It’s back to school now, back to my daily hour and fifteen minute commute. (Each way.) The time isn’t wasted. I do a lot of thinking during my drive. I work on plot twists for stories I’m writing, and on brand new ideas for stories I haven’t started yet. I carry a little tape recorder along with me to record anything I might forget. This morning I got a whole story out of the drive and was able to quickly produce a rough draft as soon as I got into the office. I thought I’d talk about how the story came about.
On many days, I set myself a mental task for my commute. This morning I decided to work on ideas for a noir story using a title I came up with weeks ago: “Long Dead Woman in a Black Dress.” I started thinking about a crime scene in a forest, the discovery of the Dead Woman of the title. Immediately, a sheriff and a coroner character occurred to me. They didn’t get along, providing some nice conflict in the opening. Dialog began to unroll between them but I realized the story was moving toward a heavy duty CSI kind of tale, and my interest began to wane.
As I often do in such situations, I stopped pushing on the story itself and started thinking more about the setting. Many times, figuring out exactly where and when a story is set helps me generate the primary plot points. I don’t consciously decide on setting so much as I just let thoughts flow until something coalesces. Here’s what came to me: Southern Louisiana. The swamps. A small rural community with folks who hunt and fish and keep lacquered gator heads on their boats and in their river shacks.
A character appeared. I didn’t try for him. He was just there, embedded naturally in the setting. His name was Swampy Jack. I could see him; I could see the little store he ran, where he sold bait and bottled cokes out of an old timey dispenser, with aisles of dusty fishing lures and a jar on the counter full of homemade jerky.
That did it. I went back to the first scene, the local sheriff and the coroner examining a crime scene in the woods. That scene had changed because of my new knowledge of the setting. The sheriff character had changed, because in this setting he would be the type to know everyone. He would know Swampy Jack. Things began to fall into place, like dominoes toppling. The murder had to change too, and so the original title just wouldn’t work. A new title stepped up to claim supremacy: “Swampy Jack’s Finest Cut.”
I don’t know if other writers work this way or not, or if they could work this way, but the keys for me with this story were:
1. Having some time to think. In fact, the commute almost ‘forces’ me to take that time. I can’t be checking email. There are no students coming in. I can’t read or watch TV.
2. Visualizing a scene where there is some kind of mystery. This was the crime scene in the woods with the sheriff and the coroner.
3. Letting the characters in the scene talk. And I mean “letting” them. I try not to be directive. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to consciously write a story, but I think it’s pretty tough. Every story requires hundreds if not thousands of decisions, and it’s a lot easier and more productive, I think, to let the unconscious make most of those decisions, especially during the rough draft phase, and use consciousness to evaluate them for the final draft.
4. When plot blocks occur, and they will, switch your mental focus from the story itself to the setting. If you can’t answer one question at a particular moment, answer one you can. Just don’t stop generating questions, possibilities, and images.
5. For me at least, the most important thing in the beginning is to not be overly judgmental about ideas. So what if you generate ideas that ultimately don’t work. So what if you develop some that turn out to be silly. No one ever has to know. They can’t read your mind. Ultimately, thought is cheap. It costs you nothing. And the only thing that can stop it from solving your writing problems is you.