Designing from Bones ~ The First Passion of Story

Welcome to Designing from Bones where we use the realities of the past to unearth the fiction of tomorrow.

After three weeks of looking into the story potential of cannibalism I promised that we’d do a lighter topic this week and indeed I found one, that strangely, still seems like cannibalism, but I’ll let you decide.

As writers, there is one history that we all know intimately. One that carries with us through every step of our journey. One story that is never quite written but can inspire a thousand others. The history and stories of our own lives. Today, I’ll share one such with you from my own journey in the hopes that it will inspire each of you to seek the power of your own experiences.

The summer of ’75

The first sacred volume of Original D&D held a mystical power that spawned a gaming empire.

It was the summer of 1975 when at the ripe old age of six and a half my uncle introduced me to a new style of gaming contained within the sacred pages of three thin booklets. What is now known as Original Dungeons & Dragons.

Up until this point in life my gaming experience included Chute & Ladders, Stratego, Hide and Seek (the live version) and this cool game called Booby Trap. In Booby Trap you put round wooden pieces with a small peg on top between a spring loaded bar and a solid wall – as you take the pieces out things became more tenuous until finally the remaining ones can’t hold back the power of the spring and explode into the air. Yeah, the toys weren’t all that safe back then but they were fun and taught about the relationship of physics and personal defense, so it was all good. Besides, the only thing that ever got stuck in my head was a metal-tipped dart, but that is another story.

It’s only fun if you don’t wear eye protection. Booby Trap the game that teaches self-defense and an iron nerve

My uncle sat me down in the upstairs of our house and had me roll up my first official Dungeons & Dragons character, it was a magical moment in life – I named him Snichelfrog the First (hey, I was six and that name was totally cool back then). Snichelfrog died on his first adventure and was followed by five more of the same name. But it didn’t matter, even with my jean shorts sticking to the veneer of the wooden chair I sat in (the imprint is still there), I was learning two things that would become invaluable to my life. Imagination and Critical Thinking, the twin roots of the writing mind.

From every seed springs a thousand plants.

“Excuse me, but I could use your assistance.” One of many story seeds, write your caption or response and you’ve just created the beginning of a unique story.

It has long been my belief that if you give a single story seed to a thousand different writers that a thousand different stories will result – all from that same singular seed. I have this belief because of those glory days as a kid playing Dungeons & Dragons. It is also where my love of fantasy, the paranormal, science fiction and history come from. It defined the way I think about the world and the way I approach fiction both as a reader and a writer.

As I progressed and moved from player to “dungeon master” I learned how to use story seeds to form an infinite variety of adventures, all from the same basic set of seeds, yet always different enough to thrill my players. Sound familiar – the same only different? Those days formed the basis of my storytelling experience, performed with and by a live audience, because, before the internet, we all sat and played in the same room.

During my teens and early twenties, I started to do two things. First, I started to write stories based on my D&D experiences and what would now be considered fan fiction of the worlds I was reading about in the fantasy lit of the time. My favorite was Robert Lynn Asprin’s Thieves’ World which was the basis of my first structured fiction.

The second thing I started doing, was that I designed my own version of D&D, a house version, if you will, over the course of 10 years that taught me about formatting, structure, balance and a host of other things that carry over into the writing world for me today.

That’s great Gene – How is this useful to ME?

Designing from Bones is all about discovering story through history and its true point of origin is sitting at a table on a hot summer day in 1975.

The artwork of Dungeons & Dragons has inspired countless stories. What do you think the story is with this piece – the answer is the start of a new adventure just waiting for your imagination.

When a “shiny new idea” pops into our heads, I can guarantee that no matter what inspired the thought of the moment, that the idea will be filtered through our lifetime of experiences. For me, that is D&D, among other things. For you, this will be different, but I would bet that by now you have a good idea of what those defining factors are.

What was the glory time of your youth? A summer spent at camp that taught you all about life and interacting with a variety of people all trapped in the same microcosm? A trip that seemed to never end but that taught a host of life lessons?

These defining moments in each of our lives form the basis of our own natural writing rhythms – the patterns we use to design stories.

