only today on Havok’s website. It’s a short fantasy-mystery about an eccentric alchemist using her skills to shorten her dungeon sentence. If you’ve already finished it, here’s a little background on how I wrote it. (And if you haven’t read it yet and it’s any day after April 1, 2019, you can become a member for a very small fee to get access to it and all of Havok’s other stories!)

Similarly to “When Magic Died,” this story was written specifically for this month’s theme (reform) and the day’s genre (mystery). I had been thinking about incorporating alchemy for one of Havok’s earlier themes (recycle), but that ended up going nowhere. I decided to revisit the idea since one of medieval alchemy’s goals was to transform things into other things. But since I wasn’t sure if that would be a strong enough connection to “reform,” I also wanted to try to have a character change their ways. But I still wasn’t sure where the mystery element came in.

I thought about that part for a while. I didn’t feel confident trying to put all the mystery tropes in a flash fiction piece—I just wanted to treat it as the moment where a key clue is revealed. But how would it all tie together

I’m not ashamed to say it all fell in place while I was waking up one morning (get your sleep, kids!). Since a big part of medieval alchemy was trying to turn common metals into gold, I decided to use that to give the main character a criminal history. They would be imprisoned for using alchemy to pass their own gold off as official currency, but then called on to help solve a case involving alchemy of a far more nefarious sort.

I knew this backstory wouldn’t be a big part of the actual story’s plot (the reason for Ryla’s imprisonment/im-dungeonment only gets a passing reference), but I felt it did offer a starting point for the character to reform. I had a loose idea of the alchemist character uncovering a criminal plot to deconstruct … everything …. to rebuild it a new way. With this rough idea settled on, I felt like I had enough to start writing.

Up until this point, I hadn’t thought much about the alchemist’s character. I decided to make her a woman because I was really concerned about the story turning into an all boys’ club. (As it turned out, the other two, less interesting characters were both male, so I’d say this was the right choice.) But I also wanted to give her a unique personality to both a) clash with the more “professional” guardsmen/pseudo-detectives and b) bring a little more life into this search for clues.

I settled on a Jack Sparrow-type characterization, which mostly manifests in her dialogue. At first you don’t quite get her, but if you watch long enough, you see that her unpredictable attitude and esoteric plans do have a purpose. In my head, years of alchemy have left their mark on her, due to her experiments strengthening her connections to the core elements, but also driving her slightly insane and causing her to disassociate from the real world. It’s kind of the same way that hatmakers were affected by working with mercury, leading to the phrase “mad as a hatter.” … In fact, mercury was one of the elements that medieval alchemists often worked with. It’s all connected!)

With Ryla being brought to a investigation already underway, I needed to come up with a way for her to use alchemy to reveal a clue that the guards would have missed. And for the sake of word count, I needed it to be somewhat simple. This led me to lean into alchemy from the angle of the four elements, which is what fantasy typically focuses on when it introduces the subject.

This is how I came up with the idea of placing each of the elements at the corner of a page to reveal hidden writing. (Not mentioned in the story: every manuscript designed this way is treated to be fireproof, waterproof, and rot-proof—but other than that, they’re quite destructible!) I’ve never seen/read this done in stories related to alchemy before, so it seemed like a plausible “a-ha!” moment for the reader. But if you have seen it done, please let me know in the comments!

For better or worse, the segment of revealing the secret writing ended up using more words than I expected, which meant the first draft of this rushed to a) reveal what the mystery alchemist is up to and b) demonstrate Ryla’s reformation. In the rush, the story almost shifted to Desail as the main character, focusing on him becoming overwhelmed with learning about alchemy’s power and asking Ryla to help track the mystery alchemist down.

Ryla had a great line in this version after Desail asked her to help: “Is that even a question? Yes I’ll help you catch this loon and quite possibly save the world. I may be a fraudster, but I’m no sadist.” Classic Ryla. But the ending overall could be stronger, as editor Lisa Godfrees rightly pointed out in her feedback. She identified that the story needed to be more about what the mystery alchemist was up to, or Ryla’s reformation. With the word count, it’d be hard to do both.

Since the segment with the elements and manuscript took a good chunk of the word count, I concluded that the story was more about the mystery alchemist’s intentions than Ryla. So—in an effort to build tension—I shifted things around and had Ryla take longer to figure out exactly what the other alchemist was up to. I like to think there’s still an undercurrent of her reformation in the final story. But even if it’s not there, there’s still the reformation of the whole world to worry about!

Have any questions or comments about “Transmutation,” how it came together, or alchemy? Feel free to post below right here, or under the story on Havok’s website. And make sure you keep following them on social media or become a member for even more awesome flash fiction stories. Thanks for reading!

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