Sunday, May 2, 2010

Idea Garage Sale Interlude: Clio Wants You!

The theoretical person out there in the blogosphere who's been reading all these excessively long posts and anticipating the next one probably thinks she knows what's coming today, more or less, and is wondering which of the tempting side trails I ran across in Bandera I'm going to wander down today. The romantic history of Annie Schickenden and her shawl? The action/adventure/spiritual journey of Policarpo Rodriguez? The time portal in the old house that would overlook the Medina River if the trees weren't in the way? The possibility for a thrilling detective series centering on a small-town museum docent?

Okay, that last one is close.

Tossing ideas out onto the ether for anybody to pick up if they want to is fun, but I'm under no illusion that anyone will ever use them for anything more than a writing exercise, and I thought now would be a good time to take a moment and address underlying processes for the benefit of a particular segment of the writing community.

Unless participation was limited in some way, every writing conference, class, or group I've ever attended, in person or online, has included a few examples of the tentative amateur; the person who is still wondering where ideas come from, who has a sense of a creative urge without any clear idea of what to do with it, and who has at best a vague notion of what constitutes The Writing Life, but is usually sure that there is a standard Writing Life to which they might aspire. They usually assume that they're supposed to be writing novels and that publication is the big shiny goal at the end of the road. They might be very young and experimenting with their self-image, or retired and looking to cultivate neglected talents; either way, they haven't yet grasped the amount of work involved and are usually still looking for the secret formula or the set of rules that will get them what they want.

Some of these people will become perpetual wannabes or drift away to some other hobby because they are interested in the trappings, not in writing itself. Most of the rest will knuckle down and join the mainstream of the profession - award winners, mid-list authors, bestsellers, and a strong substratum of people who, despite all the hard work, talent, dedication, and business savvy anyone could ask of them, never quite get where they want to go. Some will remain lifelong hobby writers, content to evade the agony of the publication search and write poetry for their grandchildren; some will become editors or agents or publicists instead; some will find their niche and set up shop there happily; some will die still floundering.

Of these outcomes, only perpetual wannabeism and floundering are truly bad outcomes; though those among us who produce publishable work, shop the hell out of it, and still can't land a contract may feel that I dismiss the frustration of their situation too easily. (I don't; but am defining this not as an "outcome" but as "process" - a new day may be around the corner for any of us, and that's why we keep stuff in the mail.) So the idea up for sale today is not a story idea per se, but a lifestyle one; a suggestion for those who know they have potential but don't know what it is.

History has a muse. It is as much an art as poetry or fiction; it uses many of the same mental muscles; it requires similar writing skills and benefits from similar creative talents; its roads also lead to publication; and Clio, the muse of history, works and plays well all her sisters. Her raw material is everywhere. Though the academic discipline of history dominates its expression, it has plenty of room for the avocational amateur. J. Marvin Hunter did not work out of a university, but his work is essential for anyone researching his particular area of Texas - like me - and both the museum and the Frontier Times magazine he founded made history accessible to laypeople.

The fact is that many of the urges that lead people into experimenting with writing can be satisfied by working on local history - or on geneology - or on weekend archeology - or on nature study - or on any kind of public outreach. And you stand an excellent chance of doing tangible good in the world by putting some energy into these tasks. A family historian in Germany, Ilse Wurster, found letters from a Texas branch of her family, and the book on which she collaborated with Texas relatives, Die Kettner Briefe/Die Kettner Letters turns out to contain the answers to questions concerning what happened in Fredericksburg during 1864 that I had resigned myself to never getting. Similar gaps might be filled in the history of New York City if anybody ever transcribes that diary. Consider the role played by the geneologist in the drama of Susan Taylor Brown's discovery of her father's second family - a drama which would never have begun if Susan hadn't challenged herself to write poetry in public on her blog, by the way.

You may think there's no such drama lurking in your mundane little town, or that the history of your area is thoroughly understood and has no hidden crannies; but you'd be wrong. Somewhere within fifty miles of you is an untranscribed diary; is a record that will connect two disparate people or events in a network of narrative; is an old person with memories about to be lost to the ages for lack of someone to ask questions; is an artifact or a fossil or a building that needs you to discover its importance. If you don't see these things, it's because you're not looking.

Once you've uncovered a true-life story, you have a lot of options - far more than the authors of fiction. Local history is the quintessential niche market. Depending on the nature of your material, you may see your name attached to a brochure published in association with the local newspaper or to a book with a major house. Certain small presses specialize in local-interest publications, and self-publishing should not be dismissed out of hand. Die Kettner Briefe is a publication, but the San Antonio Central Library has a copy for the Texana room. As a commercial venture it's a mug's game; but money is not the only way to measure success.

Maybe you're positive that this isn't enough for you. Maybe you know in your heart that "novelist" is what you need to be, what you will be - as soon as you find the story that presently eludes you. That's fine. What are you doing to hunt that idea down? Where are you looking? And what are you doing with your liesure time that will encourage it to come find you? If you're not writing anyway, why not volunteer at the old folks' home and encourage them to tell their stories? Why not take on the project the head of the local historical society can't get time for? Where do you think all those historical novels out there come from?

"Not a historical novelist!" You protest. "I want to write fantasy blockbusters!" Then you should be reading them; and you should have noticed how ubiquitous and tiresome the generic medieval fantasy world is, how exciting it feels to pick up a book like Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, or Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife and see something that resembles an American historical backdrop. Maybe you've noticed how much the history and folklore of Britain have informed British fantasy. I'll tell you a secret - your neighborhood has history and folklore too!

Or maybe you want to write a modern detective series. Count up in your head the number of mysteries you've read that incorporated some specialized subculture into their background, and in particular into the character of their detective. Wouldn't an amateur historian or a geneologist make a great amateur sleuth? And how would you write convincingly about that subculture if you weren't a part of it? Isn't there a lot of potential for nitty-gritty crime novels in the sordid scandals of your city's past? What about that story you used to scare each other with in high school, the one about the unsolved murder in that dark and spooky house? Is there any truth to that?

Nobody's going to hand you The Perfect Idea. You'll have to dig for it and be ready to know it when you find it. You may as well do something useful while looking for it.

And if in the process you find that your vocation isn't for writing, but for something else - that's a win for you, too.


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I

    would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have

    enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. This post has really got me thinking, Peni. The subculture or neighbourhood folklore thing is really resonating with me. Hmmm...I will enjoy pondering this.

  3. Hey, comments!

    Alena - glad to have you, and speak up whenever you like. "Nice blog" comments may be dull for the general readership, but I doubt the recipient ever finds them less than fascinating. :) I bet you have plenty of more general interest things you could say, if you wanted to.

    And hi, Lizann! Thanks for joining me. Two followers - wow, I'm on a roll now! I don't flatter myself that you need me to give you ideas, but the resonation of minds is part of the process for both of us. A large part of my ambition is for someone to read my words who, as a result, has an idea I couldn't have had, but she wouldn't have had without me. It's part of that whole "connection" concept that reality seems to be based on.