Did you hear the light, wistful strains of violins wafting about the other day? I’m sure I did, as I was looking through things in my closet and picked up a tied-up bundle of fabric. The violin theme swelled as I untied it and laid out seven square quilt blocks. I had found remnants of my very first novel.
I’d written stories since I was nine years old, but this one was different. I began it when I was sixteen, and it was the one that introduced me to intoxication of novel-writing. Characters, setting, names, dialogue, conflict, romance, resolution… I drank deeply if inexpertly.
I based the novel on several selections of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. I imagined a princess, Ria*, who had to flee from a burning castle, was taken in by a farmgirl and had to learn to live as a peasant, was discovered and arrested and almost executed, only to be rescued and whisked off to a hideout deep in a forest. She eventually learns that the family friend who betrayed her was in fact working to protect her — but despite his being handsome and courageous and blue-eyed, MY princess fell in love with a clever, witty, and not-really-handsome green-eyed prince. Totally subverted expectations there!
(I also subverted the expectation that the novel would have a plot. Plots are hard.)
In case anyone wondered if a sixteen-year-old created this world, it was set in a land where each of the seven provinces was named for a jewel. Because why wouldn’t they use jewel names? Can you imagine how much more interesting addresses would be if our states were named for jewels? “My address is 121 Day Street, Millertown, Peridot, USA.”
Anyway, I can’t express just how completely I was immersed in my own world. I worked on this story almost continuously for three years. I spotted people who looked like my characters. I collected rhinestone jewelry that reminded me of the provinces. I listened to music that let me pretend I was hanging out with Ria and Co. And I dragged my obliging mother and long-suffering younger sister along for the whole dang journey.
Mom taught me how to actually write, while my sister, R, sat through innumerable reading sessions and discussions of my characters. Even my young nieces caught the bug; they used to spend hours pretending to be my characters in their hidden camp. The Ria Story (because I was bad at titles) was an fixed feature of our lives during those years.
So in retrospect, it made perfect sense that R and I spent who-knows-how-long designing and sewing seven quilt blocks to illustrate a folksong that Mom and I made up to go with the story.
Here you go: the Seven Provinces (with two extra blocks for symmetry’s sake): Amber, Sapphire, Vanyth, Amethyst, Ruby, Jaize, and Emerald.
(Oh, you noticed those gemstones you’ve never heard of? Well, Jaize — Ria’s own province — was originally Jade. But “jade” has too many negative connotations in English, so I made up my own gem. And then to justify it, I changed Opal to Vanyth.)
When I re-discovered these blocks, I spent most of the day trying to remember the song that went with them. It came back in pieces — to the point that I’d be browning meat for tacos and suddenly exclaim, “A merry feast on a golden plate and Emerald’s wine in a toast!” I still haven’t remembered the first verse, or the words that go with the ring-and-book block (to my chagrin, because that ring-and-book block was Ria’s own province and therefore The Most Important One). I sent the pictures to my sister R, who remembered each piece of the song after I quoted it to her. Mom had forgotten all of it.
I revised The Ria Story heavily in about 2007, streamlining it and giving it a plot, to the point that these quilt blocks hardly make any sense now. But my sister says that she wouldn’t mind having a copy anyway, just to show her own girls what we spent so much time talking about as teenagers.
So I’m trying to polish up the fairly terrible beginning into a sort-of readable state. I doubt this new generation will fall in love with the story like I did. I’m not sure anyone can. It’s not a viable story, but it will always be my first great novel.
*My princess’s name wasn’t just Ria. It was longer than that. The ability to make up completely new names was kind of a power rush. I got a little carried away. Best to just leave it at that.**
**Okay, okay. Her whole name was Vallarenzaria. Happy now?