by Stephen Leigh

“Write what you know.”  That’s the advice that aspiring writers are often given in university creative writing courses.  And that’s fine if you’re writing mainstream fiction that’s set in the present time and in the same city you’re living in, and if the protagonist is essentially you, with the same background, characteristics, education, and experiences. Those are a lot of parameters to meet—not to mention that once you’ve written that story, what else do you have to write?

Write what you know?  That simply doesn’t work for those us who write science fiction and fantasy, and it certainly doesn’t work in the Wild Cards universe. Last I checked, I was neither endowed with ace abilities, nor do I see a joker staring back at me from the mirror.  Well… not usually.

No, if you write what we write, you can’t “write what you know.”  It’s simply not possible. Oh, sure, you’re still going to draw on your life experience and fictionalize it, and sometimes there’s a touch of you (or at least people you know well) in the characters you create. But in the wild cards universe, the characters you’re creating aren’t people you know. At all. They can’t be.

So how do you create them?  The process depends on the character…
Sometimes it just depends on the needs of the story. With Gregg Hartmann (aka Puppetman), I wondered what it might be like to have the ability to force someone to do whatever act you wanted them to do. Since I don’t have that ability, I had to become an actor in my head: if I had the ability to twist someone to do my bidding, and I found that ability both addictive and pleasurable, what might I do and what might I become?  Aha! A politician with no moral compass at all and an ambition to be president, feeding on the misery he causes.

As a longtime musician I’ve met lots of musicians with rather oversized egos, and while the ‘standard’ version of that musician is either the lead guitarist or singer (sorry, all of you who are lead guitarists and singers…), I decided to make him a living, breathing drummer in a famous joker band—largely since my son is an accomplished percussionist, though thankfully without the accompanying ego. That brought Michael Vogali (aka Drummer Boy or DB) into existence. To make him even more unusual, I gave him extra arms and made his own body his drum set. As an ace, he was also superhumanly strong, and he could damage people with focused sound. DB started out as your typical narcissistic, misogynistic egoist, but I’ve enjoyed giving him some lessons in humility over the last several years.

For Jerusha Carter (aka Gardener), it was Spring and I was planting herbs and flowers, and wishing my usual black thumb was rather ‘greener’ than it actually is, and Gardener arose in my head—someone capable of making plants erupt into vibrant life from seeds she carried. With her, I also needed to listen to advice from friends of color, since I was doubly writing “the other” with Jerusha:  a woman, and a woman of color. I still regret losing her as a character, as it would have been interesting to continue to explore her burgeoning relationship with Rusty, but her farewell in SUICIDE KINGS almost made up for losing her from my stable of characters. I really enjoyed Gardener as a character, and hope that I managed to do her justice.

But let me talk about developing my newest character in our recent book, MISSISSIPPI ROLL, and how Wilbur Leathers (aka “Steam Wilbur”) came to be.  (NOTE: there may be some very minor spoilers for the novel in this, but they shouldn’t affect the enjoyment of reading the book.  Still, if you hate any spoilers at all, feel free to skip down to the final paragraph.)

When George proposed that one of the books in our “American Triad” would be set along the Mississippi River complex, I knew immediately the kind of story I wanted to pitch, and I also knew I wanted to snag the interstitial narrative: to be the mortar between the ‘bricks’ of the individual stories. I live in Cincinnati, which has been home to two “Tall Stacks” celebrations, where steamboats from New Orleans to Pittsburgh came in to dock, be toured, and to take people on excursions (George even came to one of those!). Cincinnati has been the long-time home to the Delta Queen, one of the few ‘real’ steamboats still working the rivers. 

To me, the novel simply had to feature a steamboat, and therefore my character was to be the owner of said steamboat. But I didn’t have a character yet, and I didn’t know what he or she would be like. So I started doing research, and what eventually struck me was the long and storied history of the steamboats named Natchez and the man who built them seven of the nine of them (all in Cincinnati, OH — see the connection?): Thomas P. Leathers.  

