Story Making Part Two

Okay, so in the previous blog about story making we described how designing and writing a novel requires a goal. In the case of our new novel, Avenging Adelita, we wanted to write a real page-turner. We talked about holding brainstorming sessions to determine the who what where when why of our story. And then we told how, in writing, we listened to what our characters are telling us about themselves and what they want. We also explored how naming characters can help identify them. What’s the next step in our process? Tons of research.

5. Research

There are a lot of different kinds of research. John likes to talk about the research we do in our heads. My knowledge of Notre Dame, after 4 years there, allowed me to paint accurate pictures of the place. John’s deep knowledge of Mexico and Mexican history helped us describe people and places accurately. Huerta’s name, for example, comes from that of a harsh military dictator who is still vilified by modern-day Mexicans. John suggested the name based on his extensive knowledge of the subject. Another way to get good names for your characters is to go online and look up the names that families were giving their children at a given point in time. In my story, Adelita was born in Mexico in about 1945. So what girls’ names were popular in Mexico in 1945? The Internet told me that Adelita was one of them. But finding that beautiful name was only the beginning. The truth is, research is not only the key to providing realistic elements for your novel, it also offers some surprising story opportunities. Sometimes they seem almost miraculous.

I like to have a picture of my characters. I often create screen savers with images of the characters so that I can look at them while I’m writing. So, I Googled images of Adelita. Usually I might find movie stars or models with that name, occasionally famous characters from books or movies, politicians, and other leaders. The miracle is that when I did it this time, I didn’t just find images of lovely Latinas. There were hundreds of pictures of historic women from a century ago. They were wearing bandoleers across their chests and carrying rifles. There were also drawings, cartoons, and even detailed paintings of a very specific kind of woman. Turns out, Adelita is one of the great mythical characters of Mexican history, one whose strength is as important to feminists as her beauty was to the soldiers she inspired.

Once I found that out, I started seeing Adelita’s picture on the side of buildings, on billboards, even outlined in neon in front of restaurants. What a great story element.  Our Adelita was strong and heroic in the face of a deadly disease, not unlike the mythical warrior woman she was named for. There’s much more about the mythical/historical Adelita in our novel, including the telling of her entire story by Adelita’s grandfather at her wedding: a great backstory for our novel discovered by the miraculous luck of research.

We had similar luck in researching trains in Mexico. In early drafts of the novel, I described the train in terms of the commuter trains I’ve taken in San Francisco. But to be accurate I had to find out if there are luxury trains like that in Mexico. John did some Internet research. And what a find he made. Apparently, there aren’t many such trains in Mexico. But there’s at least one.

In the late 19th century, construction began on a tourist train to run from Chihuahua to Mazatlan, across the Sierra Madre Mountains and through one of the most spectacular scenic areas in Mexico, Copper Canyon… the Grand Canyon of Mexico. This lucky research not only gave us a description of a real tourist train but also gave us a reason for the trip (a faculty off-site at a lodge in Copper Canyon), as well as some scenic descriptions to brighten the journey along the way. It also gave us an image for the cover of our novel. Since the picture of the train on the Copper Canyon Railroad website is spectacular, we bought the rights to it and made it part of our book cover.

Things were coming together nicely. I was in my usual polish mode: write, polish, polish, polish; write, polish, polish, polish until the story is as clean and clear as it can be. (We took turns rewriting Tom’s poem to Adelita dozens of times, until we thought it was perfect.) But it was then, near the end of the novel, of course, that John and I came face to face with the core question of our work: Does Tom blow up the train and kill himself and everyone else on it, or not… and if not… what does happen?

6. Puzzle

That’s the verb “to puzzle” as in the famous line from How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.

Yes, we were puzzlers, trying to figure out the ending of our novel. We might have started with the ending and written the story leading up to that predetermined point. It’s certainly a tried and true method. But a lot of writers, among them Stephen King, will tell you that plotted novels often turn out to feel forced and predictable. Why not start with a “what-if,” get to the climactic point, and then see if the ending presents itself. In this case it didn’t; so then we had to come up with the climax ourselves, didn’t we? But at least at that point we knew all the forces that were at play in the ending.

Like maybe a few thousand writers before me, I’m sure, I lay in bed awake for an entire night coming up with every conceivable ending I could think of, including the total destruction of the train and everyone on it… Tom too. I had to find the perfect ending, an unexpected one, hopefully, a satisfying one in every possible way. Finally, after eight straight hours of staring at the ceiling, it came to me at about 7 AM. I got up at once, wrote it, polished it, and later that day sent it to John. He agreed it was the perfect ending… at least we think so.

What was it?

Well, Avenging Adelita is available on Amazon as an e-book and will be out in paperback by mid-december. Pick up a copy; we think you’ll like the story. And you can find out what happens to Tom, the train, and the rest of the passengers. Carlos and Alicia Mann (from our Alicia’s Ghost, Alicia’s Sin, and Alicia Bewitched novels) make a cameo appearance. Oh, and of course, as in all the other Iuppa-Mendoza novels, there are ghosts.

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