My Novel Writing Diary – Month 1 – The Backstory

I am writing a book. Already it has three different titles.

I have tried to write a book once before, several years ago now, and got as far as to finish a two chapter draft. Then my momentum collapsed like a Renaissance relic, the idea (and worse) its hold on me vanished. Poof. Like magic.

In the intervening years, I’ve traversed a vast wilderness of short story writing. It’s a lane in which I feel most comfortable. I don’t know that they’re easier to draft necessarily, but I find them reassuringly limiting.

A novel, not so much.

The Backstory

Earlier this year, I read a book that made an interesting but unverified claim about a famous person doing a gristly and disconcerting thing. Some well-placed Google searches can get you closer to the story, but suffice it to say that a high profile film director may have used real dead bodies in one of his high profile films.

And boom. An idea was born.

Writing about a gravedigger for the stars was, I thought and still think, a pretty cracker jack topline idea. But I ran into problems immediately. People don’t just rob graves. Sure, the film director could compel someone to do it for him, but there’s not really a story in that. Just a character detail. No, if I am to write a story about this gravedigger, there’s one question to answer: Why is this person digging graves? I landed on two answers:

  • He/she has exhausted all other financial options.
  • He/she is looking for something among the dead.

I then greedily thought, why not both?

The second question was more fun to answer, and in answering it I learned so much about my narrative and my gravedigger.

For one thing, the search essentially functions as a quest and it gives my story boundaries. If the item is found, that’s an ending; if it’s not, that’s a different ending.

For another, forcing my character to search for something gave him (my character is a him) personality. If he’s to look for something, it must have meeting…and if he’s going to dig graves to look for something, it better have grand meaning. Otherwise why risk trouble with the law or more internal moral stink to do it? It’s got to be something good.

That led me down some rabbit holes I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be led when I had this first small idea, but something that I find exciting: What I saw as a short story about a gravedigger has suddenly evolved into a tale about the complexities of California, how the California Dream is really the American Dream, and how both those dreams died in 1977.

The Writing

I’ve spent some time this year sharing my own writing performance, and when the next iteration is published you can be damn sure that most of the Xs you’ll see are thanks to this book. I love the idea and the first two chapters went down on Word easily.

I am afraid that we’re in a bit of a honeymoon phase right now, though. But we’ll get to that.

As of this publishing, I’ve banked two chapters. And just yesterday I received positive/constructive comments from my writer’s group that asked some pretty important questions–questions that I have answers to, but that weren’t answered in the text. I don’t have an agent or any published material, so for me finding a way to start a little faster and making the central drama more clear is a necessary goal. I love my half-page paragraphs on cooing owls overlooking a graveyard at dusk…but those are indulgences. They have their time and place, just maybe not on page two.

I have started on my third chapter–fighting against that dreaded third chapter curse, damn ye! And because I don’t like to make things easy on myself, I’ve decided to leave 1977 for 1849. Moving back in time like that requires research and (for me) regional awareness, which is a sentence you can also read as momentum killing wheel-spinning. I wrote five pages, then archived it because I found a better place for the character to live and a better job for him to do. He’s still going to the same eventual place, but I can’t get him there until I can get his feet moving. I’ve written 1.5 new pages and am picking up steam thankfully. I don’t want to throw this one away just yet.

As I look ahead, I have a pretty checklist in front of me. Not only do I need to write in a mystery plot, I can see waves of research undulating ahead of me: Gold mining camps in 1849-1852, the speeches of James K. Polk, treating deafness (or based on early feedback a different medical condition) in 1977, gravedigging, silent era Hollywood.

It’s fun. It’s also just that when you see it all piled high ahead of you your feet grow cold and great verbs stop flowing like so much bacchanalian wine.

And yet still we write!

Maybe in future iterations I’ll pull together a pop culture list of influences for The Book, which I don’t want to jinx by offering my title just yet. For now, I leave you with a song that has sound tracked more of the novel’s words than anything else just yet:

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