This is the text of a talk that I gave to the women’s group at my mother’s Unitarian church on December 6th. It contains potential mild spoilers for The Secret Country, The Dubious Hills, Tam Lin, and Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary.
People who are very familiar with any of these scenes may notice that I have changed them slightly for clarity when reading aloud.
When the Unicorn Jumps out of the Quilt: Surprises in Writing Fantasy
Hi, everybody. Thank you so much for coming out on such a cold morning.
This is a model of my office, the place where I do my writing. My mother made it for me for my birthday a couple of years ago. I’ll leave some time at the end of the hour for people to come up and look at it and play with it. In the meantime, you can see that while most of the windows have blinds on them, this one has a strange orange hanging with a blank circle in the middle. And if you look inside the office, you can see that the hanging is torn around the edges, and that there’s a kind of irate-looking unicorn standing there, looking over its shoulder.
In my actual office, what hangs over that window is a quilt that my grandmother made me after my first book was published. The cover of the original paperback was swarming with unicorns. Somebody counted them once and came up with 41. So she made me a quilt out of leftover scraps, with the head of a unicorn rising out of what might have been a sea of leaves or a green ocean, whichever the viewer preferred.
When Mom got to the quilt in the process of putting together the miniature office, she realized that she really couldn’t match all the miscellaneous scraps of material to make the unicorn’s mane and beard. So she found a miniature unicorn instead, and made the quilt with a ripped and torn circle where the unicorn had jumped out.
This is a great metaphor for the process of writing fantasy. It applies to publishing fantasy as well.
I’m going to read you a few passages from my books that were surprises to me, just as surprising as having a unicorn really jump out of my window quilt and land on the floor of my office.
The first one is from my first book, The Secret Country. This is a book in which a bunch of cousins playing an imaginative game end up inside the game. But not everything in the world they enter is exactly as they play it, which is confusing for them. That’s a fairly common plot nowadays, but when I wrote it was less so. The characters are at a large feast called the Banquet of Midsummer’s Eve. They’ve found a little niche to sit in to get out of the crowd. Laura, the viewpoint character, is the youngest of the cousins; she’s eleven. Ellen is twelve and Patrick is thirteen.
Patrick looked over their heads back into the noisy hall. “Hey,here comes — “ he said, and stared.
Laura and Ellen turned around. Lord Randolph was coming towards them with a woman. She was a snaky lady with black hair. She wore a dress of deep red that showed exactly how snaky she was. She had her hands folded around Randolph’s arm, and against the blue of his sleeve the ruby in the ring she wore gleamed as a cat’s eye will when the light hits it just so. She was beautiful.
“Who’s THAT?” said Laura.
They came up to the three children, and Randolph bowed as well as he could with the woman on his arm. She looked at them measuringly, not as if she were greeting them, but as if they were something she might want to hang on the wall.
“Good festival to you,” said Randolph.
“And to you,” said Patrick.
Ellen was staring at the woman, not in a friendly way.
“Where is thy angry cousin?” Randolph asked Patrick.
“Benjamin said,” said Patrick, and stopped. Laura could almost see him remembering that Ted, however angry, was not his cousin here, but his brother. Randolph must be talking about Ruth.
“Should any of you see her,” said Randolph, “tell her to ware Lord Andrew.”
“She always does,” said Patrick.
“Tell her to ware her temper, then,” said Randolph. “He is baiting every magician in the place with his vain philosophy, hoping one will break the ban and disgrace the calling. Thy cousin hath a hasty temper. Let her look to’t.”
“Yes, my lord,” said Patrick.
“And have a care thyself,” Randolph added, thoughtfully. The woman looked at him and at Patrick, surprised. “Forgo thy accustomed tricks,” added Randolph, with a meaningful look that Laura was at a loss to interpret.
Patrick seemed to understand it. He bowed. “I shall,” he said.
Randolph smiled at all of them as the woman steered him away. “’Tis but Andrew’s jest,” she said as she went, and the sound of her voice made the fine hairs stand up on the backs of their necks. Then she and Randolph were too far away to be heard.
Ellen sat down heavily on the bench. “Gah!” she said.
“He likes her,” said Laura, staring after them.
“Well,” said Patrick, “she is awfully pretty.”
“Not really,” said Ellen. “Not healthy pretty. She’s like Spanish moss.”
“Just because she hangs all over him,” said Laura. She and Ellen looked at each other and laughed.
