Yesterday I got a really terrific idea for my next book to go after the one I’m working on. It was not really a new idea, but what was beautiful about it was it completed an unfinished circuit in my mind that’s been trying to light up for two decades now.
In 1992 in an unusual book I happened upon a great concept for a story I’d love to write someday. It’s a little snippet from history, something that really happened (or is alleged to have happened), with all the trimmings of a really terrific adventure story. It’s a fascinating subject, one that has continued to enthrall people for over 200 years, so it’s one of those subjects that never wears out its welcome or will never be foreclosed by somebody else writing about it. The problem was, it was nothing more than a concept. It was a set-up, a setting, a milieu, a subject–but not a story.
A story needs characters. A story needs conflict that involves human beings struggling against something–other people, nature, themselves, great impersonal forces, what-have-you–and it needs to be able to pull the reader along. Plot is necessary, but it’s more the fuel of a good story than the substance of it. All the truly great stories in human history have been about characters, not plots, concepts, settings or set-ups. Terrific though my set-up was, it wasn’t ready to be a story. And so it remained for 20 years, although the subject has continued to enthrall me throughout every one of those years.
For the past few weeks–taking breaks from writing Zombies of the Whiskey Rebellion, which has been very intensive of late–I’ve been trying to refine various writing ideas. I made a written list of concepts I’d been thinking about. My 20-year-old concept went on the list. After doing some aimless scribbling on various concepts, trying to work out which ones might become viable stories and which ones were useless, yesterday afternoon I got around to working on this old concept. I just started throwing out potential characters and scenarios, not fleshed-out, not fully formed, just seeing if maybe one of them would stick.
Amazingly, one did. A simple idea about how to set up a conflict between two potential characters started to lead toward an interesting way to illuminate the concept. I started writing about 3:00 yesterday afternoon. By 5PM, the skeleton of a real story–with real characters, real plot, and real potential–was beginning to emerge. And it was everything I hoped it would be in illuminating and being able to work with this terrific concept I first became enamored with 20 years ago.
It’s just magical when this happens, and it doesn’t happen often. It was like this little spark in my head has been trying to get going for the past 20 years, and yesterday it finally found some fuel to burn and oxygen to sustain it. For 20 years this little concept has been like a hopeful young star sitting in a casting director’s waiting room, hoping to get an audition. The star has great potential, and she’s been sitting there 20 years, watching other starlets–Giamotti, Beowulf, Zombies of Byzantium, The Valley of Forever–go through the door much quicker. Yesterday the door finally opened for her. Maybe I’ll write the book; hopefully I will, but even if something happens and it doesn’t work out, this budding star finally got her chance, and that’s a joy to me.
You’ll notice I’ve carefully avoided identifying what the idea is. That’s because I don’t want this blog to be me saying, “Hey, I got this great idea, here it is…isn’t it terrific?” Instead I wanted to think about how ideas get formed and the qualities that good ideas have that make us love them and want to work with them. There’s something brilliant, elegant and satisfying about a good idea, and we should take joy in them. The world is built of ideas. Coming up with them is what we as humans do. Let’s just relish that for a moment.