Where does the story start?

I can still remember my dismay the first time I heard, “your story doesn’t start until page twelve (or twenty, or maybe fifty).”  And I can still feel the scalpel slicing into my eye as I realized that the criticism was just.  I’ve also discovered that jabbing this bitter judgment into some budding writer after sitting through endless pages of tedious back-story does not salve my own hurts.  Instead, I’ve learned (operative verb) to cut away the dead tissue of my verbal throat-clearing, and start my stories where I strike the living flesh.

Or have I learned?  Despite the fact that I have brooded over my novel “Gant” off and on for more than ten years, the question of where to begin refuses, like a festering wound, to close.  It isn’t that I can’t pick out the obligatory starting point.  The romance in the tale begins when Gant strides into the orchard, startles Lissa at her apple picking, and plucks her out of the air as she falls.  If I were merely writing a romance, I would start on page twenty-one.

Like all my novels, however, “Gant” is at least two stories.  Besides the romance that may be a fundamental element of the all the best stories, there is the tale of the ugly duckling misfit who will mature, if he survives at all, into a majestic and powerful swan.  This is the story of Gant the giant.

Born at normal size, Gant is obliged to grow to seventeen feet tall in the same time a normal boy grows to maybe six feet.  Rejected by the man he believes to be his father, kidnapped into a circus, and eventually turned out of doors to live in a cave with a bear, Gant grows up uncertain of himself, and of his worth.

Must this back-story occupy the critical first chapters of the book?  Perhaps not.  For much of the novel’s gestation, I arranged for the reader to pick up Gant’s history from scattered hints, the way we assemble an understanding of new friends we make in life.

Is the story strengthened by dragging through Gant’s painful early years?  The romance with Lissa is not, but the coming of age story, in which Gant is used by his prince as a war machine, and then rescues his people after the prince’s perfidious attempt on his life flows naturally from the ugly duckling years.  This is the fundamental story of the novel.  It begins with Gant’s birth, and determines the best place to pick up the narrative.

It is wisdom, however, to keep all of the stories we are attempting to tell in mind, and bring them along from the beginning of a novel.  Somehow, I had to start the fire between Gant and Lissa in the first chapter, when he was a babe in arms, and she a child of three.  In storytelling as in science, the solution to a problem follows naturally from its clear articulation.  I introduced a series of back-and-forth cuts that I learned from screenwriting, beginning with a jump from the foreboding of Gant’s birth to Lissa’s first clash with her mother’s will.  This series of alternating images promises that they are destined for one another.

Did I start the story in the right place?  Do we care about the awkward gosling?  Does the savor of anticipating the romance sharpen the hunger for its resolution?  Ultimately, it is the reader’s place to judge.  If you want to be a reader, and to judge for yourself, let me know, and I’ll send you a pre-release copy of “Gant.”

Motivating Mose

In a critique group one evening, an excellent writer and a good friend, Walter Swensen, pointed out that he didn’t buy Mose Fairchild’s motivation in Winning Cassie Ellijay.  He didn’t feel Mose’s compulsion to go back to Georgia, or understand exactly what Mose had in mind.

Wally was right, as usual.  After ruminating on the problem for a bit, I sat down and produced the following prolog-style Chapter 1.

Winning Cassie Ellijay

by

Owen H. Decker

The day after Atlanta fell, U.S. Army Captain Moses Fairchild took ten days leave and rode the train home to Maryville in eastern Tennessee, to see his wife, and make the acquaintance of his infant son.  The September days sparkled.  The nights lingered long, a soldier’s fantasy of loose limbs, melting lips, and flowing hair, but the days and the nights together skittered past like swallows over water.  A cold morning found Mose nursing memories like mingling ripples of his warm, white woman and his fine, fat baby boy, as he dragged himself back to the war,

Three weeks later, a letter arrived from his mother, and he learned that memories of his wife were all he would have forevermore.  A few days after he left them, Sophie and little David had taken sick with camp fever and died.