I gravitate towards and naturally blend the paranormal, fantasy and history because of my experiences. Another may gravitate towards romance because of an unrequited first love or a great love that lasted only a season. Yet another may naturally head for science fiction epics after watching Star Wars until they could recite every line and see the movie in their heads with their eyes closed. What about the person that went to a Renaissance fair and suddenly watched a love of medieval pageantry burst into their subconscious? I would bet that the same is what forms the basis of the stories they love to write.

By taking an honest look at the experiences of our glory days, the events we’ve been a part of, the passions of youth that are oft forgotten in the busyness of adulthood we unlock our most powerful writing tool – our own history.

And now that I’ve “cannibalized” a part of my history, what about you? Do you find that one or more experiences of your life define your writing? Are there things hiding in your past that guide your writing today? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Peaceful Journeys!

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About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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16 Responses to Designing from Bones ~ The First Passion of Story

  1. catwoods says:

    Love this. My defining moments were of unfettered freedom with my sister. We had no television and our days were spent prowling our various childhood environments: the wooded acreage beyond our trailer, the paved community of our apartment complex or the pastures of our uncle’s farm. My imagination was as free as we were.

  2. Great post, Gene! I absolutely think that we cannibalize parts of our lives for our writing. In my case, I write speculative fiction because that’s what my parents read and what I grew up reading.

    I love the idea of imagination and critical thinking as twin roots of the writing mind. Well said.

  3. Fantastic post, Gene. One of my defining moments took place when I chose to ‘cannibalize’ my acting career and focus on writing. A short film I’d written (so I could play a particular role) got picked up by a production company, and I felt heartbroken—not because it found interest and funding, but because it meant no longer writing. I knew the switch was the best thing for me, and I’m so grateful it happened.

  4. Jess Witkins says:

    I almost spit my coffee out this morning. Yes, games back then weren’t as safe. And yet, I don’t recall choking or stabbing anyone with the pieces. Clue was my favorite. Maybe a bruise or two from a water balloon, but it just builds character if you ask me!

    I started writing stories like fan fiction too. My siblings and I all played with Cabbage Patch Kids and owned tons of them. I wrote, edited, and published the Cabbage Patch News magazine! LOL. Oh, and I illustrated too…badly.

  5. What a chord this touched. My first attempts at stories came from watching 1970s Doctor Who. It was a series set on Earth, and full of strange happenings such as shop dummies coming to life, church gargoyles turning into assassins and dangerous folks being held prisoner in sea forts. The explanation was usually an alien force, which I usually found disappointing because I preferred the questions it provoked about us and what we take for granted. But it turned everything around me into a potential story – an education of the imagination. I don’t write science fiction now, but I’ve still retained that urge to look for the unusual! Lovely post.

  6. Love it! Just about every story idea I toss around has some “lesson learned” theme that comes from my own experience. There’s no doubt that my history shapes my writing. Absolutely!

  7. ralfast says:

    I started my path into D&D adventure in college and never turned back.

  8. Marcia says:

    A metal-tipped dart to the head…huh, explains a lot. 🙂 I agree with you on the influence our past has on our writing inspiration. Mine is: coming from a middle class family, Dad is a Judge, Mom is an artist, two prim sisters, yet I plunge myself into the world of a motorcycle club. Opposing worlds and a huge variety of people. Learned a lot. I had a difficult relationship with my father (nothing abusive really) and bring that to my stories as well. I’m plotting a series about a girl who leaves home to get away from her father and eventually rides with a bike club. My first stories were inspired by my mother’s history as a chorus line dancer during the days of vaudeville and my remembrances of stories I heard about my grandfather’s nightclub.
    Great post–a good kind of cannibalism.

  9. Debra Eve says:

    Hey Gene, I know I’ve said this before — but this time you really outdid yourself on Designing from the Bones. Loved it! I used to imagine myself into the scenes of National Geographic Magazine. Actually, I still do 🙂

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Cat: That sounds wonderful. My parents kept a tight control on the TV and for most of my youth I was forced to find my own entertainment. Roaming about the yard, neighborhood and friends neighborhoods day dreaming adventures was one of my favorite past times. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

      Annalise: Your parents sound fantastic. Mine were not big readers, but my uncle was. Perhaps I’ll post on this at some point.

