I’ve now written three short stories that delve into the pasts of the characters from my upcoming novel, PENANCE, and I have plans to write at least three more. (Earlier, I outlined my plan to use these stories to achieve global publishing domination. And you can read the first of the lot, The Old Rules, at Shots Magazine, where all the cool crime fiction kids over in the UK hang out.)
Now, I wish I’d written these stories earlier.
I’ve opined on the writing process before, on the futility of the outlining, on my preference for an organic approach, one that makes the unfolding story as new to me as it is to my characters. But now I’m wondering about getting to know my characters better first. I’ve heard about this character bible approach, assembling a kind of dossier on your fictional peeps. Basic stuff, like what they look like, their age, race, where they’re from, but also a biography that sketches out a lifeline on them, chronicles the major events of their fictional existence. To me, though, the character bible approach just feels like outlining the characters instead of the story. It feels like it would have the same inherent limitations – it would set artificial boundaries that interfere with the process of organic discovery. It feels exactly like a dossier, like I’m a spy trying to build a cover, trying to learn how to pretend to be someone I’m not.
These short stories, though, have allowed me to live through some of my characters previous experiences, not just mark them on a timeline. They’ve let me be the characters for a part of their history, not just pretend to be them. That has helped me better understand their motivations, their fears, their wants – their humanity. It also has me wondering if this isn’t something I should bake in to my novel writing process. A character test drive, if you will. Maybe, next time out, before a major character gets to walk on stage in my novel, I take him (or her) out for a spin on the short fiction dance floor, give them a chance to show me their moves, feel them in my arms a little, have them whisper their sweet nothings in my ear so that their voice isn’t something I have to discover, it’s already a part of me.
I’ve done that before, if accidentally. The last novel I wrote, ROTTEN AT THE HEART, started out as a short story. (ROTTEN AT THE HEART is my experiment in Elizabethan noir in which I turn William Shakespeare into an unwilling gumshoe. I wrote the rough draft online, blogging the chapters day by day, starting back in August of 2011, if you feel like digging back for a peek. And hey, you publishing types out there, this is the novel that Stacia Decker hasn’t sold yet, so ring her up, get in on the ground floor of my burgeoning fame.)
That short story, The Bard Confesses in the Matter of the Despoilment of the Fishmonger’s Daughter (listen to a podcast of the story here), first ran in Needle Magazine and is also included in my short fiction collection, OLD SCHOOL. Not even a story, really, just a couple thousand words of interior monolog, the Bard having a dark night of the soul over his mistreatment of a young lass. But the sense of character that left me, the depressed, obsessively introspective version of Shakespeare that planted in my head, that wouldn’t go away. I wanted to do more with him. Plus, I dug writing in that lush quasi-Elizabethan language. So the story grew into a novel.
So this short fiction deal, it may not just be an exercise in novel pimping after all. Might be a new gadget I toss in my writer tool box.
AND NOW MORE PIMPING!
Not that I’m down on pimping, though. In another shameless exercise to attract attention, I’ve let some of the characters from PENANCE out of their fictional cages and out into the real world. Detective John Lynch, the protagonist (@DetectiveLynch), Mayor Richard Hurley, the primogenitor of the corrupt political dynasty that shapes the setting for the novel (@MayorHurley); and Paddy Wang, a mysterious global powerbroker (@PaddyWang1), are now loose on Twitter. Give ‘em a follow, won’t you? Let me know what the bastards are up to. I’m really not sure they can be trusted in the wild.