“But who IS she?” said Laura again. “If she’s with Randolph, she must be important, and I sure don’t remember her.”
“Wait until we can find out her name,” said Patrick. “That might bring it back to you.”
“I thought I recognized her voice,” said Ellen.“It sounded like Ruth doing the Demon Queen,” said Patrick.
“Well, sort of. You don’t suppose she is?”
“I doubt it.”
When Laura says, “Who’s THAT?” she is saying just what I said. It’s not a great idea, as a rule, to put one’s own voice into a character’s mouth, but in this case I left the dialogue in because Laura and I were in the same position. We had made up this world and we both thought we knew what was going to happen in it, but suddenly there was a total stranger walking around. She turns out to be very important to the plot and especially the resolution of the trilogy.
The second passage I’m going to read to you is from The Dubious Hills. This book is about a country under a spell. The spell is supposed to eliminate conflict and war by splitting knowledge up narrowly so that people have to depend on one another just to live their lives. Arry, the viewpoint character, is fourteen. Her parents have disappeared and she’s struggling to take care of her younger brother and sister while also finding out what happened. As an added trouble, wolves have been going after the sheep that her village depends on to make a living. Arry has been sitting up worrying about all these things and has fallen asleep in her chair.
When she woke up it was full bright sunny day, and the black cat was standing on her chest and yowling. Arry sat up in the chair, rubbing her eyes. Sheepnose jumped down, still yowling, and began pacing around the chair. Arry had been sitting on her right foot, and it was asleep. She untucked it laboriously and leaned forward, rubbing it. Sheepnose came around the side of the chair and stood in front of her, still yowling. She was standing by a pile of dead mice, quite a large pile, thirty or forty of them.
Sheepnose yowled again, and then hissed. Arry recognized that this was not the mighty-hunter cry, but a serious protest. She supposed the white cat might have brought the mice in, but it seemed unlikely. Woollycat was lazy. Besides, while both cats might have caught all those mice in a night’s work, it looked like the work of dozens. It could take Sheepnose a week to clean out a moles’ nest, after all.
Arry climbed slowly out of the chair. She gathered in her breath and bellowed,
Con came in the front door immediately. “I thought you’d never wake up,” she said. “Look at all those mice.”
“Did you see Sheepnose bring them in?”
“No,” said Con.
“Somebody else’s cats?”
“I just woke up and came out and they were there,” said Con. “When’s breakfast?”
“Let me take a bath first,” said Arry. “Where’s Beldi?”
“Doing his lessons,” said Con, scornfully. “He says we have to go back to school tomorrow. How would he know?”
“Asked Wim, I expect,” said Arry. “Con, could you take those mice outside? They already smell.”
“Sheepnose,” said Con sternly. “Take those mice outside again right now.”
When Arry came out drying her hair, Sheepnose had done nothing of the sort; neither had Con, who was nowhere in sight. Arry went out the front door and almost tripped over the white cat, who was sniffing deeply and repetitiously all around the path. And no wonder, thought Arry, kneeling for a better look. The soft dirt was pocked with very large tracks, a great many of them, heading for the door and going away again. Arry stood up and followed them. These did not go around the back of the house and down to the stream, as Mally and Oonan had said the ones they followed did. Arry could see the single line that Mally and Oonan must have seen. But the overlaid and multipled tracks went the other way, past the pine tree and down the hill and up and down again, into one of the water meadows where there were, indeed, a great many mice.
“Not any more,” said Arry, giggling; and then shivered in the bright sun and warm open spaces of the water meadow. She had not heard them, not one of them, as they came in the door and laid those mice at her feet.
[They have breakfast and then go to clean up the mice.]
The pile of mice was still there. Arry wondered a little that the cats had not dragged them off somewhere, or eaten them on the spot. Maybe it was the smell of wolf.
“We must put them somewhere the crows can get them,” she said.
“Let’s use the milk pans,” said Con.
“No,” said Arry.
“We could even stew them in the milk pans.”
Arry went off into the kitchen and found, among the piles of discarded objects still to be dealt with, a wooden bucket acquired when they had kept a goat. She brought the bucket and the fire tongs back to the front room and began lifting mice out of the pile and dropping them into the bucket. Con demanded to try, and after dropping a mouse on Beldi’s feet and one on Arry’s, got quite fast and accurate at it. Arry sat back down in the chair she had slept in and tried not to watch. The mice were certainly in no pain now, but they still made her flinch.
