The Story of a Story
As of yesterday as I write this there's a new story in my files. Shivering, needing a bath and brush, but alive. Not only is it safely captured but, rarer still, I actually know where it came from. This is more unusual than one might think; the sequence of musings, notions, and interpreted experience that lead to a successful story may be -- and often are -- spread over a period of years. Not this time. This is a tale of three days. I first saw the story on the Science Fiction Forum on Compuserve. On this particular day I was just lurking, listening to some fans discussing the works of Orson Scott Card, in particular his Alvin Maker series. Characters in this universe sometimes have psychic powers called "knacks." One fan, when referring to several characters with this ability, called them "knackers." Another fan immediately jumped in to point out that the word "knacker" already existed and he should use another term. Knackers, it turned out, were people who went around the farms in old England, buying up the carcasses of animals who had died of disease or old age and then rendering them down for glue and bone meal.
Ok, so a little bell didn't go off in my head, but the word 'knacker' did resonate. The central image of a shabbily dressed man driving his little wagon through shaded country lanes, cleaning up the dead like a human corbie was complete and instantaneous. I had a story. This is one of the truly mystical moments in writing. The tools are there for anyone: grammar, spelling, sentence construction. These can all be learned. For anyone planning to write, they darn well should be learned. But I don't know how anyone can learn to recognize a story when they see one. You either do or you don't. Which is why "Where do you get your ideas?" is such a silly question to ask a writer. Ideas are not stories.
That said, this was just the beginning. I knew I had a story but I didn't know what the story was. The only halfway tangible thing showing was that one image. Not an idea in the strictest sense or even a character, since I knew nothing about the Knacker Man except what he did for a living. But there was a story underneath, known without question or possibility of discussion. The familiar itching feeling had come to my fingers, telling me to get to work. I got to work.
First Day: I start by trying to figure out who the Knacker Man was. Nothing. Not even a name. Asking him questions clearly wasn't working. I played stage director, putting him in a scene where he could show me who he was. I opened the story on a small farm with the Knacker Man and the farmwife discussing the price of a dead cow, and we were off. Pages went by, with the Knacker Man more than willing to let me tag along on his rounds and write down what he did. Only he still wouldn't tell me his name. It took a few more pages before I realized why -- in his view he didn't have one. He was the Knacker Man. That was how he thought of himself, defining his identity in terms of the good, useful work he had put his hand to. He had some hazy memory of the name Jack Litton, a young man of education and decent prospects whose life and mind had taken a horribly wrong turn. Jack Litton was dead nearly thirty years now, dead and entombed where no one could find him and his memories were buried deep, and only the Knacker Man remained like a stone marking a grave.
Second Day: Well begun, but now there's a nagging fear, then a terrible suspicion, soon confirmed -- Jack Litton was Jack the Ripper. That was a bad moment. I thought my promising beginning was going to turn into an Oh My God! He's Really Jack the Ripper!!! story. You probably know the sort. Like those horrid little pieces that end something like "Well, hello Eve and by the way my name's Adam and our spaceship has a flat and sincewe're stuck here why don't we call the planet Earth..." What are called in fantasist circles "tomato surprise" or HAITE stories (Here's An Idea, The End). The sort that make even the most tolerant editor dream of strangling beginning writers in their sleep. I was depressed. I read over the first few pages and breathed a little easier. Yes, the Knacker Man is Jack the Ripper and no mistake, but it's no Tomato Surprise. Any reader paying attention would cop to the Knacker Man's identity in three pages, tops. The only reason it took me so long is that I was writing the silly thing, which is another matter entirely. The Idea is not the Story. I repeat the mantra and get back to work. My optimism is soon put to the test. The Knacker Man meets a charming little waif whose kitten was just killed by a stray motor car. She tries to sell him the carcass to raise money for her poor Mum who needs help ever so and there's no one else around and here we go...
Well, ok. It didn't go as I'd feared. Granted, children weren't the Ripper's natural prey and maybe that's what saved the little tyke. But then why did the Knacker Man verykindly buy the tiny body he didn't need for three whole pence and then bury it with respect a little further down the road? That left big unanswered questions: If the Knacker Man is Jaunty Jack, then why did he stop killing? Jack the Ripper was never caught; by most accounts he never even came close. What chased him out of Whitechapel and left him where I found him? How and why did Jack the Ripper become the kindly Knacker Man? And could he remain so? And even if he could should he be allowed to? There may or may not be any Divine Justice in theuniverse but in stories there certainly is, so what happened next?
Third Day. I found the answers. Simple as that. If you ever read the story you'll find out what they were, but that's not the point just now. What matters is that there's an instant of inspiration or idle curiosity or image or emotion, idea if you want to be simplistic about it, and all the rest is work. Got that? The idea may announce the story like a strident herald but it is not the story. The story comes from the mundane nitty gritty details of putting one word after another, letting the work pose its own questions and prompting it to answer them until the story is done. Writing is hard work, and don't let anyone tell you differently. Good work, perhaps. On a good day, glorious. But work, nonetheless. God and the Devil are in the details and so is everything else.
And that's how stories get written. Or at least that one. Next time the answer will be different because the story will be different. Speaking just for myself, I wouldn't have it any other way.
[Author's Note: "Knacker Man" appeared in the anthology ROBERT BLOCH'S PSYCHOS, Pocket Books, 1998. It's still one of my favorite works.]
©1996 by Richard Parks. All Rights Reserved.
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