      August: That is incredible. I’m glad your project found the funding, but I’m thrilled you decided to keep writing. I know the blogsphere would not be the same without you.

      Jess: Building character was indeed the focus of the “old era” toys, in a way I think its a shame society turned against them over a few minor injuries. The Cabbage Patch daily, I can totally see you happily writing and coloring and prancing about with the Patchers as you led them through adventures. Sounds fun – perhaps you’ll share it with us one day 😉

      Roz: Your early stories sound fascinating and I think we are quite similar in that our early influences inspired us to look for the strange and unusual – and to not take the “givens” of reality as sacrosanct. I’ve always thought the dummies in the stores came to life after hours…

      Natalie: Oh yes, I see that in your writing quite clearly and I think that it is that passion that empowers it. We have to be true to ourselves – perhaps this is even the root of what we call “voice”.

      Ral: Excellent! I don’t play anymore but I do still have all the materials from those days which serve me well as an idea engine at times.

      Marcia: Hmm, now that sounds like an incredible ride (pun intended). The relationships and experiences, especially of youth tend to be a big influence on how we twist we together the relationships of our stories. Honestly, I’ve always wished my parents were a bit more exciting – be glad for the life you’ve lived, good or bad, it is the best tool in the box.

      Debra: My parents were NatGeo subscribers and reading them each month was one of my favorite activities. I used to dream of all the exotic peoples and places. Archeology and a global view of life all come from that time spent between the glossy pages.

  10. Hmm defining moments of life, art in museums; but then looking up the artists and finding all this cool information about them; where they lived, what kind of life they survived, their influences, who their patrons were, and what happened to their art after they died. I tried to be an artist, but the genre competition was overwhelming. I am not a salesperson in any sense of the word, you either like it or you don’t, and I am not capable of the “used car salesman” spiel to induce you to part with money for something that speaks for itself. Research was always something that I found easy, from the World Book to the internet, I was always thirsting for more information. Those are the things that I put into my blog, and want to expand on with a career.
    I do have a set of Jarts in my garage, lawn darts that you toss into a ring, with long metal spikes to make them stay in place when they make contact with the ground. They wouldn’t pass any child safety standards today, but great memories of times spent playing outside.

  11. Jenny Hansen says:

    I’ve been holding this post like chocolate to gobble up as a reward for Fast Draft. 🙂

    Love the stories of young Gene – my brother was a gigantic D&D fan but since we lived apart, he never taught me to play. I did adore those dice those. I kept trying to steal THOSE to play with and write stories about. LOL.

  12. Reetta Raitanen says:

    How cool that you’ve played D&D and gamemastered, Gene. Roleplaying is great practice for writing.

    I met my husband in a LARP and we are still RPing once a week with friends. Young children make it challenging, though. I’m still gathering my courage to GM. But the game ideas I have gathered over the years can be mined for writing too.

    My first defining fantasy moment was discovering Greek mythology when I was 10 or so. I devoured every story I could find (about other pantheons too), and could soon draw big parts the convoluted genealogy of the gods off my head.

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  14. Lynn Kelley says:

    I LOVE this post, Gene. Love getting a glimpse of you as a child. Snichelfrog the First! That is a pretty darn cool name for a character. My brother played D&D. I probably would have been a D&D player, too, but I’d never heard of it until the early ’80s. I was a ragged a$$ working mother then, so D&D would have been a luxury. Oh well, I missed that boat!

    I agree that one story seed becomes a different story in each of us. We just have to look at flash fiction challenges and see the variety of stories people come up with. Pretty cool.

    This post has given me more ideas for a new blogging series I want to start in a couple months. Maybe sooner. I remember Booby Trap. I grew up playing lots of board games – Clue, Monopoly, and Chutes and Ladders – Whee! Dice games like – Yahtzee, Chinese checkers and regular checkers. I sucked at chess, but my bro (who later got into D&D) was a whiz at chess. Our family play lots of card games – Spades, Hearts, and sometimes poker. We started out playing Old Maid! Too bad most kids today are missing out on all these games. What a wonderful post, Gene!

    Sorry I’m late, but I’m way behind and playing catchup today.

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