As I mentioned in my post a week ago, my story telling was inspired by the example of my father reading to us kids and telling us his stories. However, inspiration is not enough. One has to take the initiative, and start working out stories of one’s own.
I have had trouble falling asleep since as far back as I can remember. As a child, I slept in a bedroom that had a closet that contained other people’s clothes. So I rarely went into it, and its contents were unfamiliar to me. I would lie awake at night, and wonder just what might be lurking in the closet. Or maybe under the bed. It would take me forever to fall asleep.
I needed a way to distract myself. So, when I was in elementary school, I began thinking up stories as I lay there, trying to get to sleep.
I wasn’t original enough to make up my own stories from scratch. I needed something to get me started. So I did what millions of others have done. I engaged in dreaming up fan fiction, although I didn’t know that was what it was called. Give me a little credit for creativity, though. I didn’t just start with one source; I combined two. There was what I guess would be called a young adult novel by Lois Duncan entitled Ransom that had just come out about children on a school bus being kidnapped. (I was nine when I read it, hardly a young adult, but I read well above my age level in those days.) And there was a television series, The Green Hornet, which was similar to the Batman series of the same era, but much, much less campy, more straightforward. (Here’s a link to its opening credits, which gives you an idea of what it was about, and why it might inspire a nine-year-old. Don’t confuse this with the recent movie remake.) So I took the book and the TV series, recast myself as a Green Hornet clone, assigned the Kato role to the girl on whom I had a secret crush, and went out to foil the bad guys in Ransom. And imagining that story helped me to get to sleep.
Well, you can only tell yourself the same story so many times before it gets old and shopworn. I set out to solve other crimes, to right other wrongs. But I never got that far from being the Green Hornet. No, breaking away, becoming original, that took time. It also took yet another television series, the Dark Shadows gothic soap opera, for that step. The main protagonist in Dark Shadows was a vampire who was trying to do good, but compelled by his nature to do evil. It was a challenging concept for a subteen boy. That time around, I didn’t just borrow the stories and cast myself in the lead. I made up an entire universe. I was going to dream my dreams. In truth, my universe and characters were threadbare copies at first. They weren’t complete copies, though. I introduced differences. To start with, my lead character was not a vampire, even though he was a deeply conflicted individual who dealt with the supernatural. Over time, those differences built up. Eventually, they became my creations, with very little debt to the originals.
One of the engines for my original development of stories has been the age-old question, “How did it get that way?” I’d work out a story in my head, and once I had it worked out, I’d start wondering about what happened before. And there’s always something that happened before. Asking this question made me a historian by inclination long before I became a professionally-trained one. Trying to answer that question (and its counterpart, “What happened afterwards?”) meant I had to think about the motivations and social conditions that created any story I developed. For example, those of you reading my story The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge as I post it, know it is set in the year 1886, and that Abigail Lane is one of its principal characters. Abigail was created to help explain elements in another story I have written, a story set in the year 2000!
That story set in the year 2000 represented the last crucial step I took in the transition from fan fiction in my head to original stories on the written page: writing. It doesn’t matter how lively your imagination is, you can’t write a good story unless you actually write it down. (Homer and Oscar Wilde are exceptions, I admit. If you’re in their league, don’t read my advice; send me yours!) Writing it down does three things for you. First, it forces you to actually define your story, set it in metaphorical concrete, make you translate your musings into something that has to have logic and coherence. Second, you have to consider how to tell the story, and what mechanics and strategies of writing you will use. To mention the most obvious example, because it is being written as a serial, The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge has to have some sort of climax at the end of every chapter, and I have had to try what for me are new strategies to create those. Third, you have to actually think about your audience. What you write has to be good enough to read, by someone. If it isn’t, you have to either revise, begin over, or admit you don’t really want to write. If it is, you then need to figure out how to reach your audience.
The biggest day in my life as a writer was not creating that first story, back when I was a child. No, it was when I had the courage and desire to show my first written story to my girlfriend. That was the day I said I wanted to write something good enough for another reader, something good enough to be published. Writing in this blog has been another step. And if my protagonist, Rebecca Maxwell, carries a walking stick, just like the lead in Dark Shadows, I have the pleasure of knowing that it is only a resemblance, and that she and her story are entirely my creation, here for you to read.