“Begin at the beginning . . .” Where should your novel start?

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end:  then stop.” 

Sounds easy, right? When you’re telling a story, you always start at the beginning, don’t you? Fairy tales always start with “Once upon a time,” and continue through until the prince rescues the princess and carries her off for a life of drudgery and misery, never letting her have a job or a life outside being his trophy wife. (I digress, sorry. I dislike fairy tales.)

The King of Hearts, of course, says this after the White Rabbit asks him where he shall begin to tell the story. For writers, finding that beginning can be hard. Especially when the book is still very much in draft form! Those first few drafts (or, ahem, first few dozen drafts), are where you’re finding the story. Getting to know the characters. Figuring out their problems. Figuring out if their problems are really novel-worthy. You don’t know the beginning, because you don’t know the story, not yet.

A few weeks ago, when all the craziness started and Kansas, along with every other sane state in the Union, instituted stay-at-home orders, I – like probably a lot of other writers – thought, well, this sucks, but I can stay home and write. Get back to my novels, and my research. So, I picked up two of them – my ghost story, and Nicky, my 14-year old rumrunner. I started with Nicky, knowing that of the two, it was the one I might find easiest to get back to.

Yeah. No.

I got to page 36.

Nothing was happening. 

No, that’s not quite right. A lot was happening, actually. But I felt no connection to the story. Or the characters, if I’m honest. I had no idea why. All I knew was that I felt sick to my stomach. I’d spent three years writing a 300-page draft that wasn’t even finished yet, for what felt like nothing. I’d spent three years thinking this is the best thing I’ve ever written! Nicky is the best character that’s ever come to me! and the truth was – I was staring at 36 pages that told me otherwise.

I put it away. Went back to Ghost Hunt. Fell in love with it all over again.

But today, two things happened coincidentally that made me realize maybe there was a lesson in those 36 pages.

The first was that I started editing the first few chapters of a book for a friend. As I read the first two pages, I realized that they were essentially backstory – things that were important, yes, but also things that could be easily worked into the narrative later. Page 3, however, seemed to be where the real story began – with a great hook, an engaging and precocious six-year old, and several questions that I wanted answered. It was just that she hadn’t quite started in the right place. Almost – but not quite! (She just messaged me a bit ago to say, “I thought the same thing – I deleted them a few days ago!”)

Then, I talked to another friend, and in that conversation, I mentioned that failed attempt to start up with Nicky again. He asked why I felt that way.

“Nothing was happening. No tension. It felt like it was all backstory,” I said.

“Aha,” he said. “So does the story start in the right place?”

Me:  (stunned into silence for a minute, because how could I possibly have started a story in the wrong place?!) “Um. No. I mean, I thought it did. When I was drafting it and getting it all down on paper, that’s how it came to me. And it’s all important – we need to know about his dad dying in the war, and the fact that he was accused of disorderly conduct and that’s why Nicky has to support his family and get into the rumrunning . . . but even though there should be lots of tension there . . . there just isn’t.” 

“When I read it, I thought it should have started with your rumrunner doing something, in the middle of a car chase or something,” he said. “Get into it with a great beginning that drags the reader into that next chapter.”

For a split second, I almost said, What? Then why the ever-loving bleeping bleep didn’t you bleeping tell me that BACK THEN?! But then I realized that even if he had – I would have argued with him, because I wasn’t ready to hear it back then. (BTW, if you’re wondering, he read it about two years ago.)

“Yeah,” I said finally. “Because the story doesn’t really get going until they start running whiskey.”

“So all the other information that needs to be in there, you can intersperse. Don’t tell the whole story at one time.” Then he told me about Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which no, I’ve not read. Apparently, it starts in a courtroom with two thugs getting six months for beating and raping a girl. The judge just feigns interest, already knowing what sentence he’s going to hand down. And as the smirking bastards walk out of the courtroom, the girl’s father realizes that “for justice,” he must go to Don Corleone. We don’t know who Don Corleone is. Apparently, we then find out, embedded in fragments over the course of the entire book, that yes, Don Corleone will help, but that he also set up that whole thing just so the girls’ father would come begging on his knees to him. But it’s not told in a linear fashion. You’re given snippets. Hints. Never the whole story. Not at once.

