“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the ancient proverb says. In today’s story, that relationship goes a little deeper.
A Persimmon Spring
[Sad] [Dark] [Alternate Universe] • 2,935 words
I, Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings, was a paragon of my kind. I was the greatest military ruler my people have ever known. I was mere months from conquering the most prosperous nation in the world.
Then a strange dragon rose from the stone, and everything changed.
I do not think of conquest any more. Now, I think of persimmons.
FROM THE CURATORS: Exemplary Alternate Universe stories require walking a fine line — balancing events that contradict the show with the familiar characters and themes that readers love about it — and A Persimmon Spring rises to meet that challenge. “It’s a great idea — a memoir, with elements of romance, about a very nuanced and powerful Chrysalis dealing with Discord’s reappearance in the midst of her attempted takeover of Canterlot,” Present Perfect explained. Horizon marveled at its thematic balancing act: “It feels very much like a pony story despite the essential grimness of the setting.”
We unanimously agreed on the story’s emotional power. “I love how the author uses the ‘little’ things, like Hythacine and the titular persimmon,” Chris said. JohnPerry opined that “[the Chrysalis/Shining relationship] is one of those all-too-rare instances of romance written with a distinctly mature tone,” and Bradel agreed: “I’m in love with the way Chuckfinley threads the Chrysalis/Cadance juxtaposition throughout.” Present Perfect’s admiration was more wide-ranging: “I loved the narrative voice. It’s a good example of world-building with limited resources.”
The construction of the alternate-universe elements provoked some curator dissent, but Horizon’s position was typical of our majority. “The AU didn’t bother me at all,” he said, “but I’m coming from a sci-fi background, where you learn to go in willing to spot the story its core premise and then see what cool things it does with it. This easily passes the cool threshold.” Even those who disagreed never had any doubt about the quality of the writing. “The presentation of the AU leaves one feeling like there’s a lot being left out,” JohnPerry said, “but judging it strictly on its own, this fic is brilliant.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Chuckfinley discusses Bruce Campbell’s names, George Orwell’s porn advice, and Genghis Khan’s life lessons.
Give us the standard biography.
I’m a young British psych graduate, stuck in Lodi. I work at Good Burger, and aspire to make a comfortable living from words.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
From Burn Notice. Chuck Finley is the handle of Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) whenever he assumes a role to con someone. Chuck Finley is an accountant, a nebbish homeowner’s association president, a lowly crime scene investigator, a crime lord who has killed everyone he’s ever worked with, a safety inspector for a chain of florists … he is whoever he needs to be to make the team’s ‘story’ work, a fiction within a fiction.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Gilda is best pony.
What’s your favorite episode?
Fall Weather Friends? MMMMystery on The Friendship Express, maybe?
What do you get from the show?
Mythology, and by that I mean a gigantic backbone and nervous system for a fictional world. I don’t actually get that much from the show; really I barely watch telly at all. But it’s like the bible. I find reading the actual bible dull as sand. But it provided the framework for Renaissance art, for a vast extended universe and fanfiction by the likes of John Milton, Dante Alighieri, Arthurian legend, and a kind of fictional legacy that continues today.
My Little Pony has no coherent direction. It starts as a kinda-Magical Girl show, and then veers away into slice-of-life stuff with a variety of well-rounded female characters (like, I’m pretty sure the show fails the reverse-Bechdel test, which is awesome), takes frequent trips out into adventure, dabbles in occasional homages to mystery, science-fiction, and superhero comics, spends plenty of time doing coming-of-age/childhood nostalgia stuff with the CMC, deals with themes like anxiety disorders, ambition, fear of failure, wanting to bang your teacher…
Basically, if you want to write a story within this world, it has given you a framework for it. Heartfelt and steamy first-love romance story a la Romance Reports? That’ll fit. Time-switching alien invasion sci-fi pileup like Hard Reset or Hard Reset 2? Job’s a good’n. Post-apocalyptic epic where the reader mourns over a fallen utopia, sprinkled with hope like Fallout: Equestria? Dashing, old-timey romantic adventure in a 1920’s-style airship race like The Flight of the Alicorn? Everything Alara J Rogers (may the Gods lift her to greater heights forevermore) has ever written? Future world where Twilight is truly a God-Princess of Equestria and finds a young alicorn, like Archonix’s Succession? All of these things are good, and they are all things that the MLP framework will easily bear.
