Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lost and Found

I've noticed lately the news is chock full of fascinating finds:

Found: Violin that played as the doomed Titanic went down more than 100 years ago

Medieval Knight Remains Found in Edinburgh Car Park

Roman artefact discovered in Sudeley Castle cupboard

Discoveries like these can be excellent story starters, too. Robin Cook's Sphinx was no doubt inspired by real life; while I was reading it I kept thinking of Carter finding Tutankhamun's tomb. I knew from the moment I first read of Ötzi the Iceman that someday I'd write a fictional version of his story in one of my novels (and it took a while, but eventually I got my chance in Shadowlight.) Even something lost that isn't found can inspire a storyteller; Dean Koontz used the disappearance of the Roanoke colony as part of the plot for his book Phantoms (one of my writer pals believes the same event inspired Stephen King's It, too).

In a sense all stories are a quest for something. In fantasies there's usually some object of incredible power everyone wants, in mysteries the objective is solving a puzzle to find the truth. In romances the characters are seeking love as much as each other. Horror stories are all basically monster hunts, while memoirs are journeys into the past and one's self. This is why the first question I ask a character when I'm creating them is What do you want? -- when you know that, you've got the basic foundation to build on as well as design inspiration for your story elements.

If you want to draw on a real-life find for a story, ask yourself a couple questions:

Why does this discovery fascinate you? You want to write about something that engages you as a storyteller, but you also want to know why. For me it's always the chance to fill in the blanks, aka figuring out how to explain what we don't know. Such as what was Ötzi doing up there in the mountains when he died, and why was he killed?

Can you translate fact into plausible, original fiction? I've always thought those crystal skulls they've found all over the world were very interesting, and would make a great novel. I even wrote a couple plot outlines on how I'd handle them. Then Stephen Spielberg appropriated them for one of his Indiana Jones movies and used a plot idea very similar to my own. This doesn't mean every storyteller who wants to use crystal skulls in their fiction should give up, but you should find out what's already been done so you don't go in the same direction.

Is there enough room with this find for invention and reinvention? Incorporating the copper scroll of Qumran into my Darkyn series was a major ambition of mine, but the scroll itself wouldn't work. It was too old, it was made of copper, it was found in the wrong place, etc. I had to reinvent the scroll to get it to fit into my universe, which meant renaming it, reconstructing it out of gold, reworking the history and so forth. In the end the real scroll was simply inspiration versus having a place in the story, which was fine because I wasn't writing the real history of the actual scroll.

Probably the most important aspect of what you quest for in your story is its value to the reader. They have to want to find it as much as your characters; this is what engages them to stick with the story. Finding and authenticating the violin that was played on the Titanic is a good example of this: it's a symbol of tragedy and courage because of the events that happened during the last time it was played. Without the backstory it's just an old damaged violin someone found in an attic. So what you can do with that? What if it was repaired? What if the first time it was played the original owner showed up to reclaim it? The violin is still old and tragic, but now it's haunted, too.

What real-world discovery do you think would make a great story? Let us know in comments.

16 comments:

  1. I love this stories, especially the violin from the Titanic. So bittersweet.

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    1. I thought it was amazing, not only that they found it, but they were able to return it to his fiancee. I imagine it meant a great deal to her.

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  2. I just think this is romantic to combine both of Love and Horror. While the hero try to finding the lover and seek what the meaning of true love and slaying many of zombie. So this could be great story.

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    1. Sounds like an interesting idea, Yamato. You should write it. :)

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  3. Lately, I've been filing away news stories with that idea that truth is stranger than fiction. They are always the stories I find myself shaking my head at... enough weirdness in them to make a great plot but rooted in something real.

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    1. That's the approach that always works the best for me, Beth - start with a real event as a jumping-off point and then run away with it into realms of pure fiction.

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  4. Something about which too much isn't known. What's constantly fascinated me is Dr. Dee's mirror, in the British Museum. It's a slab of highly polished black obsidian that the doctor used for scrying - seeing visions and fortunes.
    Someone goes to the museum as an ordinary visitor - sees the mirror - what do they see reflected, and is it real?

    The other is an incident that haunted me for years. The Mexican earthquake was the first in which modern technology played a really significant part. The people trapped in the buildings, some of whom knew they were dying, called their loved ones to say goodbye. Others used them as homing devices, or to call the emergency services to say where they were. A phone call from a dead man?

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    1. Both of these are spooky-wonderful, Lynne. I hope you'll give them to the page someday.

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  5. The FBI has identified the thieves who robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but since the statute of limitations has run out on the crime, they won't name the men publicly. That just sets up all kind of ideas in my devious little mind.

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    1. Imagine if grandpa . . . no, better not go there, ha.

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  6. Fran K12:59 PM

    I love history, don't you? The amazing things that are found and the stories behind them never fail to fascinate me.

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    1. I do, Fran. It's why I'm so excited about the new series -- I get to do all the historic research myself. :)

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  7. About 10 years ago the New Zealand navy picked up a life raft floating in the Tasman Sea. Inside was the body of a man about 70, possibly Italian, and a passport. He'd only been dead a few days, and the raft hadn't been at sea long.

    So many questions! Where did he come from? Was he already dead and set adrift in the raft? Why was there nothing else in the raft? And whose passport was it? Presumably not his or they could have identified him. His killer's? His lover's, child's, enemy's?

    And if there were no shipwrecks or reports of vessels in trouble, how does a dead Italian turn up drifting around the Tasman? It sounded like the blurb off the back of a Tom Clancy novel: "... the search for answers would lead Jack Ryan through Mafia intrigues and to the Vatican itself ..."

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    1. That is bizarre, Marina. Reminds me a bit of those photographs they put up on the internet sometimes of historic images in which it looks like a modern person (time traveler, perhaps) is standing in a crowd.

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  8. A new book is out called Frankenstein's Cat (http://www.amazon.com/Frankensteins-Cat-Cuddling-Biotechs-Beasts/dp/0374158592) all about the things they are doing with biotechnology. They can randomly turn on or off different gene sequences, make glow in the dark cats, grow transplant organs on pigs. I mean if all that doesn't get a sci-fi writers mind exploding with ideas - quite writing. ~grins~

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    1. I had a lot of fun playing with Biotech in my SF series, Melisa. The possibilities are endless (and often a little frightening, too.)

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