When twenty-seven years equals five months

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post shortly before The Spaceship Next Door debuted.  Philosophically, pieces like this were why I was writing for HuffPo in the first place: interest people in reading my articles, then show them something about my fiction writing.  Since HP doesn’t share market information, I have no idea if this approach worked or not.

A little while ago, I had an idea.

It was only a little idea. Some might even call it an under-developed one, but I’ve been a writer long enough to recognize the difference between an idea with potential and an idea that’s just a plot twist, from an idea that isn’t much more than a cleverly phrased something.

This idea had to do with a spaceship landing at the edge of a town and then doing nothing in particular, and what it would be like for the world to try and cope with that. Irrefutable proof of an alien intelligence, coupled with total silence from that intelligence…? I thought I could do something with that.

As I ran through the list of things I needed before beginning the story — a protagonist or two, and a setting, for example — my initial thought was that the ship should land in a field “somewhere in the Midwest.”

This created an immediate problem, because I don’t reside “somewhere in the Midwest”: I live outside of Boston. I’ve only spent time “somewhere in the Midwest” on a couple of occasions, and my observations were: there was corn; that’s it.

In a lot of ways, this is fine. Writers often describe places we’ve never been, and equally often write from perspectives we could never personally experience. I’m not an immortal man, yet I’ve written a lot of stories from that perspective. I also can’t see into the future, but I have a character that can. And of course — somewhat less fantastically — I’ve written from the perspective of a woman despite not being one personally.Spaceship-cvr

I’ve also written about visiting places I’ve never seen, either because it’s impossible — ancient Egypt, say — or because I don’t have a passport and a lot of travel money.

My point is, I could have created an imaginary town “somewhere in the Midwest” if I wanted to, and I could probably have approximated the feel of that town pretty well.

Instead, I decided to set it in Sorrow Falls, Massachusetts, a fictitious town I’ve known about for twenty-seven years.

Welcome to Sorrow Falls

Old ideas never really die. This is something every writer learns to appreciate eventually. In this case, I’ve been trying to tell the story of Sorrow Falls for an exceptionally long time.

The pre-history has its roots in high school. I attended a boarding school (Northfield Mount Hermon) in the Connecticut River valley in northern Massachusetts. Sometime in the early spring of my senior year, for a writing class, we took a field trip to a local mill town, where we were tasked with wandering up and down Main Street and making observations.

Aside: I specifically recall a classmate — a French exchange student — trying to communicate with two young boys who couldn’t understand why she was having so much trouble with the English language. Their confusion stemmed from the fact that they were unaware other languages existed. I’ve never put this in a story because nobody would believe it, but I swear this happened.

Four years later, I wrote a short story for a contest the Boston College English department was running, in which I leaned heavily on that high school field trip. The story was about an ex-ballplayer with a bum knee who got his law degree and set up practice in a sleepy Massachusetts mill town in the Connecticut River valley that went by the curious name of Sorrow Falls.

The story didn’t win anything, so I put it in a drawer and moved on.

I went right back to Sorrow Falls after graduation, when I was attempting to write the Great American Play. This is something everyone who spent college playwriting eventually tries to do, the problem being nobody who tries to write the Great American anything ends up doing a very good job of it. I was no exception.

The stage also wasn’t a good place for Sorrow Falls, just in general, born as it was out of a narrative style unabashedly stolen from Douglas Adams. (This is an approach that doesn’t work well in a format that’s missing a narrator.) Recognizing this, the next time I revived the town, it was in a novel.

This came fifteen years after the play died a quiet death, and also after I’d written multiple other novels. Significantly, none of those novels had been picked up (this was before self-publishing was a thing), so my renewed interest in Sorrow Falls came about because I was attempting to write the Great American Novel.

It went about as well as you’d expect. I made it roughly 30,000 words before deciding whatever grand literary idea I was working on wasn’t going to pan out. More specifically, I had succeeded in boring myself, and if I was bored I couldn’t imagine anyone else would be interested in reading it.

I put Sorrow Falls back in the proverbial drawer for a third time, and mostly forgot about it, right up until the day — a decade later — when I needed a place for a spaceship to land.

Nothing wasted

When authors talk about how long it took to write something, we’re usually thinking of the moment we put down the first words in the manuscript, until the moment we put down the last words. The Spaceship Next Door, by this metric, took me about five months. But it’s just as accurate to say it took me twenty-seven years, because that’s how long some of the stories that ended up in the finished product have been occupying my metaphorical drawer of unfinished things.

It was all there for the taking. In my three previous visits to Sorrow Falls, I created an origin story (Colonial religious zealotry combined with an uneasy co-existence with Native American tribes), an industry (a paper mill), and multiple landmarks including a diner, a library, and most importantly, a Main Street. I needed all these things. I also created multiple anecdotes I still haven’t used, and characters I still have no place for, most conspicuously that attorney with the bum knee.

They’re all a part of the idea of Sorrow Falls, whether they made it into The Spaceship Next Door or not.

This is why, when writers talk about our collection of unfinished manuscripts, we’re not really all that embarrassed. It isn’t that we never finished them, it’s that we haven’t come up with the right place for them yet.

Maybe we never will, but that’s okay too.

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No Comments

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on April 30, 2016 at 8:33 am

    I think it helps to have a strong image of a place you’ve invented. What better than one you’ve had all these years, already sitting in you subconscious.

    It’s like having a junk drawer: every time you had a town-thought, you had a place to put it.

  2. Widdershins on May 2, 2016 at 1:01 am

    Nope, never throw anything away. You just never know! 😀

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