This week, I will be discussing the idea of using two or more unrelated topics/ideas to tell familiar stories in new ways or to develop original stories. I studied both American History and American Literature at the University of Michigan, two fields I find complimentary of each other. The true stories we tell—the histories—need to, in my opinion, follow the same rules as a novel. You need character, conflict, story, and a new, original angle.
Two books I will discuss briefly and endorse, both of which are history and present their otherwise familiar stories in new way are Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis, and Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase for Jefferson Davis by James L. Swanson.
While Revolutionary Summer is Joseph Ellis's latest release, published this past June, Bloody Crimes has been out for a couple of years, published in 2011, but I wanted to include it in a discussion with Revolutionary Summer because they do something similar, which is pertinent to this discussion, and, ironically, that is what makes them both unique.
Revolutionary Summer's claim to relevance is that it takes what is happening on the battlefield and what is happening in congress during the summer of 1776 and combines them into one story, where what is happening on the battlefield is directly influenced by what is happening in congress and vice versa. Joseph Ellis contends--and I have no reason to doubt this based on my own review of the literature--that the war and the politics, what happened on the battlefield and what happened in congress, are often related as completely separate events, seemingly having nothing to do with each other. Ellis argues this approach misses the mark.
One specific example is the devastating Battle of New York, in which the Continental Army was almost completely wiped out. It was only because of William Howe's (the commander in chief of the British forces) desire to receive an American surrender rather than destroying the American army completed was George Washington able to find an opportunity to escape. This devastating battle, and Howe's motivations, led to Howe attempting to negotiate (whether he had the authority to or not is debatable) a peace settlement with no further bloodshed (on the battlefield anyway), with honor intact. These "negotiations" were discussed in congress and a delegation was sent to more or less tell Howe to go to hell (of course, that is an oversimplification of what happened, but for our purposes here, it's close enough).
In other words, events on the battlefield affected events in congress. These are two parts of the same story that only makes sense told as one.
Likewise, with Bloody Crimes, which starts with the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, with Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, on the run. This is April 1, 1865, near the end of the Civil War. Then on April 15, with the death of Abraham Lincoln, we see the autopsy, funeral arrangements, the death pageant, which involved Lincoln's decomposing body traveling the route he took in 1861, only in reverse, on his journey from Springfield to Washington, DC. He would be heading home to where he would be entombed in Springfield. Also on this journey was his son Willie, who had died in 1862. They would be entombed together.
Lincoln's death, coinciding with the fall of the confederacy, put Davis and the South in a bad position. The South specifically because the new president Andrew Johnson would be far less lenient, compassionate to the traitors than Lincoln promised to be. And, more pertinent to our story here, although Jefferson Davis had nothing to do with Lincoln's death, no one knew that for sure at the time, and in fact were convinced he ordered the assassination, which put a price on his head. Lincoln had implied that he didn't care if Jefferson Davis was ever caught as he fled the confederate capital...but after Lincoln's murder, and the possibility that Davis was involved, there was a strong desire not only to catch him, but to see him hang.
These two books got me thinking about my own approach to storytelling. Authors are often asked where they get their ideas. For me, a simple answer would be "a brief moment of inspiration combined with a lot of thought." A more complex answer would explain what I mean by "a brief moment of inspiration." My novels--from Harvester: Ascension to An Inner Darkness, 9111 Sharp Road, Children of Time, and my current work-in-progress All I Want in Life... were conceived in a moment where, in a moment of clarity, I saw the before unseen connection between two or more unrelated ideas.
Harvester: Ascension was born out of two ideas.... The rise of the Tea Party as a result of the American people's rejection of the conservative agenda in the 2008 election. The Tea Party, for those unfamiliar, is a political off-shoot of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party that believes all economic regulation is bad, but all in-the-bedroom regulation is good. In other words, anarchy in the streets, but heavy regulations in your pants.
With a modern-day anarchist group trying to hammer away at our nation's guarantees, we see grid-lock that has never been seen before. Although I developed the story for Harvester: Ascension in 2009, I think recent events are relevant because they played out just as was predicted. We recently saw a government shutdown, caused, championed, and hosted by one of these congressional Tea Party members, a man by the name of Ted Cruz, who abused his power in congress to bring the government to its knees, attempting to destroy it from the inside if he didn't get his way.
Harvester: Ascension largely deals with a possibility of a situation like this but combined with a more traditional alien invasion story. In a way, Independence Day meets the Tea Party. In Harvester: Ascension we see Speaker of the House Cameron McDonald all but take over the U.S. government during a crisis.
An Inner Darkness and its sequel A Light in the Dark dealt with a combined idea of tradition vs independent thought and good vs evil, in which neither were clearly defined. The tradition was, paradoxically, independent thought, but the recent life had become more conservative, while the villain is all but rejected by his followers because they don't believe him to be as truly evil as he should be or as they are.
I suppose through all of this, through the discussion of a couple of historical narratives, a discussion of my own novels, and other thoughts, I want to say that it really is hard to find a truly novel idea on its own. American independence has been chronicled countless times, as well as Lincoln's death and Jefferson Davis's life. The novelty comes in the execution and the way you think about it and what ideas work together to create something new out of something old. So take from that what you will.
Until next week...when I will discussion James L. Swanson's latest release, among other things.