So. In a single ten-minute conversation, I finally understood what was wrong with Nicky. Why my instincts kept shoving it away. I just needed to hear it from someone else. I needed another, honest point of view – but I also needed to realize first that something was wrong with the novel, something inherently wrong.

I really did think that I needed that exposition. Because at heart, that’s all it is – exposition. The kind that eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writers were so good at boring us with. Which is what I ended up doing to myself.

Obviously, my friend is right. That exposition has to go. Truthfully, when I think of how to fit it all in to the rest of the narrative, I find that if I’m not telling the story in a linear fashion, there isn’t any way to fit it in – and if I can’t fit it in, is it truly necessary? I mean, it’s necessary to me, to Nicky, to his background, to understanding him. But is it necessary for the reader? Is it necessary to the overall story? Those are some hard questions! And I won’t know until I start those rewrites.

So, with all due respect to the King of Hearts, I have to say that sometimes, beginning at the beginning is not, in fact, the way to truly start your story.

The World Turned Upside Down

You know, I read back over my last post – about the Erik Larson signing – and think how long ago that seems. Only four weeks – but it feels like forever.

The world has turned upside down.

Like most everyone, my life has been upended by the pandemic. Though I have to admit that my life has not been as badly upended as many – I still have my job, and as I’m considered essential, I still go to my office daily. There are no students, of course – the campus is a ghost town – but I see my colleagues. I go to the store. I am not as housebound as others. Thank God, or I’d be sitting on the roof in my pajamas spouting poetry to a plunger by now. But the scary fact is, the world has been turned upside down, and nothing is going to be the same for a long, long time.

Since this began, however, I – like many – have been comparing the way the world is now to the way the world was in 1918, when the Spanish flu ravaged not on America, but almost every nation on earth, killing 50 million in three separate waves. But as a historian of medieval history, I am also thinking back to the Black Death – which might be an even more appropriate comparison.

I don’t mean appropriate in terms of the devastation, or the number of deaths – though let’s be honest, we’re nowhere near the end of this thing yet and won’t be for some time, at least a year – but in terms of how stunning it is for us to live though. I’ve taught the Black Death in my World History classes for over fifteen years. I’ve read a great deal about it. But like many things in history, it’s hard to get it, because we’ve never lived through anything quite like it.

plaguemap1The Black Death, if you don’t know, came to Europe in 1347. By 1349, it had reached every part of Europe, including Siberia, and by the time it ‘ended’ in 1350, it had killed somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of Europe’s population. Historians are still unsure precisely what it was, though most agree it was likely the bubonic plague – but a bubonic plague that could take multiple forms. The dead were buried in mass graves – often a grave would be dug and the bodies piled into it for more than a week before it would be covered over again, only to be reopened and used again the next week, or the week after. Peasants fled the country for the city, desperate for work; city dwellers fled the city for the country, desperate to escape. The famous ditty ‘Ring Around the Rosy’ is reputed to come from the plague years.

So as I cover this in class with my students, I would talk about the spread of the plague. How we believe it was transmitted (from fleas to rats to humans, or from rats to fleas to humans, depending on your source – and then, from human to human contact in some cases). The mass graves. The fact that some people did survive – and others never contracted it at all. The crazy things people believed about the plague – that it was a curse wrought by God upon the earth, that the Jews had poisoned the wells, that it was an unlucky conjunction of planets . . . and all these, with the distance of six hundred years and modern science, I frankly found silly. We talked about the memento moris, the reminders of death that riddled literature and poetry and gravestones and artwork. We talked about the fact that people would often stick Grandpa outside to be collected by the death wagons – even if Grandpa wasn’t quite dead yet (and yes, I’d recite the Monty Python skit – “But I’m not dead yet!” “Here, I can’t take him.” “Oh, but he will be very soon, come on, do us a favor!”). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSMaL5c19-c

All the while, not getting it. 

