Characters vs. Plots

I have been browsing through my writing of the past some years. As I re-read those works, I was stuck by a somewhat surprising realization.  The great majority of my writing, both short stories and longer work, began with a character, not a plot.

From conversations with other writers, I gather this is somewhat putting the cart before the horse.   Typically, they begin with a story to tell.  They may have a particular ending they want to achieve.  Sometimes they have a great opening scene that must be developed into a complete story.  But in one fashion or another, by the time they are ready to sit down and begin writing, they have all, or most, of a story arc in their heads or on paper.  Then they develop the characters needed to populate that story.  First, a story that needs telling, then the characters are developed to meet the needs of the story.

I generally go about it exactly backwards.  I find a character first, and then curiosity drives me to discover the story the character has to tell me.

Characters come to me in many different ways.  I might see a face in my mind, a face that holds some particular point of interest.  Perhaps a scar.  How did he get that scar?  A black eye?  What led up to this face wearing a black eye?  A chubby smiling face with a full, snow-white beard.  What story does Santa Claus want to tell me?  Or is he an accountant who is really, really tired of people commenting on his looking like Santa, but doesn’t want to give up the beard because of a promise he made?

I watch people constantly on the street, or in the store.  Often enough someone will stand out in some way, and my imagination will take flight.  That beautiful woman with the very sour expression on her face.  Did she just have a fight with a boy friend, or is she fed up with people assuming that because she is beautiful she lacks a keen and questing mind?

I have started with no more than a name for a character.  Patrick Michael Seamus Condini.  Huh!?!  How did he get that combination of names?  Who is he?  What does he do?  What does he look like?

Once I begin to ask these kinds of questions, the character begins to take shape and becomes an individual, someone unique.  Now I know that Pat Condini is six foot, three inches, built like a pro football linebacker with short, curly, black hair.  Clean shaven, has a small scar over his right eye, and has had his nose broken several times and it shows.  He’s married to a “red-haired, fair-skinned, freckled, Irish beauty, standing five foot nothing on her tippy toes.”  And she takes no nonsense from Pat.  Oh, and his name?  “My father had also married an Irish lass – Irish and Wop is a family tradition.”

From a interesting name a character developed.  Once I had begun to discover just who Pat Condini was, I could sit down, start typing, and let him tell me his story.  It looks like it is going to be a mystery story, and has some potential to be novel length.  I’ve got a pretty good opening chapter,  a fascinating protagonist married to a strong secondary character/foil, an undeveloped villain, a client on a slab in the morgue, and some hints about a secondary mystery plot line.  I’m enjoying following Pat around watching the story develop.

And this is by no means unusual.  This is the way the greatest share of my stories come into existence.  My inspiration is a character.  Once I discover who the character is, once the character becomes a unique individual for me, I can simply let the character speak for himself.  Knowing Pat Condini as I now do, I simply start typing without any real knowledge of what comes next.  Several hundred to a thousand words later, I can look up and go back to read what I have just typed.  Certainly, editing will be necessary.  But I very rarely have to delete such passages because they do not ring true or because they do not advance the story in a logical fashion.

Later, I may have to move passages around.  What once was the heart of chapter five may become the end of chapter three, or perhaps it will be the opening of chapter ten, suitably revised.  But that it strictly editorial revision.  The story, the words of the story, spring from the characters more often than not.  And they do so with what is often very little conscious guidance from me.

Perhaps this is why I struggle with the typical ‘writing prompts’ to be found in so many places.  Usually, such prompts describe a situation, set a scene, provide a plot hook to hang a story on.  But my mind just doesn’t work that way.

Given the typical prompt, I simply stare off into space wondering what am I going to do with an unexpected box of doughnuts sitting in the middle of the desk when I arrive at work one morning.  Nothing comes to mind.  And, yes, that was an actual ‘prompt’ I saw somewhere, sometime.  And, no, I did not get any kind of story out of it.

