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How a story is born

November 25, 2008
Posted at 9:47 am

Quite a few of you have written to me asking a question something like this: "How the heck do you come up with ideas to write these stories?"

Well, I thought I'd give you an example. As with most things, it's probably a little more complicated than the average observer might imagine. So this is going to be a long blog entry. But it will give you a window into my mind, which is the hook that I hope will keep you reading it to the end. I'll use my latest story, "Mistrusting a Memory" as an example of how a story is conceived, gestated, and then born.

Pretty slick how I already alluded to pregnancy, huh?

In this particular example, though, it's a really long gestation. We have to start about two years ago, when the idea came to me about writing a story about a young cowboy who decided to try robbing a train. I can't remember where the germ of that idea came from. Don't you just hate it when you wake up with a hangover, and know you've had sex, but not where, or with who?

Anyway, I started writing it. The robbery didn't go well, and men got horses off the train and formed a posse and started chasing him. One of their shots winged him on the head and his horse went over a cliff and he ended up in the river, far below. Meanwhile a wagon train was attacked by Indians, resulting in a woman, her daughter and son being the only survivors. The Indians took all the horses, so the woman and what was left of her family couldn't go anywhere. They set up an impromptu camp by the river. The daughter goes to the river, finds the cowboy and they begin to tend him. All of that was to set up the idea of him awakening with amnesia and becoming the woman's lover. Her daughter's lover too, for that matter. You've read my stories. You know the deal.

Now, the first problem was that having been shot in the head was required for him to have amnesia. And he had to fall over the cliff into the water (non-fatal soft landing) so that the posse would assume he was dead and go back to the train. But what kept him from drowning once he hit the water?

So I put that story on the back burner and took out a fresh piece of paper. On this one, the amnesia was achieved by use of a different accident. A pretty young woman was heading west on the train to go be with an uncle (imagine that!) in California. She got off the train at a water stop in a very small town, to use the outhouse. A couple of young rowdies threw a rope around the outhouse, thinking to tip it over and have a little fun. The horse they tied the rope to spooked when the outhouse fell over, though, and dragged it half a mile. Presto, head injury and amnesia. The train leaves, not knowing they're short a passenger. Nobody, including her, knows who she is, but the town needs a school teacher. So they tell her that's who she is. There are various horny men in town who have other reasons for wanting her to stay. Obviously. You've read my stories. You know the deal.

The town doctor, accompanied by a Festus-like character from Gunsmoke, examines the young woman, who is unconscious. Of course he has to examine ALL of her, so she's naked. It was at that point that I realized that amnesia was going to have to turn this poor woman into a slut of some kind so that she'd spread her legs for various men, and probably older students in the school, which seemed kind of ... well ... not real believable. I thought about going the comedy route, and having various men approach her and claim to be her boyfriend, and get her in bed etc etc etc. It was just getting ridiculous, by then.

So now THAT story, also half written, also got put on the back burner while I let reason try to fight for a place in my brain, so I could find a way to make a good idea into a good story. It sat there in my projects folder, waving a hand at me every once in a while, saying "Hey! Remember me? You should finish me!"

Two years pass while other projects claim priority. I meet and establish a relationship with an editor, who happens to be a beautiful young woman who is quite good at motivating me to write steamy sex scenes. She comes aboard kind of late in the game and we work very hard on going through all of my stories and on developing a web site for me which is hosted by ASSTR. She works VERY hard and for long hours. Posting my stuff for free, I have no money with which to pay her.

But I CAN write her a story as a token of my thanks.

Now Peaches, who is said editor and web developer, has this fantasy about a fellow she knows. She tells me some of the details and charges me with writing a story in which her fantasy can play out.

I notice "Millie's School Adventure" that unfinished amnesia story in my projects folder, and think "How could amnesia play into her fantasy?" It could be the vehicle for them to meet and become embroiled in a relationship ... that's how.

So I wrote "For Want of a Memory" for her. If you read that story, she is Lou Anne, and most of the things said about Lou Anne are things that describe Peaches too. You might also notice the gunshot-winging-the-head idea being used as well.

