In the Beginning

Sword and Sorceress VIFor me, stories often start with an image. I see something happen in my mind’s eye and start to wonder, “What’s that all about?” And then I sit down and start writing.

In the beginning, in the very beginning when I knew I wanted to write and was still trying to figure out how to do that, there was the image of a woman in a battle being struck by an arrow. She fell, but got right back up; something had blocked the arrow and kept it from doing her any injury.

That was all I knew about the story, but I wrote that beginning for a weekend workshop with Marion Zimmer Bradley. She read it — she read all the first pages the 40 or so people in that short workshop wrote — and liked it, even commenting on it to the group.

I went home, finished the story, called it “Change of Command,” and sent it off to her for Sword and Sorceress. She bought it. It was my first sale.

Let me pause here a moment to reflect on Marion’s generosity. She didn’t have to read all those beginnings, to comment on them, to give us actual guidance. We wrote those pieces at the workshop, by hand — this was before laptops and I doubt most of us even had a typewriter with us — and she gave up her evening to read them all and make suggestions.

The item in my soldier’s pocket that blocked the arrow turned out to be her deck of cards. It was a simple riff on the probably apocryphal story of a bullet hitting a soldier’s bible. The story didn’t even turn out to be about the arrow. That was just a frame: at the beginning she was shot and at the end she discovered her gambling habits saved her life.

In between we have the story of a second-in-command taking over the leadership of a small troop after the captain dies in the heat of battle — a battle that is ultimately lost. The story of how she learned to lead, what decisions she had to make, what losses she suffered — all that was much more interesting than the arrow hitting the cards.

But I got there from that arrow.

Many of my stories begin with an image, regardless of whether I use that image as the first line in the story or use it later or — in some cases — don’t put it in the story at all. Changeling began with the image of a young girl from the provinces walking the streets of a great city.

“Survival Skills,” which has just been reprinted in the Book View Cafe anniversary anthology Across the Spectrum, began with the fight scene that occurs about halfway through.

The walls in “Three O’Clock in the Morning” (available in Conscientious Inconsistencies) came from a recurring dream in my childhood in which those walls kept appearing in my house and I escaped — maybe — through a hole in the floor. That image was seared in my mind. I not only saw the walls, but I felt what it was liked to be imprisoned by them.

I’ve always assumed I was a verbal thinker, but time and time again when I think back to the way a story began or figure out what made it move forward, an image comes to mind. I started Ardent Forest as a conscious effort to rewrite As You Like It, but the story developed legs when I thought about my two main characters sitting on a monument on the capitol grounds in Austin, staring at the crumbling remains of a once-vibrant downtown.

When I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe a few years ago, I saw a quote from her that read, “Since I cannot sing, I paint.”

Could be I write because I cannot paint.

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In the Beginning — 3 Comments

  1. I write to grab those little images, or free-floating characters, or abstract plots, by their scrawny little necks and hurl them on the paper and out of my head.