When Con was finished, she sent Con and Beldi to carry the bucket up to the top of Windy Hill and spread the mice around for the crows. She herself got water and soap and the brush and knelt to scrub the stain off the floor. At least wolves were tidier than cats. Cats would have left those mice on the rug, at the very least. She held the brush dripping over the floor, and paused.
Where the drops of water had fallen, lines of bright, beautiful, and unnatural green showed on the smooth gray floor. Arry dripped more water, and more, and finally scraped very lightly were the brush over the mess the mice had left. The brush did not take off the green, so she applied it a little harder. When she had cleared all the soapy mousy mass of water off that patch of floor, the green lines revealed themselves as blocky letters, which said uncompromisingly, “Keep the wolf far hence, that’s foe to men.”
Now, I knew there were wolves about and I knew that some of them had attacked sheep. What the mice and the magical writing told me was that either the wolves were more complicated than I’d realized, or else that there were two wolves or two groups of wolves, one of which wanted to do harm and the other of which wanted to protect Arry and Con and Beldi from the others. This was very useful in continuing to write the book.
The next bit I’m going to read to you is from Tam Lin. Janet and Molly are college freshmen, and roommates, and they’ve been woken up at three in the morning by somebody playing a bagpipe. They decide to go out and find the piper.
The wailing drifted, waned, and steadied into a thumping march. It was either in Bell Field just beyond Eliot, or in the Upper Arb itself. Probably the field, thought Janet. Nobody was going to lug a set of bagpipes along those narrow paths in the dark.
“Bell Field,” she whispered to Molly.
“I’m game,” said Molly.
They took a few steps across the grass, and something flapped through the air and thumped to the ground behind them and to the left. Janet jumped; Molly stood perfectly still ahead of her, but Janet heard her take her breath in. They turned around and looked at Ericson. It was dark except for the dim small squares where the lights of the stairways shone in their little windows. Janet looked up, already out of habit, and found the windows of their own room. The curtains blew in and out, and the stripes and shadows in the dim light made a pattern like lace. Something pale flew out of the middle window and smacked to the ground a few yards away.
“That was a book,” said Janet. She ran across the grass, and stumbled, before she got to the one she was aiming for, over another book. She picked it up, keeping half an eye on the windows. It was small and dark and thick. Janet opened it to the title page, and its clean paper glowed a little in the distant light from the Forbes street lamp. The dark parts of the page she looked at said,”A LEXICON abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford, at the Clarendon Press.” Janet turned a thin, crisp page, and read, “ADVERTISEMENT. THE Abridgement of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon is intended chiefly for use in Schools. It has been reduced to its present compass by the omission –”
Janet skimmed rapidly along, to the small type at the bottom that said, “OXFORD, October, 1871.” She had read the right-hand page; she looked now at the left-hand one, which proclaimed,in an isolated line in its middle, “Impression of 1878.”
Molly, who had gone on past her and collected the other book, walked back across the grass, loomed over Janet, and said, “I’ve got Matthew Arnold’s On Translating Homer here.”
“Liddell and Scott,” said Janet. “Classics.”
“Those came out of our windows.”
“They can’t have; we haven’t got those books. Unless Tina’s a Classics major in disguise.”
“You saw it too.”
“Yes, I did,” said Janet. She stood up, since the grass was damp. The book in her hand smelled clean and inky. She leafed through it slowly,looking at the fantastical Greek letters in boldface; all its pages felt crisp and smooth and clean. She held it out to Molly, who took it and gave her the Arnold, a tiny red-bound book. It, too, was clean and fresh. Janet found the title page. The Clarendon Press at Oxford. 1861. She looked at Molly, who was frowning at Liddell and Scott; and another book swooped out of the air and landed between them.
“Lordy!” said Molly, but bent immediately to pick it up. Janet, breathing carefully in an effort to get her heart to slow down, moved around and looked over Molly’s shoulder. This one was McGuffey’s Fifth Reader. It was more battered than the other books; on the title page Molly had turned to was a small dark thumb-mark obscuring the date. Janet forgot, looking at it, the night, the piper, her heartbeat, and her wet feet, and felt as she had felt many years ago on a school trip to a museum. She had looked for fifteen minutes at a porcelain doll in a grubby white dress, and burst into tears.
Something rustled behind them. They sprang apart, dropping the book. A small person in a long white gown, her hair straying over her shoulders and her arms full of books, came pacing towards them across the dewy grass.
