A Story is Born (or: a brief digression about fiction writing, idea generation, and Gilmore Girls)

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During the last six months of 2021, I managed to get 10,000 words written of a novel-length story idea that’s been percolating in the back of my head for more than twenty years. Since I average 250 words per printed page (double-spaced, 12-point type), that’s forty pages. Not a bad start.

These forty pages are overwritten, certainly. At least a thousand words could be edited out, I’d estimate, if we follow Stephen King’s advice to overwrite and edit out 10%. What exists on the page is all typical Act I stuff: introducing main characters and the story setting; planting the seeds of the central plot thread. I spent too much time introducing minor characters who may not contribute to the story at all, and probably not enough time on the characters who I think will.

None of this meandering was a total waste of time, however. Introducing characters suggests possible plot threads. I prefer that story develop from characterization. It’s the type of fiction I like to read or experience in television shows and movies. Giving characters a backstory makes them seem more real to me, and knowing the characters more fully allows the plot to develop more organically. If the characters feel real, then the story will as well.

In these first forty pages of roughest draft, I introduced over a dozen characters, major and minor, in on-stage appearances, while another four or five were referred to but not actually “seen” yet. Most of the pages are one extended scene featuring a strange job interview and the introduction of an idyllic town that will be the main story setting.

Here’s where I’ll admit that the germ of this story idea didn’t really begin with any characters at all.

Well, maybe one character. Me.

In late 1999, I separated from my first wife and moved from North Little Rock, Arkansas, to Memphis, Tennessee. Stressful events all around. I moved to a gated apartment community in the area known as Cordova. I signed a lease on a two-bedroom apartment and no longer had the furniture to fill it, while I paid to store the washer and dryer that I had insisted upon keeping when my wife and I divided up our assets.

Over the next couple of years, I spent more in storage fees than the appliances were worth. I am not a smart man.

I was alone and lonely. I had no friends in Memphis at the time. While I did transfer with Target stores, I was, in a very real sense, starting a new job. The logistics processes at my new store were all overnight, which meant that I—as Logistics Team Leader—was also working a third-shift job for the first time in my life. I never adapted to this change and was sleeping very little for a long while. The apartment complex’s groundskeepers further aggravated what was already an aggravating situation by using their string trimmers and blowers outside of my bedroom window at the very moment I managed to drift off into fitful sleep every morning. This is only a slight exaggeration.

Add to this the fact that I didn’t really like my new boss or co-workers and felt isolated even from them because we didn’t work at the same time. I was working a stupid amount of hours (the joys of being a salaried employee) and drinking too much during my free time. I also smoked in those days, in a manner that suggested that my lungs were my mortal enemies.

Mix all of these ingredients together, add some deep depression for flavoring, and the result was that I had arrived at one of the darkest periods of my life. There have been other dark periods, of course. Hard to avoid them if you live long enough. I had survived those and believed I would survive this one as well, but it’s hard to feel convincingly optimistic when you’re in the middle of it.

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My health was on the decline, certainly. I had a bout of pleurisy that, frankly, scared the shit out of me. I thought I was catching a glimpse of how my life would end. Depressed divorced guy who drinks and smokes himself into a cold and lonely grave. While I was never actively suicidal, I realized that I was depressed when the thought of dying no longer seemed like the worst possible outcome to my situation.

Since getting enough sleep was off the table for a time, I tried to fill some of my waking hours with something other than work, drinking or cigarettes. It’s a minor miracle that I didn’t turn to hard drugs or develop a gambling addiction. I spent some of my rare nights off in the casinos in Tunica, Mississippi. Just a short drive south of Memphis. I needed to engage in some activity that wouldn’t eventually kill me or leave me penniless.

I started walking.

This was years before multiple back surgeries. Before my deteriorating spinal discs began to put kinks in my internal wiring and required me to use a cane fulltime. I have walked with a limp since 1978, when I was hit by a car and put out of commission for most of a year. But, I could still walk. And I did.

This was something I had done, even during my first marriage. Walking had always been a meditative activity for me. No one consciously thinks about walking while they are walking. Left-foot, right-foot, repeat. Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back. In those days, I didn’t even listen to music or podcasts or recorded books while walking. I let my mind wander.

I suppose I don’t have to tell you that, as a guy who always struggles with writer’s block, my life circumstances during those dark days had constructed what seemed to be an impenetrable barrier. I wasn’t writing at all. My muse had flipped me the bird and had boarded the last train for the coast.