Captain Leathers (1816 – 1896), aka “Old Push”, was a riverboat captain who built the second through the eighth Natchez steamboats, starting in 1846. The seventh Natchez was probably the most famous — she raced against the Robert E. Lee from New Orleans to St. Louis in 1870, losing the race by only six hours despite carrying a full load of cargo (the Robert E. Lee ran the race empty), a scene immortalized by Currier and Ives in a well-known lithograph. 

Thomas Leathers was by all reports a colorful, stubborn, reckless, and complex man, and a staunch supporter of the South.  The sixth Natchez would ferry Jefferson Davis to his plantation home when he was named president of the Confederacy, and when the Union captured Memphis—to which the Natchez had ferried Confederate troops — Leathers had the boat burned to the waterline rather than let the Union capture her. In fact, it wasn’t until March of 1885 that Leathers finally acknowledged the Civil War was over and raised the American flag on the eighth Natchez as it passed Vicksburg. 

The eighth Natchez was built in Cincinnati in 1879, caught on fire in January, 1889, and was partially destroyed. Captain Leathers decided that at 73 he was too old to build a ninth Natchez and retired. He would die at the age of 80 in 1896 after being hit by a hit-and-run bicyclist in New Orleans. Yes, that’s correct. A hit and run bicyclist.

Another member of the Leathers family is also famous in steamboat lore: the daughter-in-law of Thomas, Blanche Douglass Leathers (1860-1940).  She became the first woman master and a steamboat captain on the Mississippi River in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But that’s enough history. I couldn’t use Thomas or Blanche directly, since the book was to take place in our current time.  In our true history, a ninth Natchez was built in 1975 (not by anyone named Leathers) and is still currently running on the Mississippi, based out of New Orleans. But our history is not the Wild Cards history.  I knew who had to build the WC universe’s ninth Natchez, and so I started ‘building’ that person, blending in genuine historical details wherever possible—because I enjoy doing that, and I think that method creates a more believable character.

In our Wild Cards universe, the ninth and final Natchez was built in 1948 by Wilbur Leathers, a made-up grandson of the original Captain Leathers and a great-nephew of Blanche. Wilbur would build his Natchez immediately after his return from WWII naval service. During the war, coincidentally, he’d been part of the crew of the USS Natchez, an anti-submarine frigate based in the Atlantic (yes, that’s a real ship, though no Leathers was ever a crew member).  That experience, along with Wilbur knowing his family history, drove him to obsess over his grandfather’s passion for steamboats and create another steamboat Natchez.

Wilbur Leathers’ Natchez was built in Cincinnati with the intention of providing passenger service on the Mississippi. Wilbur believed that post-war nostalgia for older and ‘simpler’ times would bring people aboard his steamboat for leisurely cruises up and down the Mississipi from New Orleans to St. Louis and back. Wilbur, whose parents were moderately wealthy, put every penny he and they owned into the project. Wilbur also borrowed heavily from several investors to accomplish this dream, even salvaging remaining portions of the eighth Natchez’s cabin and purchasing parts from other dead and dying steamboats: from the S.S. J.D. Ayres the copper bell, made of 250 melted silver dollars; the steam whistle came from a steamboat that sank in 1908 on the Monongahela River; the white oak and steel wheel was from the Hamiltonian; the Natchez also boasted a restored steam calliope originally built by the well-known craftsman Thomas J. Nichol for  Cincinnati’s Island Queen, which was destroyed by fire in 1947—and yes, all of the above are genuine artifacts (some of them actually on the current ‘real’ Natchez). Pictures and drawings of its eight predecessors of the same name prominently decorated the staterooms, and the main cabin was dominated by a huge, dramatic painting of the 1870 race between the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez, with fire and smoke pouring from their stacks at night.

Like our own current Natchez, Wilbur’s Natchez was based in New Orleans.