“It’s the Fourth Ericson ghost,” said Molly, as if she were identifying a starfish.
“No, it isn’t,” said Janet, with great relief. “It’s Peg Powell.”
“She may look like Peg Powell,” said Molly. She stooped for the McGuffey’s and shook out a crumpled page or two.
“Should we speak to her?” said Janet. “I wonder if she’s sleepwalking?”
Peg bent over and came up with the Arnold. Janet had thought she was holding that one herself, and took a firmer grip on the Liddell and Scott. Peg came closer and closer. Molly promptly stepped aside; Janet stood her ground, and just as she thought she was going to break and run whether she wanted to or not, Peg stopped. She was not exactly looking at Janet; but then, she didn’t have her glasses on.
“Oh, thank you,” she said, precisely as she would if you passed her the salt. She held out the hand that was not cradling a pile of books. “It’s so tedious to pickthem out of the wet grass.”
Janet handed her the Liddell and Scott, reluctantly, and stooped for the McGuffey, which was unaccountably still lying at her feet even though Molly had just picked it up. “This isn’t a college text, is it?” she said. She had an irritating vague notion that one ought not to confront or challenge somnambulists.
“No, it was brought along for sentimental reasons,” said Peg, tucking the Liddell into her pile and holding out her hand again for the McGuffey. “Well, good, I think that’s all of them. Maybe we’ll have some peace for a few nights now.”
In ironic commentary, the distant bagpipes, which had been muttering in the background, wheezed into a mournful, rolling tune that would have been more at home on a church organ.
“Does this happen often?” said Janet.
“No, I wouldn’t say often,” said Peg, judiciously. “It does get tedious, though. I’m going to take these in now; the damp’s not good for them.” She gave Janet a brilliant smile and trailed away over the grass towards the side door of Ericson,her white gown floating around her.
Molly went after her, and stood at the bottom of the steps until Peg had opened the side door and disappeared inside. “I guess,” she said,rejoining Janet, “if she came down, she can go up again by herself. We’d better make sure Nora knows she walks in her sleep.”
When I wrote this bit, I didn’t expect to keep any of it. When you’re writing, sometimes you just don’t want to. Then you have to decide whether to go do something else, like clean the kitchen or go for a walk or make an unusually elaborate dinner; or whether to just keep writing something, no matter what it is. I decided this was a time for the latter. I was really just amusing myself. I actually did once throw a book out of the window of my freshman dorm room. It was a Greek grammar textbook. But when I looked at this scene I’ve just read you the next day, and thought about how the books thrown were from the 1800′s, I reconsidered. Tam Lin is about the operation of the Unseelie Court, the so-called bad fairies, on an ordinary college campus. They’re immortal, so they were probably there in the 1800′s too. I thought the history of their actions might be a good way for Janet and Molly to discover what was going on. So I kept the scene.
The last bits that I’m going to read to you are from Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. This book is about three sisters and the boy next door. The main character, Gentian, is an amateur astronomer. Becky is her best friend. The giant Ants is what her group of particular friends calls itself.
Their father got home next, with two canvas bags full of library books. He looked harassed. While he was hanging his coat up and putting the books away in his office, Gentian went into the kitchen and made him some cocoa.
“Maybe you do have an Electra complex,” he said, when he came into the kitchen and she handed him the mug. “You want to watch that. I’d hate to find myself bringing home Cassandra.”
“You wouldn’t, unless she was a stray dog.”
“Well, in fact, your mother’s more likely to consider that a matter for murder than she would my bringing home a mistress.”
“Only if it were another pregnant stray dog.”
“I don’t think Cassandra was pregnant.”
This conversation told me that Gentian’s father has a different kind of sense of humor than I thought he had, and also that Gentian is very used to it. I didn’t think much about it; there is a lot of family life in this book and I didn’t feel that it all had to be directly connected to the plot or the themes either. But a chapter or so later, I wrote this:
The Giant Ants always had a New Year’s Eve party. It was at Alma’s house this year. Becky called Gentian three days before, sounding panicked.
“I want to ask Alma if I can invite Micky,” she said.
Since all Alma’s siblings would be there, Gentian felt less strongly about this than she might have.
“I know it isn’t fair,” said Becky, “since Alma doesn’t like Dominic.”
“I couldn’t invite him anyway,” said Gentian. “He hasn’t got a phone.”
“Maybe Erin could invite Brent.”
