Like the titular tree of today’s story, this farmer’s tale has deep roots.
Under a Tree
[Slice of Life] • 13,558 words
Applejack tells Fluttershy about the great oak tree atop a hill on the farm. It was the first one she ever planted, y’see. That doesn’t have anything to do with why Granny Smith is in the hospital, and why Applejack isn’t there.
Nope. Not at all.
FROM THE CURATORS: This is a story that has had our attention through multiple iterations, starting out as a shortfic of under 4,000 words before being expanded into the larger multi-chapter story it is today. We have Bradel to thank for introducing it to us: “I’m a sucker for a good AJ story and a good grief narrative, so this is in my wheelhouse.”
“This is a story told in negatives,” Present Perfect pointed out. “Applejack doesn’t want to talk about what’s really bothering her, so she talks about her first time planting a tree. Said tree wasn’t an apple tree, but an oak. It’s a story just as much about Fluttershy as about AJ, but it focuses entirely on the latter.” Bradel put it thusly: “What I really love about this story is the tension between foreground and background. … Although the story never seeks to hide what it’s doing, its impact is delivered through metaphor and implication rather than direct engagement, through paralleling Applejack’s stories with her state of mind.”
But what really sold the curators was the dynamic between this story’s two main characters. “The meat of the story packs a punch, and the interactions between Fluttershy and AJ felt genuine,” Chris said. “The real triumph is the conversation. Rather than drop the current setting to skip back into the past, Applejack’s story-within-the-story is spoken, with fits and starts that make it feel naturally told without being unfocused,” Present offered, and Bradel added, “I enjoy how the story forces Fluttershy and Applejack to trade roles — here, Applejack is the avoidant one and Fluttershy is the more direct one. I find all the narrative subversion going on in this story really delicious.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Noble Thought discusses long commutes, character growth, and rewriting.
Give us the standard biography.
A thirty-something living in the middle of nowhere, writing software, staring at cows and the occasional horse — well, I have to walk a few minutes from my office to do so, but I can, if I so wish. In between a long commute where I think about ponies and their daily lives, and writing code, I write about ponies in their daily lives. Most of the time. I’m trying to dabble in adventure and art, but that’s turning out to be an adventure all its own.
How did you come up with your handle/penname? Can you tell us about the recent change?
The recent change is fairly simple: the name didn’t really fit, and it felt kinda foolish to try to wear a different name. And it felt a little foolish in my head, too. I know that part’s in my head, because I’m the only one that knows why I changed it in the first place (definitively, and even then with a margin of error.)
And that kinda ties into the handle Noble Thought. I kept on seeing “Well, it was a noble thought.” Usually then followed with reasons why said noble thought was noble in name only and was actually rather weak at its core in hindsight. A name to keep me humble, I suppose, and remind me that a second, or third, look before committing/publishing/posting something isn’t a bad idea.
Who’s your favorite pony?
That’s difficult to say. I like potential. Where there’s fewer details filled in about a pony, there’s more potential for backstory and for me to fill in that lack of detail with supposition and story. I’d like to say that Celestia and Luna, then, are my favorite ponies, with Celestia taking the lead by a small margin. There’s so much we don’t know about her, and thus, so much empty space to fill in with stories.
What’s your favorite episode?
Again, difficult. I could name my least favorite easily, but my favorite is hard to peg down. I like episodes that expand the world rather than contract the characters. So, in that vein, probably almost any of the season 1 episodes.
But I’ll pick The Best Night Ever simply because it was such a great cap on such a great season. Probably my favorite season ending.
What do you get from the show?
I get a sense of wonder like I haven’t felt since I was a kid. The show makes me feel young again. Not that I’m that old, but it’s definitely something that helps make the years feel a little less weighty. The show just has that youthful exuberance about it most of the time, and they’re all ponies (for the most part) that have jobs and work that they do. It makes them more relatable to us old folk, and their struggles more meaningful.
It helps that the show is so Slice of Life oriented. I like Slice of Life.
What do you want from life?
Happiness and stability. That’s pretty much it. It doesn’t really matter what form either one takes. Right now, that’s family, ponies, a long commute, and a few good, close friends. Oh, and writing.
Why do you write?
Writing makes me happy, and seeing other people enjoying works I’ve written makes me happier. There’s also a bit of self-improvement. I enjoy a challenge. I love a challenge that I feel competent to take on, and I feel like I can take on the challenge of improving my writing and improving myself through it.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
This gets said a lot, and it’s good advice: Keep writing. Keep reading. Accept criticism, ask questions about it. Ask questions about everything. Don’t just read other stories, too. Pick up a textbook sometime and flip through it. History books, especially, and biographies. Biographies are great sources for seeing how other people live their lives, and autobiographies are great at seeing how people think about their own lives–the ones that aren’t sensationalized, of course.