Just as importantly, the show has a strong main cast. It never ever feels like ‘Twilight Sparkle and her Six Sidekicks.’ A show could have any one of the mane six as the protagonist, and it would still work. A lot of cartoons — hell, a lot of programs full stop — have one or two main characters, and everyone else feels like a hollow NPC. Sherlock, Kim Possible, CSI: Vegas, even a show like The Mentalist! Like, I adore Patrick Jane, but the cast of the show is basically Patrick Jane, Agent Lisbon, Agent Cho, and The Two Romantic Plot Devices We Don’t Care About. And these can be good shows with good dialogue and a core of good characterisation and easy to love, but it limits the number of stories you can tell with them.
Another thing I love is the sense of Vancian vagueness about the MLPverse. In Jack Vance’s work, he’d give you the detail you needed to understand the story, and leave many things deliberately unknown. The Deodands, for example. Humanoid, charcoal-skinned flesh eaters that are capable of guile and reasoning. What are they? Where did they come from? Were they human once? Are they magical in nature? It’s deliberately left vague, and the reader feels that this fantasy world isn’t one wrapped in a tidy little bow with all the spare corridors sealed off like a 1990’s videogame. By leaving open ends, the world feels far bigger than any writer could intentionally make so.
Friendship is Magic does this a lot. Where did Luna and Celestia come from? Are they true divinities, demigods, or simply very long-lived mortals with powerful magic? Where were they during the Unification of Equestria? Where do the griffons live? Do they have their own nation, or several different nations? Are there other nations of ponies apart from Equestria? Is Trottingham a city, or a city-state, or an island nation? Where did Spike’s egg come from? Do all dragons eventually have wings? How long will Spike live? How old is Granny Smith, and how old is Ponyville? What’s the deal with the Everfree Forest?
All these things are open-ended, almost certainly by accident and the desire to shoehorn things in to meet deadlines (c.f. Shining Armor), yet they give the viewer an impression of a greater world, and give a writer like me a wonderful playground.
Most importantly, EVERYTHING IS CUTE AS FUCK.
What is best in life?
The open steppe, a fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.
Why do you write?
I started writing in my final year of university, after reading awesome MLP fanfics for a few months. At first, I guess I wanted to give something back to the fic-writing community, and add as much as I’d taken from it. Then I got into writing.
The ‘why’ is an odd thing. Writing isn’t like reading, or commenting, or talking about stories or playing games, it’s work. I’ve had a shockingly bad work ethic all my life and I wouldn’t be surprised if I had ADHD. I did 80% of all my university work in the day before the deadline, and for my entire academic life only the twin threats of failure and shouting could induce me to do anything more than reading and listening.
Writing fiction is different, though. It’s the first thing that I’ll actually chip away at, writing 200 words one day just so I’m 200 words closer to completion. I don’t need deadlines to actually get things done. I usually found academic work interesting, but for some reason, fiction motivates me.
And now I can’t stop, and I can’t see myself doing anything different. Any job I take just feels like a sideline. I’m made for writing.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
I have no general advice that wouldn’t sound trite. What I can do, however, is point out the things that most helped me as a writer. Fred Clark’s deconstruction of Left Behind. Harry Plinkett’s Star Wars reviews. George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.
The first two links show you the rules of fiction by showing what happens when they are blatantly disregarded and trod upon. When I read fiction in school, it was always well-acclaimed writing, and the analysis focused on what the writers wrote right (and also had a habit of assuming that the authors intended everything they wrote). But truly, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
The third link is a stern look at prose. It’s about being precise, and not filling your work with stale phrases and tacked-together ‘prefabricated’ sentences.
The last link is odd, because it’s almost the opposite of conventional writing advice. Dean Wesley Smith is a pulp writer with several hundred novels to his name. He talks about myths that can destroy writers, like the idea that Good Writing Is Slow and should be endlessly agonized over, passed around your writing group like a spliff at Glasto, and revised to the whims of eight different editors before you think of sending it out. Or the lie that Writing is Hard, instead of the awesomest job in the world.
He also introduced me to Heinlein’s rules of writing:
1) You must write.
2) You must finish what you write.
3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand — and only then if you agree.
4) You must mail your work to someone who can buy it.
5) You must keep the work in the mail until someone buys it.
(And if you self-publish, swap 4 and 5 for ‘put it up for sale’ and ‘keep it up for sale.’)
More than that, I think that Dean Wesley Smith revealed a great truth of writing — it’s not really cerebral. It looks smarter than it is. Those devastating plot twists and characters you fall in love with were things I considered while stuffing vindaloo into my maw and chatting with my boyfriend. Most of writing is simply mechanical, the act of putting fingers to the keyboard over and over until the work is done and can be sent out for praise or pay.
I will also note that two of my most critically-acclaimed works, A Persimmon Spring and Morning Glow, were both written in less than a day.