“There’s no point in trying to make it all come out even. We are not all double stars in this constellation.”
“I’d have said you and I were a double star,” said Becky, disconsolately.
“Sure. Micky’s just a comet you’ve captured and Dominic is, oh, a comet I haven’t captured, but he’s come under my gravitational influence for the time being.”
Becky laughed, rather as if in spite of herself. “I’ll call Alma and ask if it’s okay.”
Gentian hung up the phone and sat there, thinking. She herself had been behaving just as usual, so Becky’s disconsolation must stem from something in Becky’s feelings; she must be finding that thoughts of Micky somehow crowded Gentian out of her mind. What does that mean, in the long run? she thought. Will she not sit by me at the party, or not talk to me, or what? Maybe it won’t matter. I get very concentrated on Dominic sometimes too, but it’s just temporary. It wouldn’t interfere with anything important. She almost called Becky up and told her so, except that the line would be busy while Becky was talking to Alma.
Besides, another thought was intruding. She sat absently rubbing Murr’s belly for a while, and then went downstairs and found her father in his office.
He called, “Come in!” when she knocked. He was sitting at his computer, playing solitaire.
“Daddy,” said Gentian, not apologizing for the interruption, since he obviously was not working, “remember you said Mom would be more upset if you brought home another dog than if you brought home a mistress?”
“Ah,” said her father. “I wondered when that would go in.”
“Well, are you planning to?”
“Bring home another dog? No. I don’t plan them. They just happen.”
“I don’t think I could,” said her father reflectively. “We haven’t got a bedroom to spare. You couldn’t put a mistress in the sewing room, could you?”
” Dad .”
“No, Gentian, I am not planning to bring home a mistress. I will even go so far as to say that I do not have a mistress, although I’m not sure it would be any of your business if I did, unless I were planning to bring her home.”
“Would it be Mom’s business? Even if you weren’t planning to bring her home?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, that’s something.”
“What about you? Are you planning to bring somebody home? We’ll look as respectable as we ever do, I assure you. No unaccounted-for adults cluttering up the place. Just the usual ration.”
“Just the usual double-star system,” said Gentian, slowly.
“Are they usual?”
“Well, multiple-star systems are. I’m not sure about doubles as opposed to triples or whatever.”
“You can bring two people home if you like,” said her father, equably. “Just warn us so we can put some water in the soup.”
He was in a skittish mood; there wasn’t much point in talking to him any longer.
“Thanks,” said Gentian, and went out.
“Are you turning into a teenager?” her father shouted after her.
Gentian did not deign to answer.
This was much more surprising. I’d been having a wonderful time writing about Gentian’s astronomical obsession, but the main reason that I put it in, to start with, was a plot reason that I won’t tell you because it would give too much away. But what’s happening here, when Becky makes her remark about the double star, means that the astronomical passages are also serving the theme of the book. The book is about family relationships, friendship, the strains that romantic possibilities outside a circle of friends can have on friendship, and the ways that we all depend on one another. It’s about the ways we are bound together, as double stars are by gravity. But I hadn’t really realized that until I wrote this conversation.
This conversation also really highlights Gentian’s father’s sense of humor. And while, again, I don’t want to give details and spoil the story, this sense of humor helps explain her father’s entire attitude towards the situation that Gentian finds herself in by the end of the book.
Now, most of the time, a writer has a lot of experience with writing before she has any experience with publishing. So I was pretty accustomed to being surprised by my characters and events when I first got into publishing.
This turned out to be very useful. I’m going to tell you the quintessential story where my writing experience was helpful in maintaining equanimity during a frustrating situation.
In the mid-nineteen-eighties, I was a member of a writing group called the Scribblies. Most of us weren’t published. We were all writing novels and those who had finished novels were sending them to publishers, but the whole process was very slow. Theme and gimmick anthologies – collections of short stories based on an idea or a single fantastical creature like the unicorn – were very big then. We thought we might all be able to write stories for a theme anthology and then sell that.
We were all fans of the work of the Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers. One of our favorites of the songs he did was “Witch of the Westmerlands.” It’s a modern song, but it sounds like a fifteenth-century ballad. Like most old ballads, it has a lot of unexplained events in it and covers a lot of ground very quickly. We thought we could all write stories based on the song, as our gimmick.