However, Wilbur’s dream of being a well-known riverboat captain like his grandfather (and like his aunt Blanche Douglas Leathers) would never quite come to fruition. Wilbur was in NYC arranging for loans at the same time the wild card virus was released. What Wilbur didn’t realize was that he’d been one of those infected by the virus, though it hadn’t immediately manifested in him as it had in too many others. The virus would wait inside him, patiently… until February 27, 1951, when an enforcer sent by one of Wilbur’s investors, angry that there’d been no payments for some months on his loan, came aboard the Natchez while it was docked in New Orleans.  The two men got into a furious argument, which escalated before the other people on the boat could intervene.  The investor produced a revolver, enveloping Wilbur in scalding steam from a punctured line before finally hitting him in the chest.

As so often happens in the wild card universe, it was in this moment of great emotional upheaval that the wild card virus finally manifested in the dying Wilbur.  Wilbur found himself outside his body, looking down at his dead former shell. He rushed toward the man who had shot him, and was suddenly inside the man… as the enforcer screamed that he was being burned, as he collapsed and died. His crew saw Wilbur’s body; he heard his pregnant wife wail in grief collapse as she was told he was dead.  He watched the police respond.  No one seemed to notice him standing there, no one could hear his shouts and pleas, and his grasping hands simply passed through them.

He had become “Steam Wilbur”… not precisely an ace, but also not precisely a joker. He had become what for most people would track as a ghost—but there are no ghosts in the wild card universe.  Wilbur had become steam. 

He is a hot presence, not a cold one. He can make himself briefly visible by absorbing steam from the boiler pipes aboard the Natchez (though it needs to be in low light; in full sunlight, he just looks like a wisp of fog). Putting your hand into him when he’s visible burns a person. In fact, as he did accidentally with his ‘murderer,’ he can kill someone by walking into their body and staying there: an ugly death that is half-burning, half-drowning. In steam form, Wilbur can interact somewhat with the physical world, picking up light items and moving them (though he is steam; if he picks up a paper, for instance, that paper will become very wet). Also, Steam Wilbur cools off fairly rapidly (which is why he can’t stay corporeal for long).  He starts to drip and finally vanishes, leaving behind a relatively large puddle.When he is incorporeal, he can walk through walls (but if he does that as the visible “Steam Wilbur,” he leaves behind dripping water on the wall). And without a body, he doesn’t age.

Now, it’s all fine and good to give your aces unique abilities, but what makes a story is tension and drama, and for that you need flaws and limitations.  Wilbur has no physical body, therefore he can’t talk or easily communicate with anyone. And he is stuck on the Natchez; he can’t leave the boat—he’s tried many times over the years and decades. Worse, since his beloved wife never returned to the Natchez after the day he ‘died’ and Wilbur can’t leave the Natchez, he has always wondered if she’s dead or still alive (she’d be in her late 80s at the time of the novel), and what happened to the child she was carrying that day they were parted forever. It’s a mystery that haunts him and that he fears will never be solved.

But what frightens Wilbur most of all is the the fate of many steamboats in the 20th and 21st century: to become floating showboats or restaurants. If that were to happen to the Natchez, the boilers that give Wilber life would be removed and sold for scrap with the hull permanently moored in one place—a gutted, decaying, miserable hulk serving as a final prison for a powerless and helpless Wilbur. 

No, Wilbur still sees himself as the captain he once was; his Natchez should always be plying the Mississippi—being a steamboat, not a relic. 

I won’t say more: read MISSISSIPPI ROLL to get the whole story and learn Wilbur’s eventual fate. 

But to return to our starting point… Wilbur Leathers was brought into existence through the process that writers of speculative fiction have to use: writing what we don’t know. Wilbur was a blending of historical background with generous dollops of ”I never knew that!” and “This has gotta be in there!” and “Ooh, that’s cool; I’ll use it!”  Wilbur was a grafting of imagination, inspiration, and speculation onto a framework of research and genuine facts, brought to life in the Frankenstein lab of What If and transplanted from our world into that of the Wild Cards universe.

Write what you know? Pshaw! It’s far more interesting to write what you don’t know.