Tuesday, August 12, 2014

When Stories Collide

Last week I wrote about finding stories through the simple act of taking a walk. I said there are stories all around us. All we have to do is open our senses and find them.

Two days later, a possible story hit me in the form of an unusual person acting in a slightly unusual way. Now, I was in San Francisco on business, a town where unusual people are all around, but this one man and the way he was dressed and the way he moved through a crowded street struck me as though he were from another time and place.

I've already been thinking about setting a story in San Francisco. I grew up near there, and I spend a lot of time there, and I enjoy studying the city's relatively short but very interesting history. I was a little hesitant, though, because one of my writing group partners had recently set her own story in San Francisco. I didn't want to step on her territory.

Of course, San Francisco has many stories. Many have already been told, and there would be many more, and my story would be nothing like my friend's. So I let myself play with this idea in my head. I often have to let an idea simmer in my mind for months, even years, before a story emerges, so I was letting it hang around and occupy a part of my brain where I would leave it alone. No need to bother it. It's not hurting anybody.

That story idea was just a situation, a what if. Many of my ideas are. The what if itself isn't a story. There's no real conflict or plot, and only sketches of characters who have not formed themselves yet.

The new idea is a character. Who was that man I saw? What was he doing? Why did he act in such an unusual way? Why was he in such a hurry?

I saw him on Friday, and he's been haunting my mind for the last five days. I was thinking about him last night, wondering if he could fit into the situation I was already contemplating. At first I thought he could, but as I continued to think about it, it felt like a square peg in a round hole. That's not necessarily bad. Many great stories are about a peg that doesn't fit a hole.

But this felt forced. Two story ideas had collided, and I didn't see a good match. Combining these ideas could spoil the story I was contemplating if I tried to include too many things.

So I thought about it some more. The situation idea I had came about because I wanted to write about a specific time in the city's history, and this what if question would let me do so while combining it with an even earlier idea I had been contemplating. I had forgotten about that. Two stories had already collided. Maybe that's why the new character didn't fit.

But then a situation for the new character popped into my head. So now I was dealing with four ideas. Looking back at the earlier ideas, they were really just an excuse to use this city that I love so much in a story. So why couldn't I take some of the ideas from the old idea and adapt them to the new one? That's when things began to click. Maybe this collision of ideas wouldn't be a disaster after all.

I'm already working on a story, making revisions that I hope will bring me to a finished manuscript soon. It's difficult to juggle two stories, especially when it's already hard enough to find consistent writing time. But maybe I need to take a break for a day or two and see if there is really a story in this new character I found and his collision with a previous setting and situation.

When I have a new idea, I have a number of things that I do. The first is, I jot it down and let my mind work on it. That has worked for me before, but often the idea cools down and fades away. If it does that, I probably wasn't passionate enough about it to spend the time required to turn it into something.

Sometimes, especially if the idea is a scene, I write it in detail. Sometimes, that fires my imagination and turns the ephemeral thought into something tangible. I've shared a few of these with my group. When that happens, I store the idea in my mind and let it work itself out. But other times, I don't feel the excitement. I don't find the story that has to be told. I put those away in my files, and scan through them once in a while when I want to find a story and see if maybe it grabs me again. It usually doesn't. The heat of the idea is gone.

And sometimes I'll whiteboard or mindmap the idea to see if the rest of the story appears. That has worked for me before. I end up with characters and conflicts and plot points. In other words, a story.

I don't know yet what I'll do with this new idea. I'm thinking I'll make some time to write a scene based on the moment when this new character entered my life. I'll see if he grabs ahold of some of the other ideas he collided with and takes them for himself. I know there's a story in this character. The question is whether he wants me to tell it.

I'll spend some time with him and find out.

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