So basically, a two year old idea, that had been through two iterations already, was dragged out and whipped into shape to serve the needs of my lovely, lusty editor.

Now I already hear some of you asking: "What does this have to do with "Mistrusting a Memory?" After all, THAT was supposed to be the example I was using to show "how I do this stuff."

Well, while I was writing that story for Peaches, I had all kinds of thoughts on amnesia, and how it might affect someone's life. I could only use SOME of those in her story. So I took some of the other ideas and started another story. When I have an idea for a book, I write some short paragraphs about it and stash those in my projects folder, for future use.

Then, when I'm done with one project, I sift through the projects folder and look for whatever idea yells at me the loudest, which I suppose means which idea I have the most clear notions about in terms of actually writing and finishing it.

So when I was all done with "For Want of a Memory," seeing as how I was in amnesia mode anyway, I started working on this other idea, which had a working title of "The Rape Investigation Blues" It had that title because what was written of it seemed to be a blues kind of story.

Now, when I get excited about a project, I often share the progress with Peaches. She doesn't edit it then ... she just tells me what she thinks. She liked this idea, about a cop who has to deal with a girlfriend who does something she can't remember doing because of amnesia. But she wasn't crazy about the title. She suggested I think about that, and come up with something less cumbersome.

So I thought about it. At some point I was apparently reflecting on how "she can't trust her memory" and the title "Mistrusting a Memory" popped into my head. Thus, "The Rape Investigation Blues" became "Mistrusting a Memory" before the story was finished.

Now that part of things ... the "she cant trust her memory" kind of thing that resulted in a new title ... that's what I call the action of my muse. She does that while I'm writing too. Things just pop into my head and I write them down.

That becomes important later on, as you'll see in a few minutes.

So anyway, I'm writing along on this new story, about the detective and his girlfriend. I get them to the point where they're friends and she has committed a murder and can't remember it. He's suspicious about it, but has no proof, and is secretly sort of in love with her. Her amnesia also results in false memories that convince her she's in love with him too. The story COULD end right there. He turns a blind eye and they live happily ever after.

But what if she remembers things later in life? That could happen. And it would ruin everything if it did.

So why not have her remember before the story is over?

But then you have to decide what she's going to do about it when she remembers. I mean how would you feel if you woke up one morning and remembered that you had killed someone by burning him to death? That would kind of fuck up your day, you know?

Of course you could be under the care of a psychiatrist, and your cop boyfriend could argue that you did the world a favor by killing a serial rapist. The story could end right there, with all of those in the know convincing you that it was no big deal, and that you should go on with life and live happily ever after.

But what if that didn't make you feel any better about it? What if you couldn't live with the secret? What if, heaven forbid, you thought you should take responsibility for your actions?

I know, I know, but this IS fiction, you know, and while it's a stretch, I suspect there are one or two people in the world where taking responsibility for one's actions is part of their value system.

So what if she confessed and there was a trial?

Now, we have to shift gears here, momentarily, because from the very beginning, there was ANOTHER idea that had been floating around in my mind, this time based on a TV program I watched while I was stationed in Korea in 1988.

I warned you this would be long and complicated ... didn't I?

Anyway, in 1988 there was a Frontline episode about this ex con who decided to go straight when he got out of prison. He figured that he'd make a pretty good private investigator, seeing as how he knew all about crime and criminals. So he signed up for a correspondence course to become a private eye. The trouble was, he couldn't read very well. In fact, it took him five minutes to puzzle his way through one paragraph. But the course book had photographs in it, and two of the photographs were of a badge and a gun and he worked out in his mind that Private eyes carry badges and guns. So he went to a pawn shop and bought an old security officer's badge, and a revolver.

Now the course said that his "homework" assignment was to attend lots of trials, because by watching trials he would find out all about evidence, and what was good evidence and what wasn't and all that kind of thing. So he did that. He hung out at the court house most days and watched the trials.

