Behind the scenes, part one: From Genesis…

My wife and I watched Battlestar Galactica for the first time in the first few months of 2015. How did I get from there to having a book set in that world? Why Racetrack? How did all this get started? Minor spoilers for “Poseidon” throughout part one, with more serious spoilers to come in part two.

I.

Over the summer of 2015, after a decade writing non-fiction, I read James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series. And I found it revelatory: Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War in particular are set in the kind of brisk, plain, concise, forceful prose in which I would hope to set non-fiction. (Corey cited Asimov to me as having a similar style. I’ve read a lot of Asimov, and I think Corey’s being too modest.) For the first time reading fiction, I felt a definite conviction that in terms of the style, in terms of the writing, “I love this and I could do this.”

Fast-forward a few months to late February 2016. I run across this Galacticon panel with Leah Cairns (Lt. Margaret “Racetrack” Edmondson), Luciana Carro (Cpt. Louanne “Kat” Katraine), Richard Hatch (Tom Zarek), and Michael Trucco (Sam Anders). As someone who doesn’t go to cons, I had some genuinely first impressions. Hatch was wry and delightful. Cairns (who could scarcely be less like Racetrack), bright, vivid, and hilarious. Carro, completely charming. Trucco, the big brother we all always wanted, boundlessly-enthusiastic, funny, radiating affection and generosity. And I remember thinking: “I love these voices and I wish I could write for those voices.”

The penny, as they say, dropped.

I had favorite characters from the show, and two of them were represented by actors on that panel: Racetrack and Zarek. Backstory on either seemed interesting. But what grabbed my attention was Cairns’ anxiety about Racetrack joining Gaeta’s mutiny.

Why the writers did it would seem obvious. A mutiny of redshirts and villains would have lacked the moral complexity in which BSG traded; the mutiny’s integrity required that characters whom we loved and in whom we were invested side against Adama. Other obvious candidates might have been Kat or Cally, but with both dead, the show was short on options. Racetrack was the inevitable choice.

(Worth noting: That choice makes sense only on the assumption that viewers loved and empathized with Racetrack, and would be hurt and wrong-footed to see her join the mutiny.)

But that’s an exogenous reason. Characters require in-universe motives. I understood why Ron Moore had Racetrack join the mutiny. I wanted to know why Maggie Edmondson joined the mutiny.

With no satisfactory answer in view, I started writing. That was February 28, 2016, and I already knew what I didn’t want: It shouldn’t be political. That felt facile, cheap, and a betrayal of the specificity and depth with which Cairns had embroidered Maggie. I also knew that I loved Joss Whedon’s line about how to write a sequel:

“By being smaller. More personal, more painful… By being the next thing that should happen to these characters, and not just a rehash of what seemed to work [before]. By having a theme that is completely fresh and organic to itself.”

That seemed the way forward. Maggie’s story should be about her. Decisions should arise organically from things within her backstory.

In those early days, I went back through the show, focusing in on why Racetrack had resonated so strongly with me and inferring a picture of who she was that pointed through the decision to join first the mutiny and finally the rescue. The answers were all in Cairns’ work, which I have praised elsewhere. There’s something uniquely and compellingly sympathetic about Racetrack, from her first appearance in “Kobol’s Last Gleaming” (where “Galactica” leaves her in the Chronicle) to her last in “Daybreak.” Cairns imbued Maggie with both wounds and scar-tissue, hurts both immediate and intimate that went beyond her shipmates even in the context of people who had lost their entire civilization. And throughout the show, I felt that Racetrack behaved as I think we would have behaved: Not as a heroic archetype as we might wish, a la Helo, nor even as a flawed hero, a la Adama, but as a normal person, terrified, devastated and numbed by events, just trying to survive.

On that basis, I wrote the first drafts of what became “Rubicon.” It went to Cairns for review on March 18, 2016—not coincidentally, albeit perhaps pretentiously) in-universed in the Chronicle as Maggie’s birthday, and two years later, release day for the Chronicle.

II.

For the longest time, I had forgotten when or why Margaret Edmondson became, firmly and irrevocably, Maggie. It happened almost instantly, it’s in my very first draft. While writing this post, I remembered.

There is a famous piece of R-rated (and very fanficcy) BSG fanfic centered on Tahmoh Penikett’s Karl “Helo” Agathon. In one scene, Racetrack puts the moves on Helo; BSG lore holds that Cairns and Penikett reenacted that scene at a cast party and worked it subtextually into their characterizations thenceforth. (You see it in, for example, “Torn.”) In that story, an amorous Racetrack tells Helo to call her by her name:

“How long have you been here?” She opened her locker door….

