Occasionally I’ll take a walk with the specific intent to shoot photographs. More often, though, I take a walk just to…well, to take a walk. To get out of the house, to breathe some fresh air, to stretch the muscles and make the blood pump just a wee bit faster. And it helps me clear out the cobwebs when I’m having writing issues — like when I’m unable to think of a metaphor and I have to resort to a cliché like ‘clear out the cobwebs.’
Sometimes when I take a walk, I’ll stick my little Fujifilm X10 in a pocket. I almost never take it out. Almost never is another way of saying Sometimes I do. On a strangely warm morning back in January, I did. I took the camera out because as I walked through a small suburban park, I saw these two trees:
Here’s the problem. I’ve been working on a novel for a while. A novel is as much an exercise in persistence as anything else. I’ve published a lot of short fiction in various genres, I’ve published several nonfiction books, but I’ve only published one novel. So I very much want to get this novel manuscript finished and out the door. But I’m also heartily weary of the damned thing. Don’t get me wrong; I think the manuscript is good — but at this point I know everything there is to know about the characters and the plot. That leaves me with nothing to do but put words in a row. That’s not easy, of course. They have to be the right words. And that can be fun sometimes. But the real fun of writing fiction is, for me, the bit where you’re actively making shit up.
Why is that a problem? It’s a problem because it means my mind has already moved on to other projects. My mind can be a real asshole. When I take a walk, instead of thinking about my current project, my mind is kicking around ideas for the future. So when I saw those two trees, my mind began to build a scene around them. An anonymous guy running slowly between them. A guy running from something? Or toward something?
I turned around to see what he’d be running toward. And I saw these two horses:
Here’s another part of the problem. I’ve only written for an adult audience. Not ‘adult’ as in ‘adult movies’ but adult as in ‘not young folks.’ But a lot of the most creative fiction I’ve read over the last couple of years has been in the Young Adult genre. I find myself wanting to write a YA novel. Most of the fiction I’ve published has been in the mystery and detective fiction field — and I’d like to try something altogether different. Over the last few years I’ve been drawn to the sort of world-building that takes place in fantasy fiction. However, I can’t really abide stuff with dragons and wizards, or magic swords, or those grand epic stories in which the pot-boy turns out to be the bastard-heir to the throne. If I ever write anything like that, you have my permission to stab me.
I much prefer stories that drop ordinary folks into extraordinary situations. So I’ve been wanting to write a YA novel revolving around a fairly ordinary kid who gets caught up in a situation having fantasy overtones. When I saw those two trees and those two horses, my asshole mind began to concoct an opening scene. An ordinary kid sitting on the bench near the horses sees an anonymous guy running slowly in his direction from between those two trees. The kid, of course, would be the protagonist. And the kid would have to be asking the very same question I was asking myself as a writer.
I kept walking and considering possible answers to that question, and soon found myself behind the local Salvation Army store, where there was a rubbish hatch tucked away between two bollards. A great place to hide, if somebody was chasing you. But who is being chased? The kid? The guy? Maybe both of them? Maybe the guy was being chased until he met the kid, and now the kid is being chased by whoever was chasing the guy?
I checked the rubbish hatch; it was locked from the inside (of course it was — this is real life). But one of the advantages fiction has over real life is that it doesn’t have to completely conform to reality. It only has to conform enough to be believable. There are a lot of ways to deal with a locked rubbish hatch. But what we’re after at this point is tension, and one way to ratchet up tension is to offer a release from the tension — then snatch it away. You show the protagonist (and the reader) the convenient rubbish hatch, you let them think a solution has been found. then you turn the apparent solution into another problem.
This is how writers torture readers and make them happy.
I walked along, thinking of various ways to construct the scene. You’d want the kid (and maybe the guy) desperately trying to open the hatch, looking back over his/her/their shoulder for whoever the hell is chasing him/her/them. Maybe have the kid and the guy (if he’s there — and there would be some distinct structural advantages to having the guy there) run off together. Maybe have them run off separately, never to meet again. Maybe have them run off separately, only to meet later in the story. Maybe have the kid run off and the guy stay behind to face whoever is doing the chasing — give the kid a chance to escape. So many options.
As I walked I saw two potential avenues of escape. The first, a shiny railroad track passing between two crossing signals. Hop a slow-moving freight train? Maybe one that picks up speed and becomes too dangerous to hop off? Lots of potential there — an ordinary kid sitting in a suburban park, and half an hour later he (or she, of course) is on an express freight high-balling out of town toward some unknown destination.
The second, by turning the other direction you see two muddy ruts leading to some old out-buildings.
More places to hide. And who knows what might be stashed away in those out-buildings? Farm implements, maybe. Rows of high-stacked pallets filled with potting soil and fertilizer and grass seed. Maybe rusting circus equipment. Or a meth lab. I spent the rest of the walk thinking of things that might be found in those buildings — everything from a secret missile defense system to the bastard heir to the throne who’d been turned into a dragon by a wizard with a magic sword. (I told you my mind can be a real asshole.)
That was back at the end of January. This is early April. Over the intervening two months I’ve continued to grudgingly work on the existing novel manuscript — but almost every time I set out on an idle walk, my asshole mind returns to this story idea.
An ordinary kid sitting alone in a park at dusk, a stranger slowly running towards him.