Like most writers, I have a head full of unwritten stories–only they aren’t nicely complete, something I could, with time, simply write down. They’re like the old men who, when we moved here, used to sit on benches in front of the domino hall (no longer there) and grocery store (still there, and now including what was the domino hall, but the wide covered sidewalk is now cluttered with the ice machine, the propane tank locker, a newspaper stand, and signs, so it’s hard to even walk under cover let alone slouch on a bench and talk, as the old men used to do.
At any rate, every one of those old men had stories to tell, but they were shy of the newcomer woman who slowed down on her way in and out of the grocery store, hoping to overhear more. A few of them (Doss and Wallace, particularly) finally relaxed enough to share some, but nowhere near all, their stories. The characters in my head with unwritten stories have stories…everyone does…but they aren’t telling them yet, or not in enough detail that I can be sure it’s really a story and not an anecdote they want to share.
“When I was young I used to trail cattle down to the stockyard at Georgetown. It took two days; we stopped overnight down there where the road makes that curve, to water them at that little creek.” I made the mistake of asking questions, not waiting out the long pauses in these stories, not understanding them, early on. “Oh,” said that old man, “it wasn’t like it is now. You wouldn’t understand.”
“When I was young, I used to move cattle over there the other side of 183, on that high ground, up to Lampasas, at night because it was cooler. It was all prairie then, never plowed, and in the late summer the grass was so tall it was like riding through water, in the moonlight.” I was quiet. Slowly, with the long pauses of someone who had worked alone for hours at a time, out with cattle and a horse and maybe sometimes a dog, a little more came to me. “As high as the saddle. Some years, that big grass, you know? When it seeded that would be as high as my head, sittin’ there on the horse.” Not enough for a full story…it was background, it was anecdote, it had no real beginning or end. “The river ran clear, back then. That one, you know when you’re driving on the road and there’s a cut through rock and then a bridge…well, there was a place upstream with a break you could get the cattle down off the high ground and they’d get to movin’ too fast; they could smell the water…”
“Oh, way before that–they used to move cattle up this way, on north, and stop to water them right over there, where those houses are near the creek. And there was a racetrack, too, right in there. They had horse races and the preachers would get mad.”
“Those people out on that back road to Salado, they grew melons down in that draw, and all kinds of garden stuff, and haul it into town with a mule wagon.”
The woman were more willing to talk. “When I was a girl, when the bluebells bloomed, they were just solid down by the creek, in the meadows there near our house, and we would go down and pick them and make us crowns for our hair and have them in the house…” (These are not bluebells, but a rare gentian that produces a large purple flower, every shade from palest lavender to deep royal purple. Real bluebells don’t grow here or anywhere near.) “When I was a girl, my girlfriends would ride out to our place (on horses) to spend a day down by the creek…” or “I’d ride my horse into town to see my friends.” Boys might have a bicycle; girls didn’t. So it was walk or ride a horse. They also talked about each other. “Her? She was always like that. Hated dresses, wore overalls like her brothers–” “Prob’ly were her brothers’!” “I ‘spect so. Anyway, she drove a tractor and everything, and she’s still got a mouth on her. She’ll tell anybody what she thinks.” And the wonderfully evocative “Do you remember the time so-and-so did such and so?…??”
In my head, the characters talk to each other and sometimes to me. Mostly its in murmurs I have to strain to hear, until one of them gets bolder and comes closer and talks loud enough to be clearly heard. But the snatches I hear fascinate me and I try to sneak up on some of them, even though experience suggests these aren’t ready yet. “It’s wasn’t either my imagination: there’s something in there…” What? asks the writer and silence follows, impenetrable. “Whatever she thinks, it’s not over yet.” This, a little louder, intended for me to hear, and with a gleam of eyes out of the shadowy corner where shadowy figures are sitting, elbows on knees and heads close. I know the she is aimed at me, the writer.
There are times when a half dozen or so jostle one another, waving hands at me, talking loudly, each insisting that the next book should be his or hers or theirs together. “It’s MY story!” someone says. Then comes the patient interview period, with me writing and testing that character’s potential. And there are times like right now, when they’re all staying back from me, muttering and murmuring to one another, nobody ready yet to face the writer and the writer’s power of choice. Even Mirabel Stonefist, a familiar-enough character from the Chicks anthologies, who should be coming forth for another attempt, is hanging back, scowling a little.
Some stories I know a lot more about (Kolya Ministiera’s backstory, Arcolin’s backstory–some of which is now coming out, but not all of it)–and more about Kieri’s. But backstory doesn’t always make good fore-story when the later story’s written. We all know Kolya retired as a soldier after losing an arm. There’s no future extension from starting back before that (any more than there would be in writing about Paks as a nine-year-old.) Stories are best (I think–I could be wrong) when they end with the potential for more stories in the direction they were moving. Stammel’s death ends his life, but the people he affected live on, and their stories might be (possibly) something I could write.
I started a story about Sier Segrahlin at the Battle of Greenfields, in which he is killed. We already knew he died; Gird finds his body after the battle, recognizes him of course, and then wonders about the fate of Segrahlin’s son, the one who was willing to kill his father that time Gird saved his life. How had Gird affected him. How did he feel at that battle? How was he perceived by his peers and his king? What had he done with his son? So far as it goes, the story is interesting and feels “right”…this is the real Sier Segrahlin, still “that brown man” as Gird saw him. (It’s also the real king, not Luap’s father but his second successor, and as Dorhaniya put it, a fool.) But the story stops, stubbornly (so far; I’m still pushing at it) before the point at which he does what he is going to do, and then, in defeat, dies. I know a couple of things that answer questions I had about the whole situation…but not enough of the answers to go on with.
He is a fascinating man…he should make a story…I think eventually he will…but it’s going to be a lot of work. He’s aware that power is slipping away…he doesn’t understand it and wants to, he has suspicions he can’t prove one way or the other, and he’s hampered by the same situational and cultural problems that hamper many of us who live in some level of privilege. To really know what he needs to know…to achieve understanding…he’s got to be willing to see reality up close and change his mind. He teeters on that edge, in the story as written so far. He’s moved toward understanding as far as he can go without breaking completely with the culture he was born into…and he can’t do that. Partly because Gird’s war rouses his natural opposition, and when pushed he pushes back, as many of us do. And partly because centuries of tradition and family weigh heavily on that side of the scale.
But he’s not the only one. Exactly what is Sofi Ganarrion’s relationship to the crown of Kostandan? Why did he leave? Why does Kostandan still care who his offspring marry (and by the way, who is/was Sofi’s wife?) Sofi has an odd reputation among mercs–many see him as a flamboyant showoff, but his own troops see him as a very competent commander, and his actual record (his contracts, his battles won/lost, his retention of personnel) suggests someone far more competent than his reputation.
The unwritten stories itch inside my head, both the ones I can almost see coming forward and the ones still being whispered and murmured over there in the shadows. Who’s next? (I wish I knew! But it will come; I just have to keep sitting here day by day, thinking and writing, and something will eventually jell.)