Los Alamos, 1945. Mort Whitman helps build “the gadget” that will end the war and immolate untold thousands of men– if it works. As the minds of men mushroom in a dark dream of war, he seeks solace in the white sands of the Jornada del Muerto. But what he discovers there teaches him how justice really works in the New Mexico badlands– as well as how one man can atone for a nuclear holocaust.
“Trinity of the Sands” Copyright © 2011 Alistair Ainscott, Published by Rapid-Dynamix Publishing
Cover photo copyright © @istockphoto/kjschoen
The Writing of Trinity of the Sands
I wrote this story for the Short Story Workshop that I did with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith (mostly taught by Kris). Kris had some very nice things to say about the story and this version reflects a couple of minor changes she suggested to strenthen it.
But as for the actual writing, this story started with a sinus infection and bronchitis.
I knew I’d have to write a short story for the Short Story Workshop, but the assignment still hadn’t arrived in my inbox a couple weeks before the workshop was to start and to be honest I was stressed about it because I was sick and I knew I had a super-busy week coming up with professional obligations and getting my family chock full o’ young children ready for me to be gone for a week.
I hadn’t been away from home for more than a couple of days on business travel in five years. Which corresponds, perhaps not surprisingly, to exactly how old my twin girls are.
The first email from Kris arrived about the assignment, but it wasn’t what I expected.
I had to pick a specific historical context– a time and place– from before 1970.
But I didn’t know why. Sure, I guessed I’d have to write a story set in that time period, but what kind of story? And I’d never tried to write a story set in a historical time period before, so I was immediately ill at ease with where this was going.
And I was already sick as a dog. Coughing up stuff like some colony of brown-green algae dredged up from the bottom of the sea.
I was laying in bed, reading Kris’s email on my smartphone, feeling miserable. I glanced at my nightstand and saw Michael Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman sitting there so I figured why the hell not. Go big.
1945, New Mexico, detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb, I wrote in reply.
It didn’t occur to me until much later precisely how difficult that would be to work successfully into a short story plot without blowing the whole thing up.
The second email arrived a few days later. I now had less than a week to write the actual story.
Write a historical mystery set in your chosen time period.
Convince me that we’re in whatever time period you’ve chosen. Make it real. Make it breathe.
Well crap, now I was doomed. I’d never written a story in a historical setting (and here I just mistyped hysterical setting, which I take as a deep psychological hint as to how I was thinking about this).
And I’d never written a mystery story either, and now I had to craft a historical mystery revolving around the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb.
Well, there was no doubt there about whodunnit.
The thought of someone using the detonation of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity test site in the White Sands Proving Grounds as an ancillary plot element occured to me, but every idea I came up with fell apart. The test was secret. Nobody knew it was going to take place. Even if they did, they probably wouldn’t have taken it seriously; even many insiders had deep concerns that something would go wrong and the bomb would be a dud. In fact an iron containment shell for the bomb was cast at great expense– to contain the radioactive debris if there was only a partial detonation– and the leaders of the project decided not to use this containment vessel only a short time before the actual test.
But even worse than that, the detonation of the bomb itself was such an important historical event that it took over every plot idea I came up with. The story would end up being about the bomb.
I was wishing I could write back to Kris and revoke my historical context. Why had I mentioned the bomb? Why had I been so bloody specific?
But I wouldn’t let myself back out of it. I was going to write a story about this.
So I just started typing. I made a few false starts, which I discarded. One involved Richard Feynman as an actual character in the story. Decided I didn’t want to go down that route. Another centered on the Los Alamos lab itself.
Finally I struck on the idea of a character, someone working at the lab, who knew about the bomb and the detonation but had deeply conflicted feelings about it. Someone with something at stake in the outcome. Someone who would be motivated to solve the problem.
So I started typing and the first thousand words of the story or so came out and I had my start on this story.
I stewed on it for a couple days and made only a little bit more progress (maybe another 500 words). I was stuck and I was running out of time. I did a little more research online for some specifics about the test site and the White Sands– the desert of the Jornada del Muerto, now that is a cool name for a setting– and then the idea struck me for how the character would resolve his story problem. The Big Problem. How can one man atone for nuclear holocaust?
And I had to get the story done by tomorrow.
So I sat down at my desk and started typing and I stayed there in that chair late into the night until I’d typed another 4,000 words or so.
The next day on my lunch break I cleaned up a couple of plot points that were bugging me and printed it out and stuck it in my folder with all my travel stuff for my short business trip back-to-back with my week-long stay at The Anchor Inn in Lincoln City for Kris and Dean’s Short Story Workshop.
And Trinity of the Sands was the result. I got pretty good feedback about it at the workshop and it was my personal favorite of the four short stories I wrote at the workshop (although one of the others, which I personally thought was kind of silly and stupid, actually got the best response from other readers).
And I’m proud that I can now offer it as my first e-published short story: Trinity of the Sands, a historical mystery by Alistair Ainscott, 5900 words.
This is also the debut of my cover design, my publisher look, and my Rapid-Dynamix Publishing venture. Great fun ahead and I will have a bunch more stories up before too long.
When I have this story up on Pubit and Smashwords I’ll update this post with those links as well. (Updated below!)
Trinity of the Sands: One man atones for nuclear holocaust.
“I have murdered two hundred and twenty-eight thousand men. And one more.”