What Should Be the Foundation of a Story?

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It’s like the introduction to every “…For Dummies” guidebook: ‘So you want to write a novel—welcome to the club! Being an author must be an awesome job. I mean, you get to work whenever and wherever you want, and mostly you just travel around signing your books, right?’

If only! It’s not enough to just want to “be” a writer. For starters, you need to have a story you want to tell (hopefully more than one, but one is a fine place to begin). Excellent, you can do totally that—all you need to do is come up with a plot and you’ll be set…right?

Not exactly, it turns out.

Despite the fact that I've been writing for several years now, when I decided I was going to write a real novel, I immediately laser-zoomed in on that question—what's it going to be about? What's going to happen?

My husband diplomatically pointed out that the writing I had been doing up until this point was far more about the characters than the plot, and it was an approach which had worked out rather well for me. Then I came across several blog posts discussing the importance of characters in making a novel memorable and engaging.

Then I saw an interview with the terrific mystery writer Lee Child in which he said, to paraphrase, ‘character is king. The plot is like a rental car; all the better if it's a rental Jaguar instead of a rental Pinto, but either way it's a rental car—designed to get someone from where they are to where they need to be. The story is about who is riding in the rental car.’ Properly and thoroughly chastened, I endeavored to adopt a new perspective on the creation of not just my story, but any story.

As I said in my first blog post, initially I had little more than a vague image in my head. The image was of a woman, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, sticking her head out from the hull of a small starship in a hangar bay. To those of us who admire elegant craftsmanship, the ship was of course beautiful. The woman was obviously working on the ship; I had the sense it was her ship. I decided I would consult with her on the issue.*

And so Alexis Solovy was born.

I didn't know that was her name to begin with, of course. I didn't know anything about her, except she lived sometime in the future, owned a starship, and knew how to work on it. Also, she had a story she needed to share with me. Her story.

Inspired, I sat down and hurriedly scribbled out an initial draft of what eventually became Chapter 1. But what those early words really constituted was a first step in discovering who Alexis Solovy is. It turns out, she's damn intriguing—she'd better be, she's the heroine after all!

As I started getting to know her, the world she lives in began to reveal itself in grand, rousing strokes. Funny that.

Over the last several months, Alex and I have gotten to know one another rather well.* And the tale which wound itself around her is astounding—with such an epic scope it will require three novels to tell. (Believe me, I did not start out intending to be so audacious as to just go and proclaim I would be writing a trilogy.)

To be fair, I was a little annoyed when Alex informed me she was a starship pilot.* I knew far less about flying than I did about space; my research load had just doubled. But I had little say in the matter.

After all, it’s her story—which is exactly how it should be.


* If you have been around many writers, you know we will talk about our characters as though they were living, breathing people existing in the world, rather than merely in our heads. That’s just the way it is.