Keep Asking

Sean O'Mordha   January 11, 2017   No Comments on Keep Asking

Melanie Phillips of Storymind wrote “By necessity, authors are so focused on what they are putting into their stories that they often don’t think about what isn’t there. Yet, the early stages of story development only create a framework – a skeleton – and for a story to truly take shape, become organic, and take on a personality, many additional details will be needed.”

From the initial idea throughout the first draft, an author needs to continually ask:

As an author progress through subsequent edits, these questions become increasingly important.

What’s the hurry to publish?

That question often comes to surface while reviewing novels, and which I continually ask myself while writing. One project brought the world of the Greek gods into the world of today. It was necessary to research details about those individuals to ferret out behaviors not generally known and weave them into the story. Upon discovering some new information, it became necessary to make changes that affected what happened downstream with the plot.

More recently, a story about post-Civil War, Southwest United States, took even more research in libraries, online, and visiting places where the action took place. What had been estimated to be a six to eight month project, turned into a two-year quest as I uncovered unknown facts that both expanded, added color, and tweaked the story. (The novel is so historically accurate to use sunrise and sunset time, and moon phases, not to mention weather which became an important factor in many scenes.)

For instance, the main character is traveling from Missouri to Arizona in 1867 following the old Butterfield Stage Line route. Relay stations were placed at certain distances. Questions that came to mind were:

1. How fast can he actually travel? (5-8 mph.)

2. Can he go from point A to B without stressing his mule? (Yes, mule, a common, reliable form of transportation more commonly used than the more glamorous horse.)

3. It’s during the summer. What kind of weather would occur? (Daytime highs in the 90’s to 110-degrees)

4. Could he travel at night when it’s cooler? (Yes, if there was enough moonlight for his mule to see the trail, otherwise it would become necessary to find adequate shelter (not always conveniently available) and hold up, thus changing the rate of progress.)

5. What about storms? (They pop up in the late afternoons and can cause problems such as hail, and downpours flooding streams that must be crossed, tornadoes—but not necessarily where he is at the moment, just close by.)

6. Many of the stations have been abandoned and in ruin. What sort of shelter could they provide? (After removing the rattlesnakes)

7. He is passing through Indian Territory. Some are friendly, some are not. He’s a peaceable sort, how does he interact?

As you see, just on the surface details begin to effect the story, and each of these questions can generate their own, long list of sub-questions. And then, research can bring to light something totally unexpected.

While traveling in southern Missouri, he meets post-war holdouts, one in particular—Jesse James. Many miles down the trail he comes to Sherman, Texas, and who does he meet? Jesse James. It seems this was a favorite “timeout” spot for the outlaw who spent his honeymoon there. That meant weaving in a new character to the story.

Later, the traveler rescues a Mescalero Apache Indian and briefly joins the family. More characters and a whole series of adventures that were never thought of, and an opportunity to describe Indian life before the movies and TV.

Currently, a story about teenage behavior started out at just a little over 50K words. It is now in the fourth edit and has swelled to 73K words and moved to a murder mystery. Again, that was never envisioned, but stories can take on a life of their own, the murder a natural outcome as events evolved all because I kept asking those six questions.

So, what is the hurry to publish?

None, unless you are under contract with a publisher who has set dates. Otherwise, keep editing, keep asking those questions. Ask questions about details as if you were the reader. No, not everything will be laid out in detail, but give a clearer picture of what to write using your skills to present it or provide ideas never considered.

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