Now, if the prompt had been a description of the person delivering the doughnuts, I might have been able to make something out it.  Why is the fellow with the ghastly scar running from above the corner of his eye to his jawline leaving a box of doughnuts?  That I might be able to work with.  My first question is where and how did he get the scar?  How did such a massive injury affect him?  What kind of personality has that injury left him with?  OK, now I know something about him and I can simply ask him why he leaving the doughnuts on my desk.  Oh, he’s my long-lost brother and I didn’t recognize him because of the massive scar he got as a sailor on board a sailing ship intercepted by pirates?  Yeah, that would be pretty cheesy as a story line, wouldn’t it?  Don’t worry.  I’ll never bring it up again.

However, I did flash on just such a face with just such a scar some time back.  I haven’t spent much time with him yet, but I know he’s called Bolo, deriving from how he got the scar.  He’s a mercenary soldier in a science fictional universe.  May get a story out of it before I’m done, or I may not.  That’s part of the fun I have in my writing.

I would be interested in hearing how you find your stories.  Do you find inspiration for a story to tell and then develop the characters necessary to populate your story?  Or do you, like me, get inspiration from character s who need to tell their own stories?  Both, you say?

I look forward to hearing from you.  The coffee is always on.

 

Hey, Jay! You missed a week.

Well, actually it has been closer to two weeks.  It has been twelve days since my last post went up.  What happened?  The short answer is that ‘life happens’.  You can also find it cross-referenced to ‘newbie blogger bites off more than he can chew’.

I don’t even have the excuse of illness that accounted for the first gap in my planned blog production (see here).  This time it was simply a matter of conflicting priorities, and the blog posts were not high enough on the priority list.  And, as a newbie blogger, I still don’t have several posts pre-written and scheduled for the appropriate dates.  Nor do I have an archive dating back many months or years where I can quickly pull up a “Blast from the Past”.  Thus, when a post deadline appears, I am simply out of luck as well as time.

But I do learn, if only slowly.  I am going to cut back my blog posting schedule to just once a week.  I simply do not have the available time to post twice a week and keep up with everything else that I currently have on my plate.    I’m not sure what the best day for that post is going to be, but for now I’m going to try for Mondays.  New post each Monday.  I have a post written (in my head) and will begin transferring it to cyberspace as soon as I finish this post which will appear Friday, Nov 27.  That new post will go up on Monday, Nov 30.  Thereafter, each Monday should see a new post.

That, at least, is the plan.  Less ambitious than previously, but hopefully more realistic given the current state of affairs.  Along with a decrease in the blog post production schedule, I am ready (I think!) to schedule posting my short fiction to this blog site.

When I first set up the “My Fiction” page, I indicated an intention to post work there on an irregular and random basis.  It is now my expectation to put up a new sample of my writing monthly.  I renew my promise not to subject you to serialized chapter posts of my longer works, but will only post flash fiction and short works.  With my regular blog posts scheduled for Mondays, Friday seems an appropriate day to post my fiction, and so there will be a new short-short posted Friday, Dec 4, and the first Friday of each month thereafter.

For those of you who wonder why I have such difficulty in finding 750 or 1,000 words to write for my blog post, I can only explain that I am one of those very slowww writers, who edits every word as I write, not once or twice, but over and over again.  Moreover, I first started this blog as a chronicle of my (mis)adventures in writing.  Therefore, I can’t just sit down and tell you about the washer overflowing, or my laptop deciding that 15 years of faithful service is enough and refusing to go any further.  I have to try and relate the post to writing, and particularly my writing.  And I am a perfectionist!  Good enough just isn’t for me.  That “very slowww” writing also partially explains why I won’t even consider trying something like NaNoWriMo.  Yes, I know.  A first draft is a draft and doesn’t have to be perfect.  But that simply is not the way I do it, and this old dog has his hands full learning the new tricks already on his plate.

In the first few days of my “Excellent Adventure” in blogging, I indicated that this blog was, for lack of a better word, ‘secondary’ to my ‘real writing’, that is, my fiction both long and short form.  In the two months I have been blogging, regardless of how irregularly, I have come to realize that this blog is just as important to me as what I previously regarded as my ‘real writing’.  This blog requires as much of my time, effort, and attention as anything else I write.  So, even a 750-word blog post can occupy a large block of time as I work and re-work it to my own personal satisfaction.

