Monday, December 15, 2008

Howdy Y'all (and Serendipity)

Hello, everybody. Chris Roberson here. I spent the last day or so trying to post a note about this new group blog on my own blog, the Interminable Ramble, without success, only to discover that the domain name wasn't pointing in the right direction after a server migration. I'm hoping that it's just a question of domain name servers updating in another day or so, because if it isn't, I'm not sure what to tackle next.

All of which is just a round about way of explaining why I haven't posted here yet. I've dropped a few comments on others' posts, of course, but this is my first proper contribution.

I'd like to talk a little bit about accidents, if I may. Not about the kind of accidents my daughter had during potty training (though there's often more than a little resemblance), but instead the accidental confluence of random facts and ideas that collide in a writer's head, unexpectedly and with no warning.

I've been working on fleshing out the backstory of a 1930s-era pulp-style vigilante, a character who is going to be showing up in a couple of different projects in the near-to-distant future. This character isn't just a guns-and-slouch-hat type (though he does carry a pair of matched silver-plated Colt 1911 automatics, and he does wear a wide-brimmed hat), but through some supernatural or pseudo-scientific hoodoo (depending on your politics) can turn intangible, walk through walls, that kind of thing. Now, in the original brief for the character, he was going to learn all of these neat tricks after biding awhile in a hidden monastery in Tibet, a kind of Shangri-la. It's important to the character's backstory that this be a secret place filled with secret people, who have preserved some hermetic knowledge unknown to the rest of the world, but it really wasn't important where the place was located. So when I started thinking about all of the characters who have returned from hidden Tibetan monasteries with mystical powers--including but not limited to the Shadow, the Crimson Avenger, the Green Llama, the Flame, Amazing Man, Iron Fist, et cetera, et al--I began to wonder whether Tibet might not be a little crowded with hidden monasteries whose principal export are mystically-trained white-guy heroes.

Last night, as I was herding my daughter upstairs for bed, it occurred to me that perhaps the "hidden monastery" might not be somewhere else in the world, part of some other cultural tradition. Then, a few minutes later, I was reading her a few bedtime stories when I thought about the possibility of some hidden temple in Mesoamerica, populated by a secret order of priests who survived the Spanish invasion and eluded discovery down to the modern age. And as I came downstairs a few minutes later, I poked around online a bit, to see what I could find.

And here's where the accident happened, the fortuitous bit of serendipity that we can never quite plan on. Early in the year, bitten by the research bug, I just happened to do a bunch of reading on the Mayan, including bits on their language and writing systems, their religious beliefs, and their culture in general. I made copious notes in one of my Moleskine notebooks, knowing that I'd find a use for it someday, and promptly forgot all about it.

Last night, as I poked around the internets for stuff about Mesoamerican cultures, looking for possible "hooks" to hang my story on, I remembered that Moleskine full of notes. I pulled it down from the shelf, and there in my crabbed and barely-legible handwriting was the solution to all my problems. It was perfect. And not only did it solve the problems I was having working out the character's backstory, but it suggested all sorts of new possibilities I hadn't even considered. Suddenly all sorts of aspects--like the skull mask the character wears beneath that slouch hat, for example--took on entirely new significance. The character and story went in a single stroke from being merely functional, as they'd been to that point, to interesting.

This kind of thing happens to me all the time, as ideas accrete in my brain slowly, one bit adhering to another bit adhering to another. I've learned over the years to always carry notebooks, and I'm forever writing down interesting bits of trivia that I have absolutely no immediate use for, knowing that I'll someday find somewhere to use them. When I was first starting out, I was surprised by the occasional happy accident, but over the years I've learned to rely upon it. Now when I'm working on a story that feels merely functional, I know it's just a question of finding the other bits of idea to mix in, and then I'll have reached the point where the story becomes interesting, not just to me as the writer but hopefully to the reader, too.

How about the rest of the Clockwork Storybook gang. Do you find this kind of thing happening in your process as well?


  1. Oh, I can't go anywhere without a notebook.

    And we should compare notes. Is this a reworked Black Hand? Or something else?

    You know, I'm going to be tugging on a pretty big piece of pop culture with my masked man story.

  2. Nope, this isn't the Black Hand, but a new character altogether. As for the Black Hand, it looks like a near-lead-pipe-cinch that Voices of Thunder is going to be reissued in a somewhat revised form as Book of Secrets late next year. The details are still being negotiated, but it looks promising.