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How I Wrote My Story SEA PHANTOM

A few months ago, Lillian Csernica sent me a link to the call for submission of an intended anthology, Grimm, Grit and Gasoline, for dieselpunk retellings of classic and original fairy tales.

I couldn’t resist!

I’m always up for a fairytale retelling set in a dieselpunk version of the 1920s, and I thought it simply inconceivable that I didn’t try this challenge. Sure, my writing process has become slower and slower, and sometimes I suffer when I have to stick to a deadline, but I had months in front of me. Everything was calling. I had to go on this adventure!

Sea Phantom by Sarah Zama - A Little Mermaid retelling set in 1921 Milan

First step: deciding about the fairy tale

When you write for a themed anthology, the first step is always deciding how you want to tackle the theme. In this case, I needed to decide what fairy tale I wanted to retell, and what theme in terms of a modern audience the fairy tale would allow me to write about. From the beginning, I knew I’d prefer to retell a classic fairy tale than writing an original one. So I gave some thoughts to all the more popular fairy tales I’m familiar with, and I finally decided about The Little Mermaid.

Now, The Little Mermaid is a story of love and sacrifice, ultimately a love story about generosity, but I didn’t want to write a love story. Actually, I didn’t want to write about the relationship between a man and a woman at all. One of the characteristics of Dieselpunk that I appreciate the most is that it is a genre interested in society and its dynamics. It is often about going against the establishment, about creative and positive rebelling seen from a personal perspective, and that’s how I wanted to handle my story. Preferably from a woman’s perspective.
Were there any elements in The Little Mermaid that I could use in such a way?
Well, yes: her voice. The Little Mermaid gives up her voice to gain access to the land and the man she loves. It is evident, therefore, that her voice is seen as a tool of power and exchange. A very charming idea.

How I Wrote My Story SEA PHANTOM – A little insisight into how to write a #fairytalerettelling What are the steps that make a story a #retelling? Share on X

So I started to brainstorm ideas about how my female main character could use voice to empower herself and change her life. Preferably in the context of my usual stories, set in the real world, but with spirits living alongside humans.

Second step: setting

Milano, LArgo San Babila (1920s)

Because voice and the power of voice were going to be a central element of the story, I thought my main character should present something relevant about voice. A singer, eh? That was a good bet.

This is where I started considering setting the story in Italy. To be perfectly honest, I even considered setting it in my own Verona, because the opera shows in the Arena had already started by the 1920s (the first one was in 1913). Then I thought that, since the readership of the anthology would be international, maybe I should choose a more international place.
Of course, I finally landed in Milan, at La Scala. I know, I know, not a creative choice at all, but sometimes a storyteller has to do what a storyteller has to do.

Choosing such a city as Milan also allowed me to explore a more national climate. Verona in the 1920s was really just a small provincial town, while Milan was already one of the big cities of the nation and the heart of much social and cultural development.

Step three: the time period

Well, I didn’t have to choose the period because I already knew it was going to be the 1920s. But the 1920s is ten years, and those were ten very busy years in the history of my nation. So, of course, I had to decide where in those ten years, my story was going to take place.
I leaned more toward the early 1920s rather than the late for a couple of reasons. First, I really don’t possess the knowledge to set a story in a firmly fascist period, and I didn’t have the time to educate myself. Second, I’m actually fascinated by that limbo moment where the fascist project was rising and people were learning about it and choosing their position. That short time when it wasn’t the historical event we know, but it already had all the characteristics to become. That was the thing I most enjoyed learning about Weimar Germany when I researched it last spring for the AtoZ Challenge.

So I started browsing the net in search of info about the early years of fascism in Italy. That’s when I stumbled upon the most interesting event: the explosion of a bomb (today we’d call it a terrorist attack) at one of Milan’s theatres, the Teatro Diana.
It was perfect! It was firmly planted in the time’s political and social environment, it involved a theatre, it was an episode that shook the population – and not just from Milan.
It happened on the night of 23rd March 1921.

Step four: research, of course!

The advantage of writing about your own history and your own culture is that you don’t really need to research everything. Certain things are planted into your DNA. I probably wouldn’t have attempted to write a story set at the rise of the Fascist movement if this wasn’t my history. But it is. I’ve heard about it since I was a child, from my grandparents, who lived at that time. I had really too little time to research the time properly, but what I researched and what I already knew was enough for a story that I intended to be personal.
I wanted Chiara’s story to be entwined into Italy’s history. I also wanted it to be deeply personal, not an exploration of a historical moment.

Teatro Diana, 1954

The terrorist attack was perfect in this sense because it made the historical event very personal to Chiara once she gets involved in the explosion.
So this became what I was more interested in. And on this matter, I had a wonderful opportunity that I never had so far in researching my stories: access to real primary sources.
The main source for this story ended up being two newspaper articles that appeared in a national newspaper the day after the explosion and the day after that. It’s row stuff.

