From The Writers' Room

Joel Derfner on writing Tremontaine S2E7: “The Duchess Gambit”

tremontaine-s02e07-the-duchess-gambitSo today I want to talk about writing and collaboration.

The opening of this episode went through several drafts. The first one resembled many of my first drafts, in that it left a lot of things to be filled in:

Diane de Tremontaine was frightfully fond of shesh.

It was a game, she found, uniquely suited to her temperament. It required forethought, vision, and strategy. It required [something], and [something].

And an ability to dissemble.

Melinda Lassiter, whose vanity in the matter of her shesh game outstripped her vanity in all other matters, which was saying something indeed, possessed all these qualities in abundance except the last.

Oh, the wife of the Raven Chancellor was as skilled a fraud as any in the City when it came to the intrigues that played themselves out in the drawing rooms and parlors and gardens of the Hill. Her reputation was spotless, her fortune secure—as secure as any Hill fortune might be, at least—and her enmity dangerous. Her victory over [society victim] when [somebody] had [something] was still spoken of in admiring tones, and seasons had passed since then. For an entire season women in bright tulle and chiffon had whispered to each other behind their fans about [unfortunate nickname for victim], and [victim] was not yet capable of looking her full in the eye.

But Melinda Lassiter had never lost a game of shesh, a fact of which she was immensely proud, and this pride made her, if one had the skill, terribly, terribly vulnerable.

Diane had the skill.

[Short paragraph detailing an anecdote that shows how important Melinda’s shesh reputation is to her.]

Melinda swept her black wizard to the far corner of the board and, toppling a white peon, added it to the pile of slain pieces beside her, chancellors and wizards and stags all fallen victim to her keen mind and cutthroat thirst for victory.

I do this when I write first drafts—put things in brackets to be filled in later—because I know that coming up with the right word or phrase may take me a long time. Not only is coming up with the right word or phrase often incredibly difficult for me, it’s difficult in a way I enjoy, unlike writing first drafts, which is difficult in a way I hate. Which means that if I stop every time I need to figure out what the next word is and take the time to do it, I will finish the story in exactly seventeen years, eight months, and five days.

Since the Serial Box model runs on a slightly quicker time frame, I just do it this way instead. I know something needs to go there—the rhythm demands it—so I just add a placeholder and move on.

The second draft I had a lot more fun with, and it took me in, as they say, a different direction:

Games of chance or skill, like everything else on the Hill, went in and out of fashion with the urgency of a girl already out for a year and not yet wed. At present, [NameOfGame] had begun a revival after a decade of disregard, and [NameOfOtherGame] was enjoying a height of popularity not seen in living memory. [NameOfOtherGame], [NameOfOtherGame], [NameOfOtherGame]—it was a fair bet that, on any given morning, at least one noble house would be host to men and women feigning unconcern at their [blah blah blah] of these.

Diane de Tremontaine excelled at all of them.

But among the dizzying variety of options, one game captured her imagination far more than the others, allowed her the fullest use of her considerable talents, gave her imagination freest rein:

Shesh.

It was a game, she found, uniquely suited to her temperament. It left nothing to chance. It required forethought, vision, and strategy. It required confidence and equipoise.

And an ability to dissemble.

Melinda Lassiter, alas, possessed all these qualities in abundance except the last.

Everyone knew the story. Melinda Fleming had grown up in the shadow of her sister, Penelope, who was kinder, prettier, and more charming. Their parents preferred Penelope; playmates preferred Penelope; suitors, when the time came, preferred Penelope, who eventually selected Ranulph Lassiter from among those worthies vying for her affection. And so when young Melinda discovered a pasttime in which, as gifted as her sister was, she herself was more gifted still, she had devoted herself to it wholly, as the ancient wizards to their kings, playing night and day first against the servants, then against herself, then against any who would hazard it. As a result, since the tender age of nine, Melinda Fleming had never—not once—lost a game of shesh.

It was a great surprise to everyone when Penelope expired giving birth to Lassiter’s first child, for whom the event proved no happier than for her. Lassiter, however, having bestirred himself to woo Penelope, no longer seemed capable of—or perhaps he was simply uninterested in—expending the requisite energy to go hunting for a new bride, so he took the nearest one to hand, who happened to be Melinda.

Unexpectedly, the match had proven a happy one—happier than his last, at any rate—for what was referred to in polite company as Melinda’s energy kindled him to an energy similar in kind, if not in degree, and once elected Raven Chancellor he found himself both grateful to his wife and more than willing to abide by her counsel in matters great and small. Melinda, in turn, pleased to be thus trusted, grew almost gracious in her dealings with the men and women who had slighted her in years gone by, in all matters except one. She had still never lost a game of shesh.

