April 13, 2014

Slice of PIE: How Do You Turn A Mental Image Into A Story?

“…the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head. I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn't have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one… I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn't know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._K._Rowling)

Pembina is in the northeast corner of North Dakota, tucked in the angle between the Minnesota state line and the Canadian border. Residents claim it to be the coldest place in the country. It may be. During the winters, smoke occasionally sticks to chimneys. Inhabitants try not to die between Thanksgiving and the start of spring training because the ground is simply impenetrable. Most people make it a point to stay home over the Fourth so they don't miss summer. The town has a population of about 600. It's walled off from rolling prairies by a screen of trees. Looking out from the west side of this screen at night, one can see no artificial light anywhere. The landscape is dark all the way to the horizon.” (http://www.sfwa.org/members/mcdevitt/StrangePlaces.html)

‘Beggars in Spain’ was one of my first stories dealing with genetic engineering, a topic that has absorbed me ever since. And it has to do with the engineering of people who don't have to sleep. This came out of sheer jealousy. I need nine hours of sleep a night and I resent it bitterly, because I see people getting by with four or five and they can accomplish so much more.  (https://www.sfsite.com/10b/nk91.htm)

I’ve had some really great images in my head before. I’m working on one right now that may or may not defeat me. It’s been floating around in my head since 2004 and I even sketched the image: a man in a parka sitting on an ice block next to a coffin carved out of ice. His son is in the coffin. From that moment, the title was there, too: “The Stars Like Nails”. It has taunted and titillated me ever since. I put it off for a long time because I didn’t think I was skillful enough to write it. I knew it had to be a deep story. I knew it had to be a collision of a future technology and the beliefs a man has – but it had to harken back to an ancient struggle. In this case it’s something I’ve struggled with forever: the deeply held belief that I am responsible for the bad decisions the people I care for make. I KNOW I’m not, but that actually doesn’t matter as much as this foundational belief.

Another image I had, came from a real incident. When I was in college, my roommate was wakened one morning by a phone call (it was on an black Bakelite® wall phone in our dorm room, so that gives you a time frame!). I’d always thought the phrase “seeing  the blood drain from his face” was hyperbole. It wasn’t. His father had gone hunting for the deer opener. A girl had gone horseback riding at the same time. He shot her. Didn’t kill her. Badly wounded her. She recovered.

Several years later, the image of an adopted Vietnamese kid walking into a morning-dark driveway and dropping a steel thermos on his way out to go hunting with his best friend leaped into my mind. It took a while – LOTS of research into hunting from a deer stand, what the county sheriff’s deputy would do in an allegedly accidental shooting during deer hunting season. Lots of people helped me with it, lots of people’s names were included in the story, and “Dear Hunter” was published in the January/February 2000 issue of CICADA
Magazine (one of the Cricket Group).

What came between the image and the published story? You will find NO surprises here, in fact it’s pretty standard stuff. But this time it netted me a publication in a major magazine and a HUGE check!


Image (related to the incident but totally different from it)

Protagonist (I have always tried for non-stereotypical ones!)

The Friend (you need someone for the protagonist to talk to)

The Setup (I couldn’t do the exact same story, I also had never been in a deer stand in my life…but my brother had)

The Incident Shaped to fit the new story

The Ramifications (in this case very specific, legal ones; for which I interviewed a county sheriff’s deputy and asked very specific questions)

The Climax (what would a teenager be thinking after he shot a girl? I wasn’t certain, so asked some teenagers what they would be thinking)

 The Dénouement (my protagonist fell apart, he needed to be healed but him lying on a couch seemed a sort of dull way to end the story, so I lighted on a letter in the To The Editor column)

I sold it, it was published – and I got my first FAN letter!

My problem now is repeating this. Can I? Will I? No idea, and my only hope is to keep working at it!

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