Below, Mark W. Tiedemann takes us on a creative journey, exploring how all of his stories are born, and how they evolve. His story “Camphor” [in our March/April issue, on sale now], began just like all others—with “curiosity, tension, anticipation, need.”
by Mark W. Tiedemann
The story I’m working on now always starts in the same place. An odd-shaped empty space in the back of my mind, just below consciousness, looking for a place to become. It’s always the same—curiosity, tension, anticipation, need.
That last bit keeps the space reappearing and I suspect it’s not directly related to any one empty shape, just a constant, lurking agitation that can be mollified in the short term by reading or watching movies. Sometimes I can ignore it for days at a time by drawing or playing music. But it never stays suppressed until I start trying to fill that hole with a story.
The empty space lingers for a time, anywhere from a few days to a month, but eventually it’s no longer empty. It attracts things, flotsam caught on the edge and drawn in, like a tide pool. Things seen, heard, combinations, perhaps even snatches from dreams. It accumulates items that, singly, mean nothing. Forced to share space, they bump up against each other and occasionally form bonds.
This one, for instance: an image of a much-worn object from an archaeological site. Brownish stone, roughly rectangular, with the faded impressions of carved images. At a glance, the carvings are meaningless. The chipped and weathered edges give it the curious appearance of a piece of wet sand that has been clumsily molded into a block and left to dry. Untouched, grains fall off; breezes brush it; it holds its shape by luck more than anything and will not survive a boisterous day at the beach. It takes up residence in that empty space and hangs there.
The hanging itself is improbable, but I have other bits stored elsewhere in memory that, like stray pieces of DNA shoved by proteins, start to push up against it to give it what eventually becomes context.
A rock and a need to explain itself.
At this point it’s just an interesting image. Might even be a real object, but I can’t trace the source. Its persistence requires attention and the more I regard it (at this point I can’t even say I’m thinking about it), the more it seems to attract other things.
Like the room it suddenly occupies.
Very quickly, and to some extent depressingly, the chamber resolves into a museum space. How predictable. Where else? But after decades of thinking about things from a particular vantage, it will not remain “just” a museum, and knowing that, details, like texture, begin to accrue. The undefined shape of the empty hole now changes, takes on the contours of an actual place.
Days go by.
Time to name the search. Because that’s what a story is. A search. Yes, it’s many other things as well, but really, when you think about it, you sit down to read a story to find something out. If nothing other than what happens next.
At work, we have a discussion about war. It begins with a particular one, but then grows into a general discussion on conflict, conquest, colonization, and a couple of sentences slip into the chamber. (Naturally there are political and topical elements.) The whole notion of generals who never see combat comes up. It moves through stages into hypotheticals. Experience, theory, the vagaries of duty, action.
But those sentences seem to attach themselves to that object hanging in that chamber in that unknown museum. Maybe it has to do with something carved on the stone. But the language (this comes almost unbidden, automatically, as if it had all along been waiting for an opportunity to reveal itself) is not human. Faded and worn, it has become almost indecipherable. No one knows what it says.
The question naturally arises—whose is it and how did it end up here?
Experience, the eddy and flow of ideas around the edges, certain steps take place with no conscious effort. An alien object, old, an unknown language, and the background emerges, a book unopened till needed. A civilization (because you do not get written language without one), ancient perhaps (hence the decay, but in this kind of story that might be deceptive), and an object of fascination (specifically, its placement in a museum). Behind that single object, away from the hypothetical chamber, space has opened up; worlds proliferate. True, it might be something found here on Earth, but something about it says otherwise. This didn’t come from here.
And it’s still hanging. In mid-air. Suspended. A detail just noticed, which provides another context, this one technological.
The conversational snippets attach themselves to another image, that of a lone individual who desperately wants to know what that object is. Now I have a character. Not much of a one. I have no idea who he (or she or it) is, not yet. Such details depend on why he (/she/it) has appeared now, in relation to the object.
All the while, others bits of debris are falling into that space. What had started as a void is beginning to fill, and with each addition, the shape changes, solidifies, takes on texture. It’s happening pretty much without my conscious interference. But I now know that I need to understand that character. He (at some point, identity collapsed into the beginnings of specifics) has a relationship with that object.
He’s the curator. Well, that’s obvious, almost too simple. Disappointing, in a way. A museum, a display, a curator. How prosaic.
Nothing is that prosaic. Everything has a backstory.
Time to name the search.
Because that’s what a story is. A search. Yes, it’s many other things as well, but really, when you think about it, you sit down to read a story to find something out. If nothing other than what happens next.
And here everyone has a unique way to go about it. Popularly, it’s couched in the question of How do you start your story? Some with a character, some with an image, some with a philosophical puzzle, some with a death. But this is, I believe, the gloss for public consumption. The story began long before any of those elements emerged in a form that could be put down in words. It began with that empty space, and probably as an unconscious process writers know about but rarely examine, not because of any superstitious fear of counting a caterpillar’s legs, but simply because it happens like breathing. The imagination’s lungs and circulatory system.
By the time those elements appear solidly enough to turn into sentences, the process has been going on for a while.
I start with a title.
Habit now, after all this time. Sometimes I change the title later as the text spills out and I can consider the story as an object rather than a collection of impulses.
Next is the internal tension. The conflict.
And in this case, since it is a science fiction story, what the key feature may be that makes it science fiction.
It can be an impediment to have too strong a set of conditions for this part. What is science fiction? Might as well ask, What is an idea? No, it’s not quite that vague—there’s a real set of necessary elements involved—but it’s closer to philosophy than science. Science itself, as a concept (as opposed to a practice), is a philosophy. Best, I have found, to be open to the possible interpretations going into and coming out of what we know as science. We are, after all, telling a story, not Doing Science.
Rules are important, though, as tools to allow us to create and deliver certain effects.
And in this case, the effect of colliding cultures. The curator obviously wants to understand something about the civilization that created the worn stone in his display.
One of the useful “rules” of storytelling is to understand what your main character wants and why he can’t have it. That is a tension machine.
The story is building itself rather nicely now. Why can’t he have what he wants?
So many answers to that.
Another conversation in another context, this time with a science element. Quantum mechanics. My imagination is teased by the idea that the closer one tries to observe something, the less we can actually know about all its various elements. The observer affects the observed. Take it a step further: the observer destroys the observed.
The lights dance through my mind now. I slot that notion into place and, to my amazement, I have not only the civilization represented by the object but the reason for the curator’s frustration and melancholy.
By this point I have four or five pages. Some adjustment is required, but the empty space is gone. Or rather, it’s filled. In fact, it’s so full now that it’s challenging to know what to use, what to leave out, what, perhaps, to save aside for another story. More characters appear, meeting the need to give the central figure more context, pushback, the embellishments of a fuller life, and to focus him on the conundrum consuming him.
I have the rough substance of my story. From this point on, it becomes a grinding test of patience and persistence to make the words evoke the essence. At some stage it becomes like sculpture, carving away the excess to find the form within.
The story I’m working on now is the story I’m always working on. It starts in the same place. They rarely end in the same place, even if certain things emerge consistently, even predictably, because, like any good story, this one is about a person. As similar as we may be, we are all unique, enough so that we are endlessly interesting to each other. Even our fictional relatives.
The story I am working on now is like that irregularly shaped stone with an indecipherable language carved on it that’s fading away with time. I must capture what it means (this time) before it crumbles away.
Not to worry, though. If it does disintegrate before I get it down, it will leave an oddly shaped empty space that will soon begin to accrue things.
Eventually it will once more be the story I am working on now.