While walking the perimeter of my apartment complex, where all the various streets and cul-de-sacs were named after golf terms (I lived on Niblick Pass — or, was it “Cove”?), I began thinking about all of the cellphone towers that were cropping up everywhere I looked. Because I was walking inside of my gated apartment community, that somehow became linked to the thoughts about cell towers. The question “What if—?” is one of the most powerful tools in the fiction writer’s shed. What if the cell towers weren’t really cell towers? And, what if some lonely man walking around his apartment complex noticed that towers were being constructed around the perimeter?

That’s how it started. Just the germ of an idea, and no real plot.

Later, other scraps of ideas attached themselves to this one. I found out that a famous comic book issue that I had owned almost had a very different ending than the one actually published, which led to thoughts about alternate universes (not uncommon in comic books, of course). This train of thought resulted in my removal from the potential story altogether. No, this wasn’t about a middle-aged man going through a divorce while attempting to navigate his way through a new city, state and job. Characters who weren’t me began to assert themselves, insisting that the story was theirs, not mine.

Eventually, Stars Hollow became a part of the whole thing, after I began watching Gilmore Girls. I liked this series a lot, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, even though it’s not my typical kind of program. This series was set in fictional Stars Hollow, Connecticut, which is an idealized town not unlike Mayberry and Bedford Falls. My setting morphed from a gated apartment complex to an isolated, idyllic town that was genuinely too good to be true.

Warner Bros television/Netflix

A few years later, when I moved from Memphis back to central Arkansas—having reached the other side of my dark period with the help of the woman who would become my second wife a few years after that—the setting of this story idea moved with me. The Natural State seemed to provide ample locations for an isolated, idyllic, fictional town. Perhaps somewhere in the vast Ouachita National Forest. If we’ve learned anything from horror movies, it’s that the woods can be scary. And I had the idea that this would be a scary story.

The idea continued to percolate on the back burner for years. Having found love again, and a more optimistic outlook on life, I did begin to write again. Just not this story. I finished a private eye novel that I began writing in Memphis. At least, it was “finished” to the point that I stopped revising it and allowed other people to read it. The manuscript still sits in the closet somewhere. The novel is okay, but I don’t love it.

That novel was set in Memphis because that’s where it was born. I started work on another mystery novel idea, this one set in a central Arkansas college town not unlike the one I still live in. The protagonist of this novel was female, my first time attempting to write from a woman’s point-of-view. I enjoyed crafting this story, and I actually finished writing it. Not “finished” like the Memphis novel. No one else has read this one. Most of the novel has gone through several drafts, and there are parts of it that I like a lot. But it still needs work. Even today.

While writing this semi-cozy about a campus police chief, and experimenting with the female point-of-view, I decided my cell tower story (which is how the idea was apparently filed in my brain) would benefit by having female lead characters. I decided the two main protagonists would be mother and daughter. I’m sure my thoughts about Stars Hollow and Gilmore Girls played some part in that.

Just making this character decision brought the idea back to life for me. I began thinking about the mother and daughter, and the circumstances that would lead them to this idyllic community. Giving my characters even shallow backstory began to suggest other characters and potential plotlines. It began to feel like the entire novel-length story (for surely that’s what it was now) existed in some unwieldy probability cloud. All that was left for me to do was to begin telling it.

That’s what I have done. 10,000 words of it, at any rate. My setting has become more real to me, and the characters have suggested potential plot points. I sort of know how the story will end, but that could change. It feels good to be writing fiction again, whatever the outcome may eventually be.

Will the novel be any good? Eh. That’s not for me to say, and it is definitely beside the point. This is about the process, the journey. My failure to write with eventual publication in mind marks me as a rank amateur. I’m okay with that.

I just thought I’d pull back the curtain and reveal a glimpse of the machinery at work behind the scenes in my brain. I’m not sure how my creative process compares to that of “real” writers, although I suspect that there are similarities. If you’re interested in writing and writers, as I am, then this sort of thing may be of interest to you as well.

Last thing: I don’t want to leave you thinking that I haven’t had other story ideas over the years. There have been many, some of which I still think about at times. I have an idea for an epic fantasy series that I may still write. There are reams of paper somewhere in this house with ideas for it. Of course, if 10,000 words come this slowly for me, I’d have to live to be 120 years old to finish it. I make George R. R. Martin seem like a speed demon.

Cheers, friends. Write on.

One thought on “A Story is Born (or: a brief digression about fiction writing, idea generation, and Gilmore Girls)

  1. It’s interesting how a story sitting in your head for a long time can accumulate influences like this. I’ve also found that a seemingly small change (like changing POV or the gender of a character) can suddenly unlock some magic in a story that feels stalled.

    I have a half a novel that has been stewing for years now, and it’s had a similar life of starting small and slowly accreting over time. Not sure when I’ll get back to it.

    Liked by 1 person

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