And if my own particular writing idiosyncrasies weren’t enough to contend with, as mentioned above, my laptop died.  I’m traveling for the holiday, and having to learn to use a new laptop.  I don’t do well with the keyboard on a laptop to begin with, and a new one is almost impossible!  I learned to type a long time ago, before there was even an electric typewriter, much less computer keyboards.  My thumbs know exactly where they are supposed to be and just what they are supposed to do.  And a touchpad where my thumbs rest really, really messes things up!  I’ve lost several blocks of typing trying to write this post just because this miserable machine won’t read my mind and do what I’m thinking, rather than doing what my fat fingers and thumbs inadvertently tell it to do.

Oh. yes, one other thing that tends to slow me down in writing these posts.  WordPress seems to have ‘fixed’ what wasn’t (IMHO) broken.  At least I think the changes are to WordPress and not the result of my first attempt to write a blog post on a new computer.  All I know for sure in that regard is that certain expectations in using this site developed over the past couple of months at home on my desktop computers are not being met on the road on a new laptop.

Ah, well.  I am thankful to be spending time with my daughter and her family.  My health is reasonably good.  And I’m having fun writing, even if I am very slow.

I hope you all had as nice of a Thanksgiving holiday as I did.  See you on Monday!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Rant from a Reader

No, Gentle Reader, there will not be a guest post today.  Or, maybe, sorta, kinda, a guest post, but one written by yours truly.  Assuming I have you totally confused at this point, let me try to be a little less cryptic.  In the normal course of events,  I wear my ‘writer’ hat when writing these posts.  Today, I am wearing my ‘reader’ hat, and want to relate a recent experience of mine as a reader.  There may be something of interest to writers in the tale that follows.

As I have detailed elsewhere, I am an avid and eclectic reader.  You would be hard-pressed to find a non-fiction topic or a fiction genre not represented on my bookshelves.  Two fiction categories, Young Adult and Urban Fantasy. somewhat merge in my mind and are conspicuous for their scarcity in my library.  Until recently, my YA reading was re-reading for the umpteenth time the ‘juveniles’ of Robert A. Heinlein.  By the way, I find those ‘juvenile’ science fiction novels written 60 years ago and more to be almost as enjoyable today as they were when I first read them so many years ago.  Urban Fantasy, which I would find difficult to define, simply didn’t interest me enough to spend money on.  My vision of vampires is dominated by Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins.  H. P. Lovecraft more than covered the ‘paranormal’ landscape for me.  I still don’t understand what a ‘sparkly vampire’ is all about.

Not long ago, I decided to at least make an attempt to fill in some of the gaps in my reading as regards both YA and Urban Fantasy.  I had run across a particular author in my travels through the blogging world and the author was promoting a new book.  The blurbs indicated that the book was in that paranormal sort of universe that I associate with Urban Fantasy.  Moreover, the heroine was a college student which at least would touch upon the Young Adult genre.  I looked the book up on Amazon.  The new title was there and at a price that wouldn’t break the bank.  I clicked on ‘buy’ and the book was downloaded to my Kindle.

A few days later, I found the time to read the book.  From the opening chapter it was clear that this book was going to fulfill my expectations to expose me to both the YA and Urban Fantasy categories as I understood them.  The heroine was a college student and we spent a fair amount of time meeting her college roommates and getting acquainted with the campus.  More time was devoted to her interacting with several male students who were uniformly square-jawed, broad-shouldered, and absolutely “hot”.  An interesting sub-plot was initiated with the introduction of her “best friend” from childhood — male, square-jawed, broad-shouldered, and absolutely “hot” — but with whom our heroine had a strictly platonic relationship.  Our heroine is attacked one night while walking between classes in the company of her platonic, male best friend.  It quickly becomes apparent that the attacker is some variant of the vampire mythology, though the attacker does not sparkle.  She is ‘infected’, though her companion, while more seriously injured, is not.