Not really.

It was an anecdote, really, something to wake up my classes and get their interest going. Pique their interest in one thing, you can get them interested in something else. That’s just how it is, and the Black Death was one of those entry points. It was also a great gateway for talking about the changes that occurred afterwards, which largely led, a couple of centuries later, to the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance.

But I never put myself in that moment. Let myself really wonder what it would have been like to live during those three terror-filled years. Seeing half your town die, wondering when it would be you. In an age of no television, no newspapers, no CDC or World Health Organization, no real doctors, no understanding of viruses, it must have been absolutely terrifying to encounter this disease, to see the pustules and swellings (on the lucky ones; the unlucky ones got the pneumonia too, or went septic) on family and friends and know that there was nothing you could do to save them – or yourself. Especially at a time when most people simply never traveled far from home, and were therefore blindsided when the pandemic hit their homes.

Their world had turned upside down.

I could never quite understand how people could believe all the rumors and crap floating around Europe about the plague. But now . . . now, it seems a little less silly.

Faced with such a horrific, massive event, would you not reach for anything that would sustain you, even if those things were lies? Because let’s face it – how would you know they were lies? The same priest who absolved your sins and told you what was in the Bible was the same man telling you that this was a scourge from God. Would you dare doubt that? What about the Flagellants, who traveled from town to town to whip themselves in order to try to alleviate the sins of the area – would you consider them crazy, or self-sacrificing heroes?

And what about your family? Then, as now, many were quarantined inside their homes, with their family. If one person started to show symptoms, the town would order everyone in that household to be locked up together, to either live or die. If you woke up one morning to find your parents showing symptoms, what would you do? How afraid would you be, knowing there was almost a 100% chance you already had it, or would get it? Would you try to run away before the authorities found out? Would you, too, put Grandpa out for the knacker cart, even if Grandpa wasn’t quite dead yet, knowing he’d likely be buried alive (as many were)?

We have no answers now, either. I hear the same stories. Today, people are blaming Asian-Americans, not the Jews (though I suspect that’s coming; it always does, freaking Neo-Nazi asshats). Wondering if it really is a punishment from God. (I haven’t seen the Flagellants show up yet, but hey, never say never, right?) Because so many rumors are floating around the world about military cover-ups and political agendas, and everyone is so afraid, no one knows quite what to believe. And that’s today, people – with the CDC, with modern medicine, with widespread education, with 24-hour media coverage and information being disseminated almost as soon as it becomes available. In an age where 90% of the population was illiterate, though, and what they knew of the world came from the Church and the authorities, it’s easier to see how they would have believed some of the more far-fetched things. Easy to see how desperate they would have been for an explanation, any explanation. Because when you don’t know what the root cause of something is, can you truly discount anything?

For the record, I believe none of the crazy rumors. I’m educated enough to know that humanity has faced pandemics in the past, and we’ll face more in the future. Viruses, like any other living organism, want to live, and to live, they often mutate. It’s just a fact. Likewise, this pandemic, like most before, will go through cycles. Don’t believe those who say we’ll be ‘back to normal’ by May or June; we won’t be back to normal for quite some time, perhaps two or three years. And I suspect that ‘normal’ will be as revolutionary as the new ‘normal’ was in Europe after 1350. Our normal ended sometime around March 15, 2020.

Our world has turned upside down, too.

Four weeks ago, I saw Erik Larson live. Four weeks ago, I was going to see Hamilton for the fourth time – sixth row orchestra, in Fort Worth, in June. Four weeks ago, I was not looking forward to graduation but was ready to suck it up and go anyway because it’s required. Four weeks ago, my biggest worry was not whether I have enough toilet paper to get me through April – or how many Americans were going to die because, despite every warning, our government decided it was okay to let people die – but whether I was going to hit an estate sale on a Friday afternoon, or go write at the coffee shop.

Four weeks ago, the Black Death was just a historical fact.

Funny, how in four weeks, the world has turned upside down.