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
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.
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.
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.
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.