The balance of the book is a search for the attacker and its kin, a search for a cure for our infected heroine, and the not-unexpected scene in which the platonic relationship with the best friend from childhood is significantly altered in bed.

Let me pause here, and reflect for a moment on what I had found in my exploration of new genres to this point.  Certainly it does not rise to the point of a “rant”.  That rant will be covered in more detail below.  But, for now, let me consider the evidence to date.

The author of this book has an author page on Amazon listing several books published prior to this one.  These titles appear to be one or more titles in at least two different ‘series’, with the one I read being book one of yet another series.  Several of the titles are available in paperback, as well as the Kindle e-book editions.  The book I purchased lists the author, an illustrator, and an editor.  A publisher is listed and the name is an imprint of a Big 5 publisher, though that imprint is devoted to non-fiction (?).  Interesting, that.  There is, of course, an Amazon ASIN, but it is distinctly not an ISBN, nor is any ISBN listed for this e-book.  Other books by this author in paperback format do have ISBN numbers.  The book is listed by Amazon as 180+ pages, which in my estimation is a suitable length for a novel of this type.

Based on my reading, and a little bit of research about the author and the book, I draw the following conclusions.  Like a great many books and ebooks to be found on Amazon, this book is likely “indie”, that is published by the author and the publisher listed on the Amazon page is coincidently the same name as a Big 5 publisher non-fiction imprint.  Although an editor is listed for the title, again like many indies on the market, it needs some editing assistance.  The book was well proofread and there were very few spelling and grammar errors.  However, there were a number of instances of stilted and clumsy constructions that good editing might have corrected.  The greatest need for good editing, however, is the basis for the rant below.  In short, the book, generally met my expectations for a readable, indie book in genres which hold little interest for me.  Except…

One major exception to expectations met forms the basis for my rant.  After some 170+ pages of relatively competent writing, our heroine runs back into a burning building, evidently blacks out, and awakens in a different place to be told someone is anxious to meet her.  “The End”

Say, what?

I have read literally thousands of novels over my lifetime.  I have never read a novel that ends with a cliff-hanger straight out of an old-time Saturday afternoon matinée serial movie.   Shades of The Perils of Pauline!  In dozens of books on writing and hundreds of articles on the same topic, not to mention many hours of classroom time in the art and craft of creative writing, one simple dictum is repeated over and over.  “A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.”  Whether it be 1,000 words of flash fiction, a 5,000 word short story, or a full-length novel, a beginning, a middle, and an end are required, not merely suggested.

If you suspect I was a trifle irritated, you are entirely correct.  I did not throw my Kindle against the wall, but I was tempted.  For several days, I merely nursed my resentment at what I considered the author’s very shabby treatment of his readers.  Finally, I conceived of the idea of today’s post.  More research on the author and his other works.  I tried unsuccessfully to locate the publisher, though I found another author who listed the same publisher, evidently located in England.  A very brief search for the editor got me lost in a welter of names, but all pointed back to the books written by this author.

In conclusion, as a conclusion, I will not waste any more money or time reading this author again.  I find the cliff-hanger ‘ending’ of my initial sample of this author’s work irritating and unprofessional.  On a side note, but related, I have now read several other books by other authors, previously unknown to me, that definitely fall in the Urban Fantasy genre.  I enjoyed them very much.  Each of them has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Now that you have heard my ‘rant’, I propose a question to you, my readers.  With Young Adult and Urban Fantasy, I am venturing into unknown waters.  I don’t have a lot of examples to draw on, so I ask for your experience.

Am I unreasonable in asking that a book, even in Urban Fantasy and/or Young Adult genres, have a clear beginning, middle, and end, regardless of whether it be part of a series or not?  I hope you will take a moment and let me know your thoughts on the matter.

Finding an audience

My last post dealt with why I write as a response to a prompt from the Blogging 101 class I’m taking at Blogging University.  Today, I’m still dealing with that topic, though from a somewhat different perspective.  Today’s post also has its genesis in a comment posted by one of my classmates at Blogging 101.  That comment essentially posed the question that I suspect most of us who are blogging ask ourselves frequently:  “How do I expand my audience?”