Several of us wondered about the timeline of this AU, with Cadance already being the princess of the Crystal Empire before her wedding — can you talk about that a little?
It depends whether you ask Chuck the Writer, or Chuck the Hack.
Chuck the Writer says that it’s based along Changeling folklore, haruspex, and shared psionics. Cadance was the third alicorn, and they could sense her link to the long-lost empire, so they referred to her by her title even though she had not yet inherited it. It’s how they knew of Nightmare Moon, despite the fact that their civilisation had been barely literate for centuries.
Chuck the Hack says he never really watched The Crystal Empire and just figured that ‘Crystal Princess’ had always been her title, just in absentia.
To what extent is Chrysalis “becoming” Cadance in this fic, and to what extent are her actions a reflection of the person she was all along?
Chrysalis definitely isn’t becoming Cadance, she is simply able to empathise with the ponies in a way she wasn’t before. I based her characterisation heavily on Temujin, or Genghis Khan as he’s better known: a nomad who unites her people through cunning and strength of personality, and then aims to conquer the greatest empires the world has ever known. Her entire life funneled her into becoming a conqueror, at first making alliances to ensure her safety and the safety of her loved ones, and then continuing down her path because everything would fall to pieces if she stopped. Her entire life prevented her from looking backwards, or thinking too deeply about ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ in a leader. Only switching roles from ‘building a new empire’ to ‘healing a broken one’ could change that for her.
What’s most important to a good Alternate Universe story?
AU is such a wide genre that I couldn’t say what made a good one. A Persimmon Spring is more of a sad story than an AU one. To me, AU is more like the sex/gore tag than the genre tag: it’s a warning that many elements differ significantly from canon.
When reconciling an outside setting with canon — such as alarajrogers‘ Elements of Opposition continuity, as you did here, or the Fate/Zero crossover of your more recent The Fading World — how do you decide which elements to mix and match?
It’s less difficult than you’d think, because a good crossover isn’t that different to a regular story. I’ve written two regular crossovers, Banishment Decree and The Fading World, and two fanon crossovers, The Quiet Equestrian and A Persimmon Spring. I had a ‘thing’ I wanted to write with each of these, and anything I borrowed from the outside setting was to help achieve the thing.
I won’t talk about Banishment Decree, principally because I hate it for being an incoherent pastiche of a million different things, having no consistent tone, and veering into pointless grimderp whenever the mood struck me.
The Fading World is a good example. The core elements I wanted were the battle between several mages for a wish-granting device, the battle being fought through powerful heroic proxies summoned by the past, multiple sympathetic POV characters, and strong strains of tragedy.
If I shoehorn something in from an outside source, I try to have the decency to explain it. As in Fate/Zero, only a few characters are classed as ‘true’ mages, the world is a pretty dark place, and most of the main characters, even the ‘good’ ones, are willing to kill to achieve their wish. So for that purpose, I turned it into a Crapsack World: Luna and Celestia both got exiled during the Nightmare Moon rebellion, unicorns went back to raising the sun and moon, and to avoid the punishing toll it took on their bodies, they drew power from the earth to make it work. Hence, magic is slowly leaching from the world and disrupting the casting powers of all but those who pay a given price, food is in short supply, and everyone is getting seriously desperate.
After that, I want my characters to do their own thing based on the world I put them in. I take elements from the plot — betrayal and tragedy and big fights, mostly, but my plot and my characters are, after a point, my own. I have no patience for crossovers like “Pony Age: Origins” or whatever it’s called, ones that alter the Mane Six (and other ponies) to drop them into neat little boxes and then run them along a near-identical plot to the outside setting. It’s just not entertaining.
I don’t know what makes a good AU, but I know what makes a good crossover: It must be an entertaining story for those familiar with the source material and those not familiar, and being familiar should improve the story, not detract from it.
You’re also well known for your Mature-rated stories. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between writing for adult and general audiences?
If by ‘mature’ you mean ‘porn’ then yeah, I can talk about some of the differences.
Writing 3000 words of good porn is harder than writing 3000 words of good story. In a conventional story, a tight plot and compelling characters will forgive mundane prose, you don’t need to constantly dazzle your readers with rhetorical fireworks.
In porn, prose is king. Every sentence in a sex scene must either A) convey a sensation, be that sight or sound or smell, or B) convey an emotion. Images should be fresh and evocative, they should spring into your minds eye as you read them. That George Orwell link is incredibly useful for creating porn, because everything he mentions — dying metaphors, lazy sentence construction, prefabricated sentences, clashing images — will kill a porn scene dead.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Later this month, my first eBook, “Bitterwine Tales,” will be published in the Kindle Marketplace. Keep an eye on my blog for details!