Nor did Diane intend her to lose one today.

“It was a mistake, I fear,” said the wife of the Raven Chancellor, not quite containing her glee, “to surrender your stag.” She swept her wizard to the far corner of the board and, toppling a white peon, added it to the heap of slain ivory beside her, chancellors and dukes and stags all fallen victim to her keen mind and cutthroat thirst for victory.

One of the things that made me so happy about this was its bitchiness—not just the bitchiness of the Hill (“what was referred to in polite company as Melinda’s energy”) but also the bitchiness of the narrator (“having bestirred himself to woo Penelope”). But I also liked the idea of a put-upon woman who had found a way to revenge herself upon everybody she resented by outsmarting them.

(Yes, I am very happily married. But my husband is a psychiatrist.)

Unfortunately, though Ellen loved the bitchiness, she pointed out that the psychology simply wasn’t in keeping with the tone of the world—and, even if it had been, I was giving a hell of a lot of weight to a fairly minor character. And, she pointed out, “no one NEVER loses at shesh!”

So I rewrote again:

Games of skill or chance, like everything else on the Hill, went in and out of fashion with all the urgency of a girl already out for a year and not yet wed. At present, Spin had begun a revival after a decade of disregard, and Two Across was enjoying a popularity it had not seen in living memory, although Lady [Someone]’s grandmother claimed her own mother had insisted she learn it lest she be drummed out of society. Abandon Me, Impossible, Lovers’ Quarrel—it was a fair bet that, on any given afternoon, at least one noble house would be host to men and women feigning unconcern for hours at their gains and losses in rounds of these games.

Games of skill, games of chance, Diane de Tremontaine excelled at all of them.

But among the dizzying variety of options, one captured her imagination far more than the others, allowed her the fullest use of her considerable talents:

Shesh.

It was a game, she found, uniquely suited to her temperament. It left nothing whatsoever to happenstance. It required forethought, vision, and strategy. It required confidence and equipoise. It required an ability to dissemble.

And the willingness to lose a battle in order to win the war.

Melinda Lassiter, alas, possessed all these qualities in abundance except the last.

She had been married to the Raven Chancellor for just over a year, but that had been more than enough time for a number of women to enlighten her, concern in their voices, with the information that she was neither as handsome nor as young as Ranulph’s first wife. At Tremontaine’s most recent Swan Ball, which had proven so eventful, she had overheard Ophelia Fitz-William’s remark to a friend that there did not in fact seem to be any way in which the current Lady Lassiter proved a match for the previous one. Melinda’s heart rejoiced, therefore, when it became clear that shesh was going to be the game at the center of the next season, because Melinda Lassiter’s shesh game had always been very, very good. At the Galings’ seasons’-end musicale, she rashly made Ophelia Fitz-William a wager that she would reign undefeated this season; the loser, they agreed between them, was to attend the next Swan Ball in [[last season’s gown]/[the gown the other had worn to last season’s ball]].

So the stakes were high indeed.

“It was a mistake, I fear,” said the wife of the Raven Chancellor to Diane, not quite containing her glee, “to surrender that stag.” She swept her wizard to the far corner of the board and, toppling a white peon, added it to the growing heap of slain ivory beside her, chancellors and dragons and stags all fallen victim to her keen mind and cutthroat thirst for victory, Diane’s remaining pieces looking quite alone amid the damask and mahogany of the Lassiter sitting room.

Which was definitely in keeping with the world of Swordspoint. There was just one problem: Diane could not be the only woman of substance on the Hill. Yes, there were fribbles (a word I learned from Ellen’s wife, Delia), but it just seemed boring to make the Raven Chancellor’s wife yet another of them.

So I emailed Delia, who wrote back:

You can be a fribble in one way and a shrewd dealer in another. Maybe she’s done this bet out of irony. Or boredom. Or Diane wonders why such a generally serious person would do a thing like that. It’ll make her a more interesting character, instead of flattening her down.  Diane, after all, goes to some trouble to appear to be a beautiful airhead among the male nobility. The reader doesn’t think she’s frivolous because we’re in on her inmost thoughts. She can’t be the only woman in this society playing some version of this game.  Takes one to know one, is what I say.

Which was exactly what I needed to hear. And in response I wrote the scene that now opens “The Duchess Gambit.”

  • ekushner

    Delia fixes everything again!

    What a woman.

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