As a complete novice in blogging, I am not going to presume to offer any advice to anyone in answer to that question.  There are many folks out there far more expert than I who can and do address the question of marketing one’s writing.  However, the question itself, combined with my previous post on why I write, led me to the question I asked myself which leads directly to this post.  That question is simply “For whom do I write?”

When that question finally clarified itself in my mind, I was quite startled.  It was a question I had never previously considered though I have been scribbling stories of one kind or another for some years now.  “Who do I want/expect is going to read what I write?”

Once the full import of that question settled in my thoughts, I was mind-blown.

My first unthinking response was “Anybody!  Everybody!”  Then I began to actually consider the question.  The next answer to the question reflected back to why I write.  In my last post I wrote,  “I feel better when I write.  And I’m just selfish enough to choose to ‘feel better’ as often and as much as I can.”  From this, the logical conclusion is that I write for myself.

But, if that is the case, then why did I invest the hours I spent working on the Writers’ Platform Challenge?  That Platform Challenge was designed to teach writers how to get their name out in front of the reading public, thereby developing the beginnings of an audience.  This blog is a direct result of that month-long class in expanding my platform as a writer.  If I am writing solely for my own benefit why do I keep submitting story after story to various contests, magazines, etc., hoping to be published?  And why does each rejection send me back to my writing trying to figure out how to make it better in the hope that perhaps the next submission will win the prize or be accepted for publication?

Ergo, I do not write solely for myself.  I write for an audience.  An audience I am struggling to find.  Who is that audience?  And, how do I find them?  The more I thought about this completely new (for me!) thought, the more I realized that it is a question that any writer should consider at some point in their writing.

It does not matter whether the answer to the question “For whom do I write?” is for yourself, or whether you are slaving away on that novel you hope to see published.  I suspect, though I do not know — even for myself — that being aware of just who is your desired audience will help to clarify your writing.  But it does seem to me that clarification has to help.

If your goal is to publish a Young Adult fantasy novel, you need not polish your prose to reflect the literary standards of The New Yorker.  If you are writing a blog devoted to family life or cooking, Erma Bombeck is probably a better role model than Virginia Woolf.  If you are writing a memoir or biography that will appeal primarily to family and friends, extensive footnotes and long bibliographies are unnecessary.  On the other hand, if you are writing the definitive biography of a prominent politician, you may want to read some of the work of Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns.

As I am writing this post, I am clarifying for myself an answer to the question of for whom do I write.  In my fiction, I am writing for publication.  My expected/desired audience are those who read in the genres in which I write.  Different genres appeal to different audiences and my writing in those genres needs to reflect the tastes of those varying audiences.  Here, in this blog, my expected/desired audience are other writers, frequently bloggers themselves, and my writing here needs to address their expectations.

Writing is a form of communication.  An on-going conversation between the writer and the audience, even when the audience is just the writer himself.  The writing should reflect the audience.  And, in the final analysis, a writer always needs to address the expectations of his or her audience, whether that audience is the general reading public, a select group interested in a particular topic, or the writer himself.  You need always to remember your audience.

Glutton for Punishment?

First, a housekeeping note.  I recently added a new page to this blog.  You will find it in the Menu listings above as “My Fiction”.  I will at random moments add bits and pieces of my writings under that topic.

Given the complaining I did (see here and here) about the difficulties of the October Platform Challenge by Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest, one would quite logically assume that with the conclusion of the month-long effort, I would settle down to the relative calm of getting my twice weekly posts for this blog out on time and concentrate on my fiction writing.

Nope!  Not for me.  I had to take on not one, but two new ‘challenges’.  In the innocence of the uninformed, I signed up over at Blogging University for Blogging 101 and Writing 101.  Being a complete ‘newbie’ to this hitherto unknown world of blogging, naturally I’m eager to learn whatever I can about blogging and the intricacies of using WordPress.  Thus, an introductory course from WordPress on how to use the site is a natural first step.

