The process of writing a story usually begins, at least in my experience, with a question. In the case of my vampire novel, 100,000 Midnights, the question was “What happens when a human being, blissfully unaware of the existence of the supernatural, finds himself drawn into a world of shadows, immortals, and horror?”
That question started the ball rolling and I soon had the first in a series of short stories that I later merged into a novel and had the good fortune to have published. But now, more than two years since I started to write the story, I find myself looking back on the process and wondering exactly how the pieces fell into place after I’d asked the initial question that became the core of the plot. I don’t mean I wonder how each event in the book took shape. That much is obvious: a story rolls like a snowball down a mountain and picks up not only speed but detail as the writer becomes more comfortable with his or her characters and themes. What I do mean is that I began to wonder why this particular writer chose, consciously or not, to answer the story-starting question in the particular way I did. What outside influences worked their magic on my mind in order to cause my brain and then my typing fingers to spit that story out onto the page?
Looking at the novel, I realize that the primary theme is much simpler than mortal meets immortal. In fact, it’s perhaps the most common theme in all of storytelling: boy meets girl. But as I think of many of the stories I’ve written, I see a pattern. I have a habit of using a specific variation of that common theme. Quite a lot of my work could be categorized as stories of ordinary boy meets extraordinary girl.
Using this theme was a natural pattern for me to fall into because I’ve been there. Like Eric, the protagonist in 100,000 Midnights, like Jason in my first novel, Gods and Galaxies, and like a few other characters I’ve written about, I’ve often felt that I didn’t quite fit in with what society seems to consider social success and, maybe, normalcy. Not that I was ever that odd or a complete outcast, but the general tone of my life, at least for the first twenty-five years or so, was that of a loner and an eccentric in the eyes of others, and my life may have seemed dull and mundane, to others and certainly to me. There’s a bit of me in all my characters. Like Jason, I’ve always been both fascinated and appalled by religion, interested in mythology but critical of the damage often caused by its believers. Like Eric, I’ve always had a fascination with the past, a feeling that maybe, at least in the corners of my mind where fantasy outweighs reality, I’d have been happier to have lived in a different era. I suppose I’ve always felt like an outsider in my time and place, a stranger in a normal land. For Eric and Jason, their dull lives are thrown into unfamiliar, exciting, and ultimately better (even if more dangerous) territory when they each encounter a very unusual woman. For Eric she’s a 300-year-old vampire; for Jason, she’s royalty from another galaxy. Both men make the jump to a brighter reality because of someone who comes very unexpectedly into their lives.
My own experience might not sound as dramatic. My wife isn’t an alien, isn’t an immortal blood-drinker (which is good because I don’t even like needles at the doctor’s office!), but the experience of discovering her was no less powerful.
Because of my solitary nature and my feeling of never really fitting in completely, I long held the expectation that I would always be alone. Then she appeared. I met the woman who would become my wife while filming a movie. I had done some acting several years earlier, studied the art, performed in some Shakespearean stuff around the New Jersey area, had fun with it, but stopped when I got tired of people who were more interested in being actors than they were in the actual work that goes into acting. Theatre became one in a long list of former hobbies that had worn out their welcome. So I stopped. But I got a call out of the blue one day asking if I’d be interested in a small role in an independent film an old acquaintance was making. I agreed to do it, having nothing to lose. When I said yes that the offer, I had no idea just how much I’d end up gaining.
I arrived on the set and there she was, working as a member of the film crew. She wore a Wonder Woman t-shirt and barked orders at actors in a voice that still held a trace of the accent she’d brought with her from Poland a decade earlier. At some point in that chaotic day of takes and retakes and debates over the delivery of lines and the torturous pauses that eat up time between shooting, electricity passed between us, magnetism, a hint that there was more going on than the filming of a movie. When the day was at its end and I asked her to call me, I was different. For once in my life, despite all my history of social awkwardness, I felt no fear, no hesitation, as if, for once, the universe was rooting me on, wanting me to win.
I would have been crushed if she hadn’t called, felt like a lottery winner who has the ticket snatched from his hand by a strong wind before getting a chance to claim his prize. But she did call me, and the rest is history.
It’s been almost a decade now and she’s with me every day when I wake up, every night when I go to sleep. During that decade, many things have changed. I own a house and I’ve become a writer. That second thing, the writing, I don’t know if I ever could have done without her. I write the words, but she encourages me because even when I don’t think I have another sentence in me or another story to tell, I know that she believes I do, and that convinces me. Before her, on my best days, maybe I could look in the mirror and hope to see Clark Kent staring back at me. But now she smiles at me and for at least a moment, I believe I can be Superman.
There’s an old saying about a great woman behind every great man. That’s not quite right. I try to be a good man, don’t know if I’ll ever qualify as great, but I know that beside me—not behind but beside me—there’s a great woman. Unlike the women I sometimes write about, she’s not an alien with royal blood or a vampire with all the powers of the undead…but sometimes I think she does have some kind of superpower. What else could possibly explain how she puts up with me and my moods and my frustrations, frequent depressions and all the other things about me that must be aggravating at times?
I don’t know how she does it. I don’t think anyone else could. But I know one thing for certain. Everything I’ve accomplished and everything I’ll accomplish in the future is a fire started by the sparks that came from her.
As writers, we have to exaggerate events. A simple love story often isn’t enough. There has to be more. And so somewhere in that story is placed a fantasy element and in my writing it’s usually the extraordinary woman who changes the life of the ordinary man. I imagine the events and put them into words, but I don’t have to imagine the emotions. When one of my characters discovers the feelings of joy and wonder and chaos and surprise and disbelief and potential that come from finding the one person in an infinite universe of beings who can make him feel that way, I’m not making anything up. I’ve been there and I’ve done that.