“Not long.” Feeling awkward and having been stung before by her prickly exterior, he said, “Look, Racetrack, I wasn’t going through your things, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Margaret.”

“What?”

“My name is Margaret. Or Maggie.” She didn’t look at him as she took clean clothes from the locker and tossed them to the bed. Her color had faded to pink by the time she turned toward him and crossed her arms over her chest, the gesture defensive. “I thought you were leaving.”

Maggie. That immediately felt right. I’ve never met a Margaret who went by Margaret; it’s a beat that the Chronicle uses in several contexts, and it stuck. I’d forgotten its origin, and I’m happy to remember it.

Although it isn’t canon, that story was influential in a second way. I wrote the Chronicle with a background assumption that Helo is exactly Maggie’s type, and there are deleted-scenes with David (to whom we’ll get in part two) and Helo in which we see their similarities and differences.

III.

Right from the get-go, there were two collections of writing running in parallel, between which there was a constant dialogue: The story-cycle and the background materials. Between those two collections, I was trying to develop a characterization of Maggie that complied with and expanded on Cairns’ performance. I would improvise dialogue around a piece of research, or research around improvised dialogue, I’d tinker with things earlier to point toward things that came later, working toward a gestalt that I could feel but couldn’t quite see.

A good example of that dialogue between the page and the background materials would be the Raptor crash in Poseidon’s second act. I knew that it was a beat that worked for the character-arc, and sketched the dialogue. Then I worked out in detail what actually happened, consulted a plane-crash investigator and an aerospace engineer, and wrote the PCI report mentioned on the page. (It’ll be in The Racetrack Apocrypha.) With that in hand, I went back to the story-cycle and was able to rewrite that scene with a lot of confidence and specificity but without feeling any need to Trekify it with distracting technical details.

Anyway, we’re getting ahead. The March 18 “first circulating draft” of “Rubicon” raised a number of implications and questions. That Maggie is a people-pleaser with a difficult relationship with her mother was a key to unlocking her. That she had originally joined the fleet because she was running away from some traumatic event was also implicit in what I’d written. Gareth Lowell (named for Bruce Dern’s Silent Running character, and implicitly the in-universe Chronicler) was already in the mix

The other vital thing that happened was creating Abigail. The very first draft sat Racetrack and Athena at the bar, but in the second draft, having realized that Athena was unavailable at the necessary moment, I created Abigail as a counterpart to Maggie: A vivacious cheerleader to Maggie’s saturnine sarcasm. I immediately liked the character, I liked their interplay, and wanted to see the backstory: I wanted to see “Adventures of Racetrack and Spitfire.” I wanted to see “Maggie and Abigail at USNA.”

I started writing that in late March, and at the same time, started writing a background document called the Character Arc Synopsis. The former was very free-form; I was just riffing and coming up with scenes and dialogue that now appear in “Poseidon”’s opening act. The latter started with the conclusions I’d reached about who Maggie is in the show and started developing a backstory that would explain and contextualize that characterization.

Serendipitously, I was working for a university, which gave me access to a faculty that would be instrumental as domain-experts in several relevant fields, particularly psychology, physics, and nursing. I was also able to make contacts with, for example, someone who had attended USNA. To the extent to which the Chronicle counts as science fiction, it bears noting: Getting the science part right makes it easier for the reader to come along for the fiction part.

The first act and last page of Poseidon came quickly. The second act, too, and the idea of the first twist, that our perspective would lurch into Abigail’s and turn upside-down—that came early, too. But the third act was proving difficult, and on the last page, I had written Maggie’s first encounter with David as they board the Galactica, sixteen months before the Fall. That seemed to invite another piece of work, and so, by mid-April, I had started improvising dialogue and themes for “Galactica.” As with Poseidon, I had a very clear idea of where it had to start and end, and I knew the broad strokes I wanted to paint, but it didn’t yet have a plot. “Vespers” did. In late April or early May, having introduced Maggie’s sister Nicola in Poseidon, I came up with an outline for a noir-ish short-story for her and Romo Lampkin that I really liked, and a first draft was written. Of all the elements in the Chronicle, that one is unique insofar as it emerged almost fully-formed and changed only in its detailing over the many drafts.

In mid-May, I wrote a public post announcing what I was working on and noting some of the ground-rules I’d set myself. As the first summer hiatus began, then, there were several plates in the air and much to be done.

To be continued next week, in part two.

The Racetrack Chronicle is available as a free eBook here.

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