Finding the Story

Finding the storyI’m betwixt and between right now. My critique group is making its way through my recently finished novel and offering up some great observations—don’t underestimate the importance of beta readers: if they’re good, they keep you honest, and point out flaws you knew were there but didn’t have the strength or the will to fix before.

But that’s not really the point of this post. Or actually, it sort of is. This particular book, the one that takes place in 1910 New York (it’s called White Poison), took me a while to find, I mean, get to the real story. I had one character almost from the outset, Rose. A college-educated upper-class young woman who wants to do more with her life than be merely decorative. But finding the other characters that would bring the story to life took several agonizing tries. I wrote three complete drafts of three different stories, then revised the whole thing about six or seven times. Having other people respond to the characters and their relationships to each other really helped me focus on who was essential to the emerging story, and the best way to tell it.

At one point, I had a flighty, lost socialite, a school friend of my main character. She had some great scenes, including one going to the outdoor circus in Coney Island. But I mercilessly cut her and all her scenes out after the first draft. She was interesting, but not central to the point.

I also slashed a fascinating historical figure (whom I’d love to return to in another novel): Ann Morgan, daughter of the infamous J.P. Morgan, who refused to marry and may have been a lesbian, taking up causes that were in direct opposition to her father’s business interests. She, too, was superfluous. I knew I needed two college-educated females to carry out the main plot, which is based on something that really happened. Morgan simply didn’t suit, and fitting her in was a distraction.

When I finally created Emma, an Irish immigrant who works in a department store and whose life gets turned upside down in part due to an encounter with Rose, everything started to click into place. There’s nothing like that feeling when the story drags you along with it, when what has to happen seems inevitable, instead of a desperate struggle to write something your readers will believe, something that is true.

It wasn’t until I found my characters and then was able to flesh them out, give them conflicts and flaws and hopes and fears, that the actual story revealed itself. I always knew what had to happen, but what happens in a novel is different from its story. Plot vs. theme, I suppose.

Now I’m starting at the beginning again. I’m researching events, timelines, historical characters, in hopes that a story will start to emerge and I can put the first tentative lines down on paper—rather, on screen. Undoubtedly the process will drive me near to insane, but I can no more not undertake this crazy task than not get out of bed in the morning.

I’ll let you know when I pin down that elusive next story.

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