That plan didn’t work very well. Pat Wrede and Kara Dalkey wrote short stories right away. I wrote a long story. Will Shetterly started a story and ended up with another novel. Emma Bull and Steven Brust got stuck and couldn’t produce any stories at all. But even the stories we’d done already showed us that, although we’d taken very different aspects of the ballad to focus on, they were still too much alike. It wasn’t a big enough theme for a whole collection. We were disappointed, but there wasn’t much to be done about it.
I put my long story away for years. It was like a scene I’d decided to cut out. I didn’t expect to ever sell it; I thought it was too weird. In the early 1990′s, I got a letter from Jane Yolen. Some of you might have heard of her or read her books. She wrote the Commander Toad books, and Owl Moon, and a huge number of fairy tales, poems, picture books, chapter books, and adult books. She’s a wonderful writer and storyteller. She wrote to me because she’d been asked to edit a series of collections of original fantasy stories for Tor Books, which was my publisher at the time, and she hoped that I could write a story for her. I was thrilled to have been invited to write a story by Jane Yolen, and wanted very much to do so. But I’m not primarily a short story writer and I couldn’t think of any ideas short enough.
Then I remembered my Witch story, just as, when I was stuck in the later part of a novel, I might remember a scene I’d decided to cut. I got the story out and revised it and sent it off. Jane liked it, to my great joy, and bought it for the first volume of the series. There was just one thing, she said. I’d need to get permission from the writer of the song to quote his lyrics. Stan Rogers had performed the song, but he didn’t write it. It was written by a Scottish folk singer named Archie Fisher.
This was all before Google existed, and it was also before I had a web browser. Fortunately, one of the editors at Tor at that time was a woman named Heather Wood who had been active in the British folk music scene. I called her and told her that I needed to get hold of Archie Fisher. She laughed. “Oh, Archie,” she said. “He’s hard to find. But I can give you the number of his American agent.”
I called Archie Fisher’s American agent. He laughed. “Oh, Archie,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve heard from him for, oh, seven or eight years. I’ll give you a phone number, but it’s probably wrong. Now, the last work he did was an album with Garnet Rogers, so I’ll also give you the address and phone number of Valerie Rogers, Stan and Garnet Rogers’s mother, because she’s the producer on that album. The other thing you can do is call the Edinburgh Folk Festival and ask them if they have any information.”
The Edinburgh Folk Festival is, unsurprisingly, in Scotland. I was too much in awe of the Rogers family to want to call Valerie Rogers and bother her. I tried Archie Fisher’s old phone number, also in Scotland, but, as his agent had said, it was not his number any more. Then I called the Edinburgh Folk Festival, which kindly gave me the same wrong number that Archie Fisher’s agent had given me. At last I sat down and wrote a letter to Valerie Rogers in Canada, and enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope for her to reply to me.
Five days later, she called me on the telephone. She was already laughing. “Oh, Archie,” she said. “Now, look, I can give you the name and address of his music company and a phone number. But I’ll warn you, they’re terrible. They’re just terrible. They never answer letters. You have to browbeat them to let you know where to send their royalties. They won’t call you back even if you want to send them money.”
I thanked Valerie Rogers profusely and wrote a letter to Archie Fisher’s music company. Two months later, I wrote another one. I called their number, but nobody answered and they didn’t seem to have an answering machine.
By this point Jane was getting twitchy. If Tor decided that they didn’t want to publish a story that quoted a song without permission, she’d have a fifteen-thousand word hole in her anthology. However, she and her husband had just bought a house in Scotland and were planning to spend several months there. She thought she might be able to run Archie Fisher to earth in person and ask him for permission to quote his song.
When Jane got to Scotland, she was able to get a working telephone number for Archie Fisher. She left him several messages. She wrote him letters. She got no replies. Finally she went to a folk festival in a location called High Place of the Pigs. She went because friends of hers would be performing there. But she asked around at random whether Archie Fisher was there.
He was. He was setting up for his performance. Jane marched up to him with the permission form in one hand and pen in the other. She had cash in her pocket as well. She explained herself to Archie Fisher. Oh, yes, he said thoughtfully, I did get some messages from you.
He signed the permission form. He refused the cash. This was extremely benign of him, and I appreciated it.
Jane went home in triumph.
The coincidence of Jane’s having just bought a house in Scotland just when she needed to find Archie Fisher probably wouldn’t work in a novel. But sometimes you get a bigger break in real life than in fiction, and the unicorn of the musician you need to talk to jumps into the High Place of the Pigs just when your editor is there.