If you read "Mistrusting a Memory" you may remember an old man, sitting in the gallery, who said "I'll be damned" when the verdict was read. That's a nod to this man who hung around court rooms to learn things.

Anyway, a sheriff's deputy noticed this guy hanging around all day, every day, and approached him. The man told him exactly what he was doing. He told the deputy he was trying to become a private eye. He mentioned the badge and gun. He said he was attending trials to learn about evidence.

The deputy, out of curiosity, more than anything else, did a background check on the guy and found out he was an ex con. He thought about the gun. Ex cons can't possess firearms. That's a crime. So he called the man up and said that some of the boys down at the station would like to see that gun and badge and INVITED him to bring them down to the station.

The man took the items to the station and was promptly arrested as a felon in possession of a firearm.

Now, the elements of proof for that offense are simple. 1. There exists a felon. 2. The felon posses a firearm.

That's it. He's guilty. It's an open and shut case. Presto, guy goes back to prison.

Except that Frontline filmed the trial and the deliberations of the jury, and that jury, after days of agonizing deliberations, found the man not guilty. There were lots of reasons they voted that way, which I won't go into. The fact is that a jury has the LEGAL right to do what a judge would very clearly call a "miscarriage of justice." Nobody TELLS the jury they have this right. In fact, everybody does everything they can to keep that information AWAY from the jury. But the fact is that the jury has the right to say "We just don't want to punish this person, even though he is obviously guilty."

OK, so all THAT was going through my mind while I decided whether to have a trial for Lacey Fetterman or not.

And then when I DID decide to have a trial, I decided that just having the jury decide not to punish her was probably not going to hack it with the general readership. I mean I know that juries can do that ... but the average person does not. I just didn't think people would buy that and then I'd get mail about it, and have to write long responses explaining it.

But I had no other gimmick to get her off. And I wanted to get her off, because, like Claire and Detective Duncan, I kind of thought she did society a favor by offing a serial rapist. And I didn't mind that she did it by burning him to death. I think God can have people act as His agent, even when the project is introducing someone to Hell.

Then, one day, while I was thinking unhappily about how to write the jury deciding not to punish her even though she was guilty, I looked at the title of the story as I pulled it up.

Mistrusting a Memory.

She couldn't trust her memory. That's where that came from, when I picked a new title because Peaches didn't get the warm fuzzies over "The Rape Investigation Blues."

And it suddenly occurred to me (my muse showed up) that if SHE couldn't trust her memory ... then maybe the JURY couldn't trust it either.

Presto ... an ending I could climb aboard and wave flags about.

See how complicated all that was? I told you.

So that's how I do it. It's a hazy, kind of clouds boiling in the sky sort of thing, that has no real rules or substance to it, until the words end up on a screen, or in my brain. I doubt seriously that the professionals do it that way. A pro would have had all the plot and the gimmick at the end worked out before he even started drafting the thing.

But I'm not a pro. So maybe that's how amateurs do it. I don't know. I don't actually worry about it. My muse shows up and I write. If she doesn't show up, I don't write, but do something else instead, like think up crazy ideas to put in my projects folder. I hear a song, or see a billboard, or a commercial on TV, and an idea for a story comes to mind. My projects folder is full of them.

It's also full of half-written stories, like "Millie's School Adventure" and "Suzie and the Outlaw" which, if my muse will ever cooperate, may get finished some day. I've already decided that that cowboy is going to go over the cliff on his horse BEFORE he's shot, so he can land in the water and swim to shore. THEN he'll get winged in the head and the posse will see him fall and think he's dead. And it's too far to go down and get his body, so they just go back to the train. Now he can be found by Suzie, who will run back to her mother and they'll take care of him, and he'll help them survive, because his skills will be intact, including an amazing skill with fast draw. And some sex, of course. Probably with both women.

Sounds like a good story idea, right? So why has it been sitting around for two years?

Because things like "Mistrusting a Memory" come along and claim priority.

It really IS complicated.

Which is why I thank you all so much for reading. This is a LOT of work to go to, and knowing you liked it is what makes it all worth while.