Monday, July 8, 2019

Story Recipes

     I’ve made such an obsession out of originality that at times I can blind myself to the possibilities that could arise from a different perspective.

     No, I’m not talking about exploiting the enormous commercial possibilities from hopping onto one of the current “hot” bandwagons and showing the world what a real storyteller can do with it. What I have in mind is more what a creative cook does when he seeks a new approach to the preparation of some basic item.

     Even the most creative cooks don’t invent entirely new ingredients. They work with what God has given us: the minerals, plants, and animals that already inhabit the Earth. They look for new combinations of those things that might prove pleasing to the palate. I have no doubt that an adventurous cook would need to discard the results of many unsatisfactory experiments...always assuming he didn’t face the severe choice of eating them himself or starving to death. But when he finally hits on something both new and genuinely pleasant, he presents it to the world with pride as his creation. It is legitimately his even though, as with “the figure in the marble” a sculptor seeks to reveal with his chisel, it was always there to be found by anyone sufficiently determined to seek it out.

     Recently there have been some impressive breakthroughs of this sort. E. William Brown’s “Daniel Black” and “Alice Long” novels come to mind, as do Margaret Ball’s “Center for Applied Topology” series and her recent novel Salt Magic. The “atomic” elements that underpin those creations have been around for a while, but the way Brown and Ball assembled them, in each case previously untried, made them into something new and fresh – i.e., original.

     By contrast, I rack my brain for completely original “atomic” ideas around which to craft my stories. As that organ already has sixty-seven years of wear and tear on it, it doesn’t produce such things simply for the asking. It involves a process that takes time and the convergence of a variety of stimuli (usually including copious amounts of port or sherry). All the same, now and then I find one, and – wonder of wonders! — it manages to sustain a tale. To those who’ve wondered why my books are so widely spaced in time, that’s half the answer; the other half is the agonizing difficulty, as Ernest Hemingway once put it, of “getting the words right.”

     Since the release of The Wise and the Mad, which concludes the “Futanari Saga,” I’ve been casting about for another genuinely new idea, something that would take me in a completely new direction. I haven’t found one, and it’s been giving me fits. At intervals I’ve wondered whether I might have shot my wad. So as of yesterday evening, the pain from that frustration, liberally sauced from a freshly opened bottle of Villa Bellangelo’s exquisite “Elizabeth” port, has me thinking about the “recipe” approach instead.

     J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, considered to be the bedrock for fantasy of its kind, was actually derived from the Arthurian legend, albeit with a twist. King Arthur had his magical artifact – Excalibur, “the sword of power” – and a villain to defeat: Mordred, the son of Arthur’s half-sister Morgawse, who desired the throne of Britain for his own. Tolkien adapted the Arthurian pattern by exchanging Excalibur, a weapon loyal to Arthur’s hand, for the One Ring, a wholly malevolent creation of Sauron.

     Because Tolkien worked with a richly imagined world with an intricate backstory, populated by a variety of creatures with special characteristics, the relative simplicity of his “plot drivers” was no impediment to the telling of a long, persistently gripping story. The combination of those drivers with that elaborate backdrop, largely derived from Catholic theocosmogony, and with Tolkien’s gifts for storytelling made his tale a new creation that’s enthralled readers for decades. It continues to be the iconic work in its genre, against which all other works of “high” or medieval fantasy are judged.

     C. S. Lewis wanted to spin a tale from the Arthurian loom but wanted to emphasize the Christian elements and set it in modern Britain. His Space Trilogy has some explicitly Arthurian elements, notably his use of Merlin as a character in That Hideous Strength and his elevation of his protagonist Dr. Elwin Ransom to “Pendragon of Logres.” Logres is an ancient name for Britain in the Arthurian tales. Lewis transformed it into a mystical society whose function is to keep political Britain on the moral straight and narrow. Note, however, that the revived Merlin takes the place of Excalibur as the critical magical “artifact.”

     The patterns these two master talespinners created from Arthurian elements are so compelling that the great majority of their successors in the realm of “high” fantasy have proved unable to depart from them. There have been a few exceptions, notably Orson Scott Card’s “Alvin Maker” series. However, the Arthurian / Tolkienian pattern continues to exhibit a tractor-beam-like effect on writers who approach “high” fantasy today. It suggested to me that the vein might be “played out”...or it did until this very morning.

     I resisted suggestions that I try fantasy until I had the inspirations that produced a handful of short stories: “The Object of His Affection” and “The Warm Lands,” my two magic-based fantasies, and “Foundling” and “Class Action,” my two vampire stories. Paradoxically, these relatively minor expositions are more popular with my readers – if I go by email feedback, at least – than all the rest of my fiction taken together. I’ve received many, many requests for continuations and “sequels” in each of those “worlds”...and have been unable to produce them. The original ideas in them fought being extended into longer tales, and I could not find new ideas that would supplement them compatibly.

     But as of this morning, owing to the cooking analogy from the first segment, one of those tales has gripped me afresh. I’ve found ways to combine well-worn elements used by other writers to create a wholly new “recipe.” At least, I can’t think of any existing work that follows the pattern I have in mind. So with dedication, perseverance, and a spot of luck, some, at least, of those aforementioned vainly importuning readers will have something to gratify their yearnings, later this year or early in 2020. Beyond that, deponent sayeth no more...for the present!

     (Cross-posted at my fiction-promotion site.)


HoundOfDoom said...

I'm rapt with anticipation. Thank you for persevering!

jabrwok said...

Given that you enjoy Brown's _Daniel Black_ books, you might enjoy Will Wight's _Cradle_ series. It's ongoing and is basically a Westernized version (in terms of literary style more than anything else) of Chinese Xianxia fanstasy.

Scott said...

Anxiously awaiting the fruits of your labor!