"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" came out in mid-December, and it's still the current issue for Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show for a few more weeks, so I'd like to take a little time to talk about my inspiration and writing process for this one, since I think it's my strongest short story of 2016.
"Poison Maiden" was born out of multiple influences, the easiest one to guess being my playthrough of Code: Realize this past summer. There's a bad ending on Victor's route in Code: Realize where Cardia chooses to leave him behind because the queen says she can help her. Underlying that promise is the potential for Cardia and her growing poison to be used as a weapon, but since it's a bad ending, we never see that scenario never play out.
Now, Code: Realize is not the first media I've seen with a literally poisonous protagonist, there's a whole page dedicated to such characters on TV Tropes, but that ending got me thinking, how would you employ a such a person as a weapon in a war?
I write a fair bit of fiction set during World War I, and if you're going to write a war story involving someone emitting a cloud of poison gas, there's no better conflict to choose.
But in a first for me I decided to write from the side of the British.
I got into World War I from reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque when I was in high school, so I tend to picture the conflict from the German side of the war. Airplane models, submarine models, strategies used, I have a decent pool of knowledge I can call on if I'm writing Germans. It's how I wrote "The Wings The Lungs, The Engine The Heart" and my upcoming "Kite Dancer" (which deals with zeppelins).
But because I was going be writing about chemical warfare I decided to flop sides. My pet peeve about WWI in media is that frequently people can't seem to tell it apart from World War II and portray the Germans as mustache twirling Nazis. Even the WWI game Valiant Hearts, which includes a sympathetic German protagonist, couldn't avoid having a cartoonishly evil German officer for the last boss.
So for my purposes it made better sense to have the British be the ones deploying a reluctant female soldier as a poisonous weapon. That way the reader could focus on my protagonist's personal predicament rather than the morality of her country's stance in the war.
This required more research though, because I realized I was a complete moron regarding the British situation, and I read up on the draft, the female labor force, among other things. I also studied up on chemical warfare in general since none of my previous stories had involved gas attacks.
"Poison Maiden" went through a lot of changes in its brainstorming/outlining phase. Originally Edith, my protagonist, was going to be the only Poison Maiden, but after some thought I decided it was more realistic for there to have been multiple survivors of the accident that changed her, and thus Harpy Squad was born; a whole band of women who could not help but emit poison wherever they went.
At one point I almost made them literally harpies with an accompanying airborne delivery system to shoot them over enemy lines, but I ended up tossing that out because such a flashy entrance would no doubt result in a lot of Poison Maidens getting killed and given that I wanted them to be a rare resource, I couldn't consider that as a viable strategy.
I also couldn't think of a good reason to give them wings.
Their poison traits are acquired in a highly superhero-ish fashion with the factory accident, but people generally don't connect poison with powers of flight. Still, I did try to keep some of the harpy imagery in through the name and some of my word choices when Charlotte finally cuts loose.
"Poison Maiden" was also written specifically for Intergalactic Medicine Show's Festivals on the Front issue, so I knew that the story was going to be Christmas-themed and I knew going in that I wanted the final scene to be set around an improvised Christmas tree in the middle of no man's land.
Like the characteristics of Harpy Squad itself, the ending went through several permutations of who was there and what condition they were in. Some of the brainstorm endings were incredibly dismal (including one where Thomas, Edith's love interest, ends up feral and insane) before I settled on the bittersweet one that still has hope for a brighter future.
"Poison Maiden" should be up until the end of February, so if you have a subscription to Intergalactic Medicine Show please check it out. There will likely be an ebook version as well on Amazon in the future.