When I answered a friend’s question — how do you do it? — by blog post, Carol Buchanan asked if I would like a guest to weigh in on the question.
You bet your sweet bippy I would. (I know not what a bippy is, or whether it is, in fact, sweet. But I do like the phrase.)
So here, then, is the 2009 Spur Award winner for best debut novel (God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana), with her own answer to how a writer gets started — and, just as important, how she finishes.
By Carol Buchanan
Beginnings and endings. Simple, I thought. Oh, yeah? The more I’ve thought about it, the more complex it becomes – the disadvantage of too much thinking, I suppose. For some novelists, a story begins in the mists of their subconscious, or as Carl Jung might say, in the collective unconscious of our shared experience of what it means to be human.
Rest easy. I won’t go back that far. The simple answer is that it begins at the beginning of the story, but sometimes a writer isn’t exactly sure where that might be. A few days ago, I lopped off the first 12,000+ words of the new novel, Gold Under Ice. It really begins with the third scene. Maybe. As I’m in the first draft, Gold hasn’t finished telling me all it wants to say about itself.
God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana began as a shiver up the spine when I stood in the Hangman’s Building in Virginia City, Montana, and heard the dry creak of ropes over the beam where the Vigilantes hanged five men all together. Nearly 50 years later, I quit writing nonfiction and turned full time to fiction. So began the research and then the writing of God’s Thunderbolt.
During the mid-sixties I finished a draft which is truly abysmal. Sometime in the 1980s I did another draft that’s only slightly less awful. Now, at last, there is the award-winning novel which begins with a saloonkeeper driving a wagon with a corpse in it. He hopes he can find someone who knows who the “poor bastard” was.
Eventually, the corpse is identified, and the story swings into the main action, and the saloonkeeper, having served his purpose, fades out of the novel.
Recently I read a blog on “What Agents Hate.” Among the items listed was any beginning that didn’t have the main character in the midst of the story. However, I also read another blog titled, “There Are No Rules.” In God’s Thunderbolt, the protagonist, Dan Stark, does not appear until the third scene, when the corpse is identified and people’s anger begins to build over one more murder. I began the novel with the wagon bringing in the body because it’s important for people to understand the setting of that part of Montana. The setting functions almost as a character. How the mountains lie, how narrow Alder Gulch is, where the various stage stops were, how Alder Creek flows into the Stinking Water River (renamed the Ruby River) – all matter to the story. Nowhere did I want to stop the story to explain where the characters were or much about the terrain unless it was germane to that scene. The cold comes in frequently, because everything takes place during a Montana winter, which can still be pretty challenging even with electricity and cars and cell phones to summon help when stranded on a back road. In 1863-1864, all Montana roads were back roads. Or trails.
The ropes’ creaking that I heard all those years ago stayed in my mind. I see the beam as I saw it then, and I remember how dry is the sound of rope across wood, especially weighted with men’s bodies. But when I came to write about those executions, they came at the end of the novel.
To begin with the executions would have taken away much of the suspense and put most of the story in flashbacks. The trouble with flashbacks is that they loop the story from now to back then to then from now, or more plainly, present-past-future. I like to write a story from front to back, as we live our lives. Because we all have backstory, which is that part of a story that occurs before the story proper begins, the characters’ memories explain some things about the novel, but just as memory flashes into our own minds, I’ve tried to make it flash into the characters’ minds. Memory carries backstory both to illuminate and to motivate the present.
In writing God’s Thunderbolt, I wrote a novel that many people have already read, in a sense. It is based on Montana’s early history, and in most school districts here, Montana history is taught in eighth grade. Because I don’t believe in twisting history, I faced the fact that the story is well known. Thousands of people have seen or been in the Hangman’s Building. Historically, hanging the five men did not end the Vigilantes’ hunt for the other members of the gang. They hanged 22 men by the end of February 1864.
All through the writing, I asked myself: Where to end the book?
In answering that question, I had to face the knowledge my audience has about the Vigilante story. They know how it ended, historically speaking. If I had not stopped the historical main plot where I did, it could have had a very different (and less satisfying) ending that dribbled on from hanging to hanging. In another book, that could be dramatic, considering that the actual Vigilantes rode horseback more then 300 miles in January–February 1864. Snow on the ground was measured in feet, not inches, and freezing temperatures during the day dropped below zero at night. Some of them did not escape snowblindness or frostbite.
A novel, however, is not history. It’s an art form, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, so I could not end it as I would had I been writing history. The subplot rescued the ending. The main plot is historical with a few fictional characters, but the subplot is entirely fictional, without historical characters. Being fictional, and set against a historical main plot, the subplot could end however it needed to. As a result, when the main plot ends, the subplot is still to be resolved. With its resolution, the novel ends.
It’s the fashion these days to end stories and novels on a downer, but after so much killing, God’s Thunderbolt needed to end somehow on a brighter note. Granted, the bad guys got their comeuppance, which is a happy ending of sorts, except that Dan Stark, the protagonist, isn’t the type to take killing lightly, either when someone else kills or when he does. So the subplot ending lightens things up for the reader.
Maybe it’s somewhat unusual for a novelist to be so aware of the audience when writing a novel, but I believe a novel is a shared experience between writer and reader. I aim to give readers the best experience I can.
So far, so good.