Further, I hope I never get to the place where I think I have nothing to learn about the art and craft of writing.  I have found that I have learned new things revisiting very basic creative writing texts, materials, etc. that I first encountered years ago.  So, if WordPress and Blogging U offer writing classes, I will start with the first one and work my way through the list knowing there will be something for me to learn even (especially?) in an introductory class.

Before continuing on, I need to digress momentarily.  In setting up this blog, I devoted time and thought to the “About”  page and the information presented there as to ‘who I am‘.  It is, admittedly, sketchy, but it says what I want it to say.  You will find essentially the same information wherever on the web you might find me — Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Scribophile, and others — and when my website at JayLeeward.com is finally completed and online, it will reflect the same data, or lack thereof.  This may change in the future, but for now, I am satisfied with my ‘bio’.

Back to Blogging University and my two new ‘challenges’.  You may well guess my dismay when I discovered that Day One at both courses presented essentially the same assignment.  Write a blog post telling the world who you are and why you write.  Further, it became immediately clear that both courses entailed daily, or near daily, blog posts.  Aha!  Small, dark clouds on the immediate horizon.

Above I noted my intention to post twice weekly to this blog — Tuesday and Saturday.  My little digression above deals with my bio.  Gentle reader, my ancestry is as mixed as you can imagine.  I am the stereotypical All-American ‘mongrel’, with bits of this, that, and the other thrown into the ‘melting pot’.  However, one of my grandfathers was born late in the nineteenth century in Wales, and I have some of the stereotypical attributes of that Welsh ancestry.  No, I can’t sing a lick, unlike others from Wales such as Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, or Englebert Humperdinck, nor do I have the sonorous voice and acting skills of a Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins.  But even a Missouri mule takes a backseat to the stubbornness of a Welshman, and I inherited a full measure of that trait.

Thus, although my classes at Blogging U are calling for daily posts to this blog and a rewrite of my ‘About’ page, I shall inflict neither of those on you.  My posts will continue to be published on Tuesday and Saturday.  My bio will remain (for now, anyway) as currently posted.  However…

To demonstrate that even a Welshman can compromise — just a little! — I am going to take this opportunity and prompt from my classes to explore why I write.  And if a little bit about who I am creeps into the conversation, so be it.

Beginning at the beginning, I am the person who reads the back of the cereal box at breakfast table if no other reading material is available.  I can’t remember when I could not, and did not, read.  And I read everything!  Fiction and non-fiction, textbooks and novels, exciting escape into worlds of imagination and ‘dry as dust’ scholarly tomes.  I have always read anything and everything I could get my hands on.   Again, as far back as I can remember, I marveled particularly at the imagination and creativity of the authors of the fiction I read.  While enjoying their flights of imagination and living vicariously in their created worlds, I also wished I could do the same.  It seemed to me that the most glorious possible occupation was that of the writer.  I also knew that I could never be like those writers.  I did not have the talent, the creativity, the imagination to create new worlds, new characters, new stories.

Fast forward much of a lifetime and I found myself in a position to exit the nine-to-five workday world.  I looked about me at my personal library and gave thanks that now I had unlimited time to read!  It was sheer bliss.  But that long ago wish to be like the writers whose works I so enjoyed persisted and I began to question my lifetime assumption that I could not do what they did.  What if…?

I enrolled at a community college nearby and took an introductory class in creative writing. and then another, and another.  To say I was blown away is a great understatement.  I was stunned, shocked, amazed — and ultimately, hooked!  I was very fortunate in that my first instructor in that initial class was both a skilled teacher and a published fiction author.  It was he who led me to understand that writing is both art and craft.  The craft of writing, like any other craft, is a matter of techniques and tools of the trade.  Whether it be carpentry or macrame, sculpture or accounting, there are certain rules to learn, tricks and techniques to master, and tools one can use to accomplish the task.  Learning these things and practicing them diligently will give one the ability to operate in the craft of one’s choice, whether as a cabinet-maker, sculptor, accountant, or writer.  Please note.  I said, ‘operate‘!  I did not say ‘excel‘.