Mose bore the curse of a reasoning mind, so he knew where to lay the blame.  Camp fever meant typhus, and typhus, he believed, was carried by lice.  Before he’d taken his leave, he’d bathed and picked himself clean.  Or rather, he thought he’d picked himself clean, but a few of the irritating little varmints must have slipped past him.  Two had, at least—enough to drink the blood of his wife and his son, infect them with typhus, and tip them into their graves.  Not satisfied with the torn and bleeding bodies of his brother soldiers in their hundreds and their thousands, the greedy war had stretched out her arm and stricken the innocents he lived for.

 

And the cause of the war was the Rebellion.

 

Mose raged and he railed.  He wept and he sorrowed, but the war took no notice of his pain.  New orders came down from Uncle Billy Sherman to march down onto the fertile plains of Georgia, the breadbasket of the South, and ‘deprive the enemy of the means of sustaining the conflict.’

He rode to his duty with his heart a fury.  With a torch crackling in his left hand, he fired barns stuffed with new-harvested corn and sheds crammed with cotton.  With a pistol cracking in his right hand, he struck down hogs, cattle, horses and mules.  Ruin smoldered in his wake.  Carcasses festered under the fevered sun.  Widow’s tears and the pleas of orphans wailed past him like the wind, and Georgia howled.

They called him mad, for he grinned as he rode, and he relished the burning and the slaughter.  A fiend from the pit, he rode laughing and hardhearted, heedless of God or of man—until the dark bedlam of a dusk in late November when a distraught girl-child in a smudged pink pinafore darted shrieking beneath the iron hooves his plunging steed.

The crunch of her delicate skull smote Mose to the core of his soul.  He leapt from his horse and gathered the trembling body to his breast.  As the nameless child died in his arms, his anger withered and the fire of his indignation blew cold.  The joy of ruination frittered to nothing, leaving only the ache of drifting ashes and the bawling ghosts of frightened cattle.

On the fourth day of December, 1864, Mose marched into Savannah past the drooping refugees and concluded that the war was won.  With a heart new-broken by the death of the child, he felt the city’s agony, and realized, too, that the war was lost.  Bleak Justice had punished the Rebellion.  Captain Fairchild’s Georgia, the land he had stripped and violated, lay whimpering behind him in her blood.  Mercy cried in him aloud.  His heart groaned for his nation, both North and South, and he understood that must go back and attempt some sort of amend.

He must go back to Georgia, but first there was General Joe Johnston to hound through the winter swamps of the Carolinas, and the driving of Lee to Appomattox.  The assassination of the wounded South’s best friend, the tall man from Illinois, delayed his return, as did the march to Washington for the new president’s grand review.  Jubilant April faded to tired October before Mose mustered out.

Before he could return to Georgia, there remained one task more.  He repaired home to Maryville as winter was setting in again.  Beside the grave of his wife and his baby boy, he dug a hole and heeled in a leafless rose, praying that it would wake again come spring and bloom like Sophie and little David on resurrection morning.

 

Why do I write…

Deep down in their secret hearts, most writers write for love.  Oh, some say that they write for money, and pretend to be all mercenary, but only about 0.3% of writers actually make money, and even for those the money isn’t really money, it is a way to know for certain they are loved.

So do I write for love?  Well, yeah.  But I’d like to write for money, too, so I’d know I’m loved.  There is, however, another reason.

Could it be that I need fame, to “see my name in lights?”  Maybe–I guess–except that I’ve never been quite able to equate my name with me.  I’m distinct from my name.  It’s a shirt I put on.  I could stand in a crowd of people looking at the name “Owen H. Decker” in lights and feel myself part of the crowd rather than part of the name.

So no, I don’t write for fame, although I’d like a little.  As long as it didn’t come with inconvenient trappings like attention or notoriety.  Who wants to be photographed naked at the beach, or be hooted on talk shows, anyway?

Why then do I write?

Because I have opinions.  Because I have beliefs and convictions that form a lens through which I interpret the world.  Because I want to share with you my lens. Let you look through it for an hour, or a day, until you finish the story.  Then I want you to enjoy a pleasant lingering afterglow that tints forever your perception of the world.  Rose-colored glasses, Emerald City shades, available here.

OHD