One picture is worth a thousand words.
This is a commonly held aphorism. In the life of a writer this is a real-world formula. Often what kicks off the creative process is, if not literally a picture, something equally dense and vivid—one line in a movie or book, documentary, article, or scholarly volume, one paragraph in your outline, becomes pages and pages of action, dialogue, and thought in a novel.
Let’s say you want to write the story of how the King James Bible came into existence. You can’t just have King James proclaim, “I am disgusted by the crude language used in the English Vulgate Bible!” THE END. You have to show the organic progression of his dislike of the doctrines he felt were reflected in that earlier version and his discomfort with the awkwardness of the translation from the Latin Vulgate. You have to show—not tell—not just the what, but the how and why of King James’ decision to dedicate time, money, and royal authority to the creation of the Bible that would bear his name. (Quite a coup, I must say, since he didn’t personally write a word of it.)
The writer of non-fiction has to stick to facts, and while she may speculate on this or that idea or social trend, her goal and mandate are not to bring readers into the private recesses of a character’s mind to get at the guts of historical events as much as to show how those events affected the world we live in—all at a fairly high level. Fiction writers are not bound by the same imperatives. Our mandate, our goal is a bit different; we tell lies to reveal the truth.
I think sometimes we forget that the big picture historical events that we read about in books or watch in documentaries—even the historical events that are unfolding as we live and breathe—are driven by the private thoughts and personal desires and fears of individuals. The facts of a world—the Real World or one we made up—provide a backdrop, a canvas, a framework in which a fictional story takes place, but the backdrop is not the story. That’s up to us, as writers, to people and bring to life.
The late Ray Bradbury made lists of anything that intrigued his Muse. It might be a literal picture, a snatch of poetry, a song lyric, an overheard conversation. He claimed that he looked at the list every morning and added to it frequently and that everything on it eventually found its way into a published story. Because of this, I began to keep my own lists. (If it was good enough for my personal Muse, It was good enough for me.) I pulled ideas out of a human resources article for the story “Shaman” (published in Analog magazine and in the BVC collection of my short fiction that bears the same title), I turned a phrase about the nature of a selkie into a trilogy (and wrote a 600 year history of the fictional setting), I write down dreams that refuse to be forgotten (I pay special attention if they’re in color and have a soundtrack and end credits), and I’m constantly sweeping my environment for things to add to my lists. History books are a favorite place to find raw material and I’ve got a number of volumes in my hardcopy library with “Story here!” scribbled at the top of a much highlighted page.
The core idea at the heart of my Mer Cycle trilogy (THE MERI, TAMINY and THE CRYSTAL ROSE—available from Book View Café) leapt from a single line in one of Robert Silverberg’s Gilgamesh stories that, like a flash of creative lightning, fused together a dream I’d had with a repeating pattern in real-world religion.
Stories and the seeds of stories are all around us, just waiting to be gathered up and multiplied. Under the right conditions, a single image might explode into not just a thousand words, but a thousand pages.