And this is where the art of writing comes into the equation.  Art, in writing as in music, painting, sculpture, and elsewhere, requires not only practiced techniques, but talent.  Talent is something that so far as I know, cannot be taught nor learned.  Talent is what separates Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or Stephen King from most students in a creative writing class.  It is, or it is not.  And in the field of writing, talent is most often determined for a writer, not by himself, but by his readers.

I realized early on that I did not really worry about the talent part of the equation.  The craft part was sufficient challenge for me.  So I work to perfect my craft — not that I expect to ‘perfect’ my efforts at craft, but rather I strive toward that goal.  Perhaps, even more important than my desire to strive toward learning my craft, I discovered along the way that I was having more fun than I could have possibly imagined.  The more time I devote to learning the skills of this craft, the more fun I have.

There is one downside to all that fun, however.  I have also discovered that ‘fun’ is addicting (see here).  The more ‘fun’ I have, the more I ‘need’ that fun.  Now, at this stage of the game, if I go too long without my writing ‘fun’, I miss it greatly and suffer withdrawal pains.  I really do need to spend time writing, whether it be this blog or my latest fiction.  I feel better when I write.  And I’m just selfish enough to choose to ‘feel better’ as often and as much as I can.

“Where do you get these stories?”

As I am sure happens with many writers, I am often asked, “Where do you get these stories?”  The honest answer for me, at least, is that I usually don’t ‘get’ them.  They ‘get’ me.  A bit of flash fiction I am now in the throes of polishing is instructive.

Sitting outside on my back deck, I was enjoying a cup of coffee and the warm sunshine and beautiful weather that is late October in Arizona.  I wasn’t particularly trying to develop a story; I was just basking in sunshine and letting my mind roam as it will.  A ‘face’, if you will, flashed through my thoughts.  It was an interesting face, massively scarred.  A name followed close behind.  The name linked to the scarred face.

That was all it took for me.  I gave up my spot in the warm sunshine and headed in to my office.  An hour later I had done the research I needed to do for the story that had germinated and was beginning to sprout in my head.  It wasn’t a major story.  It wasn’t significant in any way.  I had a character, a name, and I knew what that character was going to do.  In other words, I had my story, complete for a flash fiction piece, and needed only to get it down on ‘paper’ , i.e., my word processing software.

Fifteen hundred words later, the story was told.  I sat back to read what I had written.  And realized that this wasn’t the story I had planned to write at all!

The first, and most glaring, change from my initial plan was that my protagonist had refused his role as the lead character.  A secondary character, destined to become a corpse, suddenly took center stage and refused to relinquish the spotlight — though he did wind up a corpse anyway.  The back story now loomed large and demanded thousands of words of its own.  A walk-on ‘spear carrier’  character walked back on stage at the denouement and suggested that there were several stories that could be told just about him.  As this fifteen hundred word bit of ‘fluff’ had a science fictional setting, the barely mentioned ‘universe’ created in my head to contain the story took on a life of its own and interested me enough to toy with the idea of developing that universe further.

Nor is the example above the first time characters and stories have taken off in directions unimagined by this writer.  It matters not whether I am working on a longer story wherein I start by developing detailed, multi-page character ‘spec’ sheets or shorts where I just sit down and start writing as above.  Even with a detailed internal and external description of a character, that character may develop a mind of their own.  I’m struggling with a novel in progress for precisely that reason right now.  A primary character, though not the intended protagonist, is threatening to take over that role, relegating my intended protagonist to a secondary, love interest spot.

In another instance — a  4,000 word short story — a secondary character, intended to be little more than a walk-on at the outset, developed so well in writing the story that I am now doing research with the thought that this detective might become a leading character for a series of stories, possibly even a novel.

What’s a poor writer to do?  Characters write their own stories, ignoring my carefully planned out plots.  Background material, intended as ‘descriptive filler’, screams out “Hold on, Charley.  You need several thousand more words to develop this ‘background’ to its full potential.”  Minor walk-on characters turn into individuals demanding their own story be told.

As I said, very frequently the stories and characters ‘get’ me.  I don’t ‘get’ them.  I’m just the writer, along for the ride.