When I did my first round of research, I concentrated (as I usually do) on photos. There are quite a few photos of the Teatro Diana, though they were taken a few days after the event. This is the site of an explosion. There’s destruction and mess, but maybe because of the people standing there, the black and white images, the altogether calmness that you witness, I didn’t really get the impression of what happened.
I wrote my first draft based on what I know about terrorist attacks and people’s reaction to it, and on a few articles I read on history blogs.
But before revising the story, I decided it was worth it reading the articles from the newspapers of the time since they were available online.

It was shocking!
Seeing the photos, I never had the true feeling of what it was like. The fear, the shock, the death, the pain. Reading those pages gave me the chills, and in the end, I completely rewrote the story – especially the opening – based on those accounts.

I will always maintain it: researching makes our stories so much stronger.

The story

So, wish me luck.
I don’t honestly have much hope that my story will be chosen. It’s 1000 words longer than the guidelines allowed for. I contacted the organiser, and she told me that they would nonetheless consider it, but of course, they will give precedence to stories that do fit the guidelines. Also, rereading them, I realised they are probably looking for something more adventurous and more properly recognisable as Dieselpunk. My story is more an inner journey and it’s a very mild kind of Dieselpunk.
But hey! I wanted to try. And if it doesn’t work, no problem, I’ll have a story to present to you, dear readers.

PS: Just had word from the curator that my story has been shortlisted for publication. Crossing my fingers.

By the way, would you like a snippet?


Opening section

Chiara coughed. Then inhaled. Dust. A strange, metallic smell overwhelmed her. Her ears rang. She couldn’t hear anything around her. Her eyes were shut and she dreaded opening them.

She moved her hands. Sharp things grated her palms. Something slimy and thick covered them and she really didn’t want to give it a name. A heavy burden pressed down on her back and she needed to get that off her.

A dull sound started to pulse in her ears. She forced her eyes open. Her elbows propped on the ground, her hands, all the fingers spread out, pressed on the tiled floor among debris and cracks, shards of glass and a fine grey dust. It was cold. Why was it so cold in the theatre? And someone was screaming. Why would someone scream?

She twisted her body and she felt – she heard – chairs collapsing on one side. She propped her chest up and called her knees to her, feeling her legs grate on the shards on the ground and her silk stockings rip against the splintered wood.

HOW I RESEARCHED MY STORY "SEA PHANTOM" - Rewrite a fairy tale in a historical setting is quite the experience, in terms of both storytelling and historical research

She saw the hand beside her.

Someone was shouting, “Help! For God’s sake, help!”

Crying. Cursing.

There was only one hand. The one hand. No one was attached to it. And there was a great dark pool on the ground hitching its way towards her.

“Call the Medical Guard! Has someone called the Medical Guard?”

Chiara pulled herself up though her knees wobbled. She looked toward the stage. The orchestra pit was full of the ceiling. Mangled reading stands, splintered seats. Torn dresses. Pieces of the musicians. Blood.

The first row of seats was no better. There were no dead. Only pieces of them.

Shadows danced around Chiara. One of them stopped. A man grabbed her arm and talked to her, but the dull sound of the underwater sea engulfed his words. Half of his face was covered in blood. His tuxedo was all torn.

Chiara stared at him, her eyes big and dry. She was panting. When he spoke again, she heard. “Are you quite fine, ma’am?”

She panted and stared.

“The Medical Guard are coming. Go to them.”

“Where is Paolo?” she croaked. That couldn’t possibly be her voice.

The man’s face softened. He was older than Paolo. She hadn’t realised it at first. He nudged her toward the door. “Go,” he whispered.

The theatre was almost empty of living people. Destroyed seats and furniture were heaped on the left wall. There were dark spots and other things on the wall. Debris, dust, glass, wood, shreds of dresses, blood covered the cracked tiles of the floor. Chiara didn’t want to walk there because she knew there were other things too.

Gentlemen were helping other people to walk out. Just then, she saw two men enter with a stretcher through the main door. The glass panes were shattered, the door hang from the hinges.

Where was Paolo? He sat beside her, why was he not there?

She looked back at the heap of seats she had just emerged from. It wasn’t the place she occupied during the concert, which stood further on the right, more towards the back of the room than in the centre. Paolo must be in a different spot too.

She turned to the door, training her gaze at it, avoiding the ground, trying to gather strength enough to move. She crossed the door into what used to be the lobby of the Teatro Diana and was now just debris and more rubble. A dark, slimy ribbon travelled among that mess from the inner room to the street outside. People gathered in small groups, crying, embracing, supporting each other.

She was trembling now, so hard her teeth chattered. Her legs, her arms, her shoulders, her chest, her back, her face, all was aching with a dull, almost distant pulse. She had lost her coat. Blood was on her hands and legs and neck and chest. Her face was wet. But she could walk and she did, finally walking out, onto via Monforte.

Pinterest pin. The text reads, "Sea Phantom - Terrorism in 1920s Milan: The real event that inspired my story". The picture is a vintage photo of the Teatro Diana in Milan at the turn of the 20th century.
Pinterest pin. The text reads, "'Sea Phantom': the history behind the story set in 1920s Milan". The picture is a night sight of the Sheraton Hotel in Milano, which used to be the Teatro Diana.

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