The Way a Story Begins

I posted a few weeks ago about my story, Solomon’s Ditch, being featured at Ozone Park Journal. Since I often get questions like, “What do you write about?” and “How do you come up with ‘made up’ stories?” I thought it might be fun, for me and for regular readers of the blog, if I spent a few minutes deconstructing the story.

If you haven’t read Solomon’s Ditch, yet, you might want to read it first, online, by visiting the Ozone Park Journal site.

How do you come up with ‘made up’ stories?

Some of the pages from my archive file for Solomon's Ditch, including hand-written first drafts and various marked-up editing pages.

One of the reasons I chose Solomon’s Ditch to discuss here, besides it being recently published, is that Solomon’s Ditch is representative of how most of my stories are born. The initial inspiration for this story happened about ten years ago. I wrote, in my “daily” journal, a few lines about an old man, walking along a ridge line with his trusty beagle at his side. Those few lines (which were later typed into a “story starts” computer document that I always have floating around) were the entire existence of Solomon’s world. For years. A paragraph. That was it.

I’ve talked about before, in a post about my general writing process, there is usually a kernel of the bigger vision of a story contained in this initial image. Call it the “white-hot center” or the “abiding image” or the “triggering town”. That simple vision of the lonely man on the ridge with his dog was the central catalyst of this story. At the time, I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know who Solomon was, other than a vague sense that he was alone, and had been for some time. He wasn’t lost. He wasn’t out-of-place. But, he was certainly isolated.

That brief initial image sat in the odds and ends file for several years. As I do, sometimes, I went back to that file one day and began scanning the bits and pieces. Solomon caught my attention, so I pulled out the paragraph and began to play with it. I knew the setting, based on my initial quick paragraph, was loosely based on my grandmother’s family homestead in rural Kentucky. (A fact that I worked into the story when I referenced Solomon wandering into Bert’s land. Bert Walton was my great-grandfather, though, of course, this story really has nothing to do with family history.)

Solomon’s relationship with Lucy, the dog, began to take shape. I quickly found a point of entry for the dog. I wrote the sections about him finding her in his ditch and their tentative but rapid friendship. I went back and wrote the sections of description of Solomon’s homestead that became the opening sections of the story. I wrote the sections where Lucy and Solomon are bonding first, and when I went back to describe the vet coming out to check on her, the vet, Doc Henshaw, said something that surprised me. He responded, when Solomon says he’s going to name the dog, Lucy, by saying these words: “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

At first, I thought Doc just didn’t think it was a good idea that Solomon get too attached to the dog, but then it occurred to me that Doc knew more about what this story was really about than I did. The dog was the second Lucy, the replacement Lucy, and Solomon was set up to not only have a new heartache, but to relive an old one.

Suddenly, Solomon’s Ditch became a parallel story which deepened the loneliness and isolation of this simple, straightforward man.

What Do You Write About?

Sometimes I don’t know what I’m writing about until I’m pretty far into the process. I know the characters, I know the setting, I know some of the challenges the characters face, but I rarely know exactly what the story is about until the second or third draft. Solomon’s Ditch is about loneliness and isolation and living a simple life without complications. We often think that “it is better to have loved and lost” but was Solomon’s life better, or more tragic, after his two Lucys? In one sense, the story is about how quickly life can slip by us, and in another it is about how, in the end, some of us end up alone, no matter what else has happened.

When I first imagined a lonely old man and a playful beagle I didn’t know any of those things, but that’s why I write: To see just what it is the story wants to tell me.

There are other lessons I learned writing this story. Feedback from my writer friends helped clarify, condense, and crystallize some of the weaker points. The “voice” of the story slowly became a little less formal. I employed a tense shift on the present Lucy and the past Lucy sections. I killed off the dog. (That brought much wrath down on me from one fellow writer. “I don’t care what you do to the people, but to kill the dog!!!” she said.) I moved Grandpa Bert further up the mountain and let Solomon live on the Walton family land. But all of it, every single decision I made to serve the story, was contained in that initial image. I just had to work to free the story that was there.

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5 thoughts on “The Way a Story Begins

  1. Pingback: Friendly on a Monday « Stories I Read, Stories I Tell

  2. Pingback: ReBlog Day #7: The Way a Story Begins « Stories I Read, Stories I Tell

  3. Pingback: How Do I Know When a Piece is Ready for Submission? by Eric Sheridan Wyatt « Five Writers

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