But most importantly, don’t give up. Writing is hard. There are so many little rules and bits of terminology and constructions and theories about storytelling and plot structure that it can be a little overwhelming at first, but it gets easier. The more you write and actively try to improve — and that’s the key: actively — the easier it gets. You won’t get better passively doing nothing.
Asking for opinions, feedback, criticism (gasp!), and even more importantly thinking about all of those things you ask for once you get it, and appreciating it for what it represents, experience, will help you improve faster and better than if you just sit there reading and writing in a bubble.
Why wasn’t AJ’s first tree an apple tree?
That was a bit of interesting lore to it. At least, sort of. This story grew out of a short story exploration I did almost a year ago about Applejack and Fluttershy later in their lives, taking care of an aging [REDACTED]. Oops. Right. Later story. Anywho, the idea was that Applejack’s first tree wasn’t an apple tree because it was her dad’s way of saying “There’s more out there than just apples” without actually outright saying it, and referencing his own wife, Orange Delight, and the source of the acorn, Manehattan.
And, later, Applejack meets Twilight Sparkle, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Spike, her best friends. One of them might be somewhat kinda maybe sorta an Apple, but they’re her friends whatever their roots, and she couldn’t be happier with them by her side.
Despite the story’s focus on Applejack, Fluttershy goes through some development. How did you avoid making her be merely a passive narrator?
Fluttershy wants something. What she wants, she’s not entirely certain until the end, but she knows that Applejack being happy is a part of it. All of her character development, at least the planned parts of it (I’m not sure how much there is unplanned in there, because it wasn’t intentional), comes from her discovering things about her friend’s world from her friend’s perspective, and rising to that level with Applejack so she can see the story unfold as Applejack would have lived it–or, at the very least, see why the story is so important to her.
She avoids being a passive narrator by reacting to the story as Applejack tells it, and in essence, becoming a living part of that story as it’s told. She asks questions, she ponders the meaning of this and that, she walks with Applejack and sees the orchard as Applejack might. Not only from the ground, but in terms of the past and the family events that must have happened in it and what they might have meant to her.
But, perhaps the greatest moment in the story from a Fluttershy Growth perspective (in my eyes,) is when she takes aside that worry about doing the kind thing and instead focusing on the right thing, and tells Applejack that it wasn’t just Granny that got hurt, but her, too.
It is, perhaps, not a bold move by anypony else’s standard, but I saw it as a big step towards growing bolder, more certain of her own worth and opinion, and the personal climax the story was leading up to. It’s also the moment when she stops being an actor in Applejack’s story and starts directing where it goes.
In the original version of the story (presented as the fourth chapter), Applejack’s story is told first-person. Why did you keep to Fluttershy’s perspective for the rewrite?
In large part for the sake of narrative continuity. I felt like getting Applejack’s character, and not just her voice, across with solely a vocal component would be too difficult and wearing on the reader to parse in the actions that must have been taken or given to reach a particular statement. It was an interesting experiment, and I still think it’s a decent way to tell a short story, but it should be the focus of the story, in my opinion, or you’ll end up giving your readers whiplash from perspective and stylistic shift.
Another part of it was Fluttershy. I needed to have her reach a point where she would feel comfortable running a race with Applejack in order to abut with the original ending, but I couldn’t do that easily without writing in her growth through the second chapter, and creeping into the beginning of the third. So, instead of writing it and leaving it out, I decided to just write it all in.
The shift from writing only a part of it to writing all of it made it a lot easier to see what needed to happen, and how to guide Fluttershy through the mental maze to get there got a lot easier and I think it got easier for the reader to reach that point with her instead of just being told “Okay, let’s race now.”
Did you run across any difficulties in writing this story?
The biggest difficulty of writing any first person story is nailing the mental voice of that character. With Fluttershy, that got harder because she’s so quiet and shy, and choosing what thoughts to express, and which to suppress, got harder because of that. The other is choosing what she notices. She wouldn’t necessarily pick out the broken cart wheel as being important other than as a potential warren for rabbits (or an outhouse), and since the story was mainly focused on Applejack, that got all the harder making sure that Applejack felt like she was seeing what she saw, while keeping Fluttershy focused on what she saw.
That got a little easier once she was attuned to Applejack’s vision of the world.
The other great difficulty was rewriting the story. It was, originally, first person present tense, and switching that up to first person past tense was rather difficult in some of the longer stretches of writing, and why it took a month and a half to re-release it in its entirety. Well, that and all the other writing I was doing (not much.)
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
There isn’t much else I’d like to say, honestly. I’m glad you considered Under a Tree for the RCL, and honored by the choice. I think, as much as I’ve gone on in the above sections, I’ll keep this short. So, thank you.