Tag Archives: characters

A Walk in the Park

On September 20, 1976 at Northwestern University, I met a bright young lady who would before long become my wife. One day that fall I happened to be in her dorm room looking at a poster hanging on her roommate’s wall, a gorgeous photograph of forested mountains draped in the oranges, reds, and golds of autumn. As I admired the poster a story came to mind, and in short order I wrote the first draft of “National Park.”

To be honest, it wasn’t very good. I still had a lot to learn about writing in those days. Over the years, the story was rewritten and recast several times. You can read the current incarnation here, and I suggest you do before going on, because what follows is a serious spoiler.

Initially the story featured one lone character making a climb up a treacherous mountain. The climb lasted only a few pages, and was followed by a startling revelation. (This is where the spoiler comes in, so if you haven’t read the story yet, better do so now!) I left the climber intentionally anonymous, to emphasize what I hoped would be a stunning transformation from the richness of the natural world  to the desolation of the city in which he finds himself.

[SPOILER ALERT!]

That’s right: the National Park isn’t a natural wilderness at all, but a virtual reality experience. The climb didn’t happen except in the character’s head. The story was a cautionary tale about the destruction of the natural world and how increasingly we were being severed from it.

Not bad for 1976, a time when the term “virtual reality” hadn’t even been coined, although a few SF writers had created virtual reality stories before (Bradbury’s brilliantly chilling short story, “The Veldt” comes to mind). Alas, it wasn’t a well-written story.  Over the years I would rewrite it several times.

Even in its improved forms, readers didn’t seem to know what to make of it. One editor rejected it with the comment that although he enjoyed it, at the end all I’d done was to build up the danger to the climber and then reveal that he hadn’t been in any danger at all. Obviously the guy totally missed the point. The danger is real; it’s just not what it first appears to be.

Others told me to give the climber a name, and as I learned more about the sport of climbing, I added considerable detail to the preparations and the climb itself. I also added some other characters, partly to increase the realism and partly to increase the tension. Last but not least, the original story didn’t have a very good hook. The current version starts with one of the climber’s companions suggesting that he’s going to die on the mountain.

Today, virtual reality stories are so commonplace that I doubt “National Park” would excite any editor. So it is now relegated to my files and this blog. But I hope you enjoy it anyway.

 

Writing What You Don’t Know

Here’s a well-worn adage for writers: “Write what you know.” Problem is, I don’t know anything.

That’s not strictly true. I’m an expert software developer. I’m an amateur astronomer and have a long-standing interest in physics.  Although not an expert yet, I’ve learned a bit about the art of bonsai. But most of my skills and interests have little to do with anything I write.

Some regard “write what you know” as cliche rather than solid writing advice, but there is a point in it. When you’re a writer, your knowledge and life experiences worm their way into your stories. Fragments of personalities you’ve encountered in real life show up in your characters, and their lives will mirror aspects of your own.

Here’s a small example. In True Death, one of my characters vents his rage by taking an axe to a downed tree. That tree was, in a sense, a real downed tree, one that fell into my swimming pool during a storm a few years before the story was written, although I didn’t hack it to bits while thinking murderous thoughts.

Regardless, fiction writers of necessity write about what they don’t know, too. I’m writing a detective series, yet I’ve never been a detective or a police officer. Indeed, I’ve only known two police officers, and I’ve talked very little with either about their work. Unlike Rick Peller, my main character, I don’t know what it’s like to learn that my wife has been killed. (That’s an experience I don’t want to have, either.) Unlike Eric Dumas, another of my detectives, I don’t know what it’s like to suffer massive rejection. Indeed, I’ve never lived in Howard County, although I’ve worked there a couple of times.

So how do you write what you don’t know? Research, for one thing. Primarily, I research online to learn about places and things, processes and procedures. But not everything can be readily researched that way. What about characters’ backgrounds and experiences and thoughts and emotions?

Easy! I make it up as I go along.

That may sound dicey, but it works. Maybe I get lucky. Or maybe I actually do know more than I think.

The Making of “True Death”

While The Fibonacci Murders began with a vague idea (see The Making of the Fibonacci Murders), True Death‘s origin was even more nebulous. I started with the title. Don’t ask where that came from. I have no clue. But it’s a neat title, no?

A title without a story, though, that’s rather a problem. Most titles reflect some key aspect of a story, such as the characters (MacBeth), the locale (The Martian Chronicles), primary events (The Fibonacci Murders), or key themes (Sense and Sensibility). Without a story, how can one devise a suitable title?

No matter. I had a neat title, obviously one that bespoke a theme. But what is true death? An author might choose from several interpretations, but at the time I had in mind a particular sense: death of the soul. As a Baha’i, I view a person’s physical death not as their destruction but merely as passage from one form of existence to another. Spiritual death, while not obliteration, distances us from our Creator. It harms us in a way physical death cannot.

But a theme isn’t a story. Most often, I discover themes as I write, so here I approached it exactly backwards. The opening scene, with a  broken man in a rocker on the porch of a run-down cabin, was in essence a statement of the theme, made while searching for the story:

The run cut into the base of the mountain, twisting and turning with the land, bubbling past old farms, past pine and spruce and deciduous trees waking from winter slumber, gurgling beneath small bridges on gravel roads, down past a mansion built by some retired executive looking to get away from it all, down through the gap between the mountain and its neighbor, down to join with the river just south of Centerville. A paved road kept the water company, winding through the mountains alongside it. Where the run entered the gap, splashing over a series of rock steps, an unpaved track slipped southward into the trees, climbed the slope, and ended at a small, run-down shack.

On the porch, a man in a scarred old bentwood rocker creaked back and forth, back and forth, his blue eyes directed at the treetops yet not focused on them. Few ever saw those eyes, but those who did frequently remarked how old they seemed compared to the body that hosted them. Vietnam veterans said he must have seen serious action in Afghanistan or Iraq; his eyes were that kind. Others speculated he had lost a wife or a child, or both. Not that anyone knew. He rarely came to Centerville, and then only to buy food. He arrived like a shadow, conducted his business, spoke to no one, and left like a faint breeze falling still. Whatever tragedy had befallen him, it seemed to have drained most of the life from him.

Had he talked to anyone, had anyone uttered such speculation, he would have shook his head. He was, in fact, already dead.

Now I had a character with no story, only a slight improvement. Fortunately, at about the same time a story presented itself. With True Death, I wanted to delve into the backgrounds of detectives Rick Peller, Corina Montufar, and Eric Dumas. In The Fibonacci Murders, I’d mentioned that Peller’s wife had died in an automobile accident four years previously. I realized I could build upon that by turning it into an unsolved hit-and-run. With that and the broken man from the first scene, I had sufficient material to spin a tale.

That’s how True Death began. Where all the twists and turns came from, well, that’s another story.