How do you create a story? I’ve been asked that question over and over again. So, I thought I’d outline the steps that my writing partner John Mendoza and I followed in the creation of our new novella, Avenging Adelita.
1. Have a Goal
Our objective was to write a novel, wasn’t it? But that’s not enough. Your goal from the start should be to write a certain kind of novel, aimed at a specific audience. The goal of Adelita was actually an answer to a comment made by my friend Bram Druckman. He and I went to lunch a few months ago, and I asked Bram how he liked our previous work.
“Held my interest,” he said, “but it wasn’t a real page-turner.”
“Yeah, like, you know: a guy puts a time bomb on a train, and we can’t wait to find out if someone will stop the bomb from exploding.”
I nodded. “I’d really like to write a page-turner,” I told him.
“It’s one of the secrets of best selling novelists,” he said.
A few months later, when John and I sat down to plan our upcoming book, we decided to write a real page-turner. That was our goal.
“So, what’s the story, then?” John asked me.
I smiled as I answered, “A guy puts a time bomb on a train, and we can’t wait to find out if someone will stop the bomb from exploding.”
2. Answer Who-What-Where-When-Why
Having a goal is not enough, of course. We also had to figure out: “Where the train going is and when? Who’s the person with the bomb, and why does he or she want to blow up the train?” In other words, we had to answer the same old questions journalists have always asked about their news stories: who, what, where, when, why.
We wanted to keep the story in Mexico so that this book could be a prequel to our Carlos and Alicia Trilogy. That gave us the where. I wanted an older guy, well educated, maybe an American, so we began to figure out the who. We decided on present day events with flashbacks that take us all the way back to the hero’s college days; that’s the when. As you know, we already had the what (guy – time bomb – train). That left us only needing to answer the last journalistic question, the one that’s almost always the most difficult: why?
Brainstorming is the process of exploring ideas, bouncing concepts back and forth, expanding on them until you have answers. That came next.
Through our brainstorming, John and I rejected dozens of ideas for why a person would want to blow up a train. We didn’t want our hero, Tom McKeever, to be a terrorist or schizophrenic. We didn’t think that he’d just been fired by the railroad. But why else would he want to explode things?
“What if the guy hated someone on the train… maybe many people,” John suggested. Okay, but who are these people and why does he hate them?
More brainstorming. We explored every facet, every twist and turn the plot might take. We also started to look outside our own story and situation.
One of my least favorite films is The English Patient: sappy, sentimental, and unpleasant. And yet it presents a point of truth that I’ve never forgotten. In the film, a Hungarian mapmaker tries to save the badly wounded woman he’s fallen in love with by hiding her in a desert cave. He leaves her with water, a flashlight, and promises to return. Then he walks for three days across the desert only to find that WWII has started and no one wants to help him save his love.
In that situation, it would be pretty easy to understand why the guy might do just about anything in order to get back to the cave and save the woman he left behind. Nothing else would matter to him including issues of morality and humanity.
What if the hero in our story has a girl he loves… a wife he loves, who’s dying, who needs a medical treatment that can save her life, and the people on the train have, sometimes through indifference and sometimes intentionally, prevented her from getting the treatment, thus assuring her death? That would give us our why, wouldn’t it… a why no one could argue with? We’d have Tom’s motivation for committing mass murder.
The next part of our process is much harder, almost as hard as it is in day-to-day life. We had to listen. I started writing the novel in the first person, in the voice of Tom McKeever, an elderly American who had lived most of his life in Mexico. Here’s what he says at the very start of our novel:
I take a seat near the rear of the train and wait for the other passengers to board. My attaché fits neatly into the space in front of me, and I imagine that others will think it’s filled with articles of clothing: a tie, spare shirt, socks, and underwear. It’s not, and I know that within six hours I’ll never need those things again, nor will any of my companions.
By the way, John was listening too, and when he read that paragraph, it was buried somewhere later in the novel, he said, “That should be the start of our book. Put that paragraph at the very beginning.”
So, the listening had started, and Tom began telling us what he’s doing and thinking.
As I write, I listen. It almost seems that I’m not really writing; I’m transcribing, and as I transcribe, the characters tell who they are and what they’re thinking. Even when I’m not writing in the first person, my characters talk to me through their dialogue. Here’s the scene where Tom first meets Adelita. They’re at a student mixer at Notre Dame in 1966. She’s just asked Tom if his departure for college was a happy one.
“Well, there was a lot of crying,” I answer. “Mom cried, Dad cried, even the dog cried.”
“Me too,” she says with the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen in my life.
“You cried too…because I was leaving home?”
Even though I’m trying to joke with her, she looks confused.
“No, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m sorry.” Instead of laughing, she’s embarrassed.
“My tears were for myself… for my farewell. Mama and Papa cried, and little Marco…he’s my younger brother, and even Tia Josephina,” she says.
“I’m afraid my English is not very good.”
“With beauty like yours,” I say, trying to be far cooler than I know how to be, “your English doesn’t matter much at all.”
She blushes. “Is that a compliment?”
I shrug. “I hope so.”
She pauses for a moment with an even more confused look in her eyes, and then she finally whispers, “It’s a lovely compliment. Thank you.”
So polite, I think. Even in the face of such stupidity. Suddenly I feel very insecure. “What I’m trying to say is….”
She takes my arm and pulls me closer to her. “What you said was fine. You are a poet as well as a gentleman, I think. Mostly you just want to help me feel at ease. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” I answer. “And, you know, your English really is excellent.”
Listening to the characters as they talk is one way to find out who they are. This is the first time my readers and I have met Adelita, and yet we can see just how kind and forgiving she is. I’ll need to keep that personality and her voice intact as the story progresses. Adelita has to be who she is. The details of that scene are based on a conversation I did have with a girl at an introductory mixer during my freshman year at Notre Dame. But I wasn’t quite that lame, and she wasn’t that nice either.
There are other ways to figure out your characters too. Sometimes you can learn about your characters simply by naming them. If your characters’ names are based on people you know, you have a sense of who they are and how they act. I do that quite often. I even base some of my characters on well-known actors or actresses. In Alicia’s Ghost, Carlyle August is modeled on Cary Grant, and we often say that he looks like the classic actor. I had to watch a lot of old Cary Grant movies to get his dialogue and his behavior right. In Adelita, the villain Huerta is modeled on an old boss of mine who enjoyed holding staff meetings and using them as a forum for public humiliation. Even during our team-building off-sites, he would gather us around a table, then go from person to person and do his best to dismember us emotionally. Remembering that practice eventually gave us one of the opening scenes of the novel. At that point we wanted the reader to feel sympathy for Tom McKeever. So the scene in which Huerta attacks Tom becomes a tipping point in his decision to seek revenge:
“Pay attention, Dr. McKeever!” Huerta calls, and I jump at the mention of my name. He’s standing as he always is, pacing back and forth against the far wall, in front of a long credenza with its tray full of mismatched mugs and crusted pots of coffee, tea, and chocolate.
I look around the room, and everyone’s seated, already involved in the meeting. They all look at me, then suddenly realize that I’m going to be this week’s victim, and they’re glad.
“Sorry,” I say to the Butcher. “I haven’t been myself, since Adelita….”
“We all know that your wife is dead, Professor,” he interrupts, and the corners of his lips curl up sarcastically as though he thinks this tragic fact is somehow amusing.
So far so good: Those are the first four steps. In a few days I’ll post the rest of the process: how we designed and wrote our new novel, Avenging Adelita. Stand by.