12.01.2016

Evolving the Concept

At the beginning of a novel is an idea, something you would like to write about. Some writers start with a striking character, others with a compelling issue. If the issue is the germ, that needs to be quickly married with thoughts about the characters populating that drama.

Let’s take a popular issue in 2016: the Standing Rock protest against the North Dakota-Illinois oil pipeline. The tale of brave Sioux tribes people standing up against the scheming U.S. government is an American legend. The theft of treaty land, police use of concussion grenades and water cannons, the tents huddled against snow drifts—all these evoke the modern enactment of Wounded Knee.

You start to research the topic, and you find articles about the Sioux chairman and the county sheriff and the number of pipeline leaks country-wide, etc. It becomes apparent that the local white folks and red folks don’t like each other at all. Yet all of this is background noise, really. You need persons, not people.

Further research into the Sioux today turns up the fact that a high percentage of those on the reservation are alcoholics. That’s not surprising, considering the crappy reservation land given to them. If you are thinking in terms of character, though, you need to move beyond passive reader to active thinker. What if: a man in his thirties who has lost his family through his drinking binges suddenly seizes upon the protest as his way to redeem himself? What if everybody around him—who know him very well—jeer at things he says to Eastern news reporters? What about the white cop who has arrested him upteen times and thrown him in the drunk tank overnight?

That’s where fiction lives—the personal conflicts within the wider conflict. No matter how popular the issue, you still have to do the hard work of digging into a life deep enough to reveal the character’s emotions. That’s the only way the freezing water from the fire engine hose will truly sting the reader. If you want a phoenix to rise out of the ashes, what do the ashes look like?

Exercise: If you can quickly pick out 3-4 characters you’d like to write about, you can assign bits to them as you do your research. For instance, who is the real person behind the interview? Maybe you cast that in an ironic context. Or, maybe the words she speaks are her final redemption. Research facts are background until you assign a personal quality to them.

“Highly organized research is guaranteed to produce nothing new.”
—Frank Herbert

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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