21 Mar 2016
Last week, we looked at how mundane events and encounters can spark story ideas. This week, we’ll look at other sources for stories.
I like to read and I like to watch movies, and so often I’ll read a book or watch a show and know that the story could have been, should have been, so much better. I would not have handled the characters the way the author did, I wouldn’t have betrayed them, I wouldn’t have chosen the same old path.
Now mind you, this doesn’t mean that what I find objectionable is the same as what you might object to. A case in point is the story “The Rebel Of Valkyr” by Alfred Coppel. You can find this novella in volume I of “Galactic Empires” edited by Brian Aldiss, or download the text version at Archive.org.
Barbarians Flying SpaceshipsAlfred, a former WWII fighter pilot, published this story back in 1950. It is a wonderful piece of space opera, with barbarian swordsmen fighting over the remains of a dying empire as they zip around the galaxy with their swords, helmets, and horses, in ancient, mighty, indestructible spaceships left over from the previous galactic empire.
Yep, you read that right. Barbarians, like Conan the Barbarian, sailing between the stars in atomic warships that they don’t know how to maintain but they can pilot.
So what is wrong with this piece of purple prose? I didn’t like the setup of the king’s daughter (a naïve virgin princess but you could have guessed that) struggling against the evil second wife and her evil young son.
I read this story and I thought how much better it would have been, how much more interesting, if the virgin daughter (Alys) was the corrupt, decadent power-hungry schemer and the Queen Regent (Yvane) was the true victim.
What if Yvane was trapped in the palace, trying desperately to escape? What if Yvane had been forced into the marriage because of her resemblance to the King’s long lost love? What if Yvane knew, every day, what kind of sociopathic bitch Alys was and Yvane’s concerns were a) saving her young son (the heir to the throne and Alys’s half-brother), b) saving the empire from Alys, and c) getting the hell out of Dodge in one piece with her son?
What if Yvane really preferred option c, leaving the empire to fall into rack and ruin, if it meant that she and her son could put the horrors of the palace behind her? What if Yvane ended up ruling because she felt it was her duty?
Our barbarian swordsman (Kieron, Lord of Valkyr) would have a very different experience in store for him than the one Coppel wrote. Kieron would discover that Alys’s lush blond hair, full rosy lips, and stacked body blinded him to her evil nature, her corrupt ways, her murder of her father, and her planned murder of her half-brother and stepmother. No young lady who looked that hot and was a princess could be such a duplicitous bitch, could she?
In my version, Alys sure could! She’d use Kieron’s loyalty to her father to take the throne, murder her half-brother (only six!), execute her stepmother, and plunder the empire as she saw fit. She’d chain Keiron to a wall in her throne room so he would be forced to see what he had made happen by helping her win the crown.
Would Kieron rescue himself? Of course he would, and he’d be a wiser, very angry barbarian afterwards, too. Then he would have to find out that Yvane had not died, nor had her son been murdered. It had all been a ruse on Yvane’s part to allow them to escape, and they’re in hiding and in danger many parsecs away.
Does Kieron rescue Yvane? Put her on the throne as regent? Well, maybe not. He is a barbarian, after all and maybe he should take the throne, after defeating Alys, and rule as regent for the boy.
Do I want this to be more of an adventure or a romance? If I want a romance, then should Kieron end up with a woman he had scorned for being a fortune hunter and opportunist? Why, of course. The scales fall from his eyes, and he sees Yvane’s true nobility. So I end with a classic romance trope after all.
Now that I’ve worked out the plot, the hard part arrives. I just have to write the damn thing and change the names. I can’t use Kieron, Valkyr, Alys, or Yvane or any other names that Alfred Coppel used. He’ll be under copyright (he died in 2004) for a long, long time.
Is this plagiarizing? I don’t think so. Ideas can’t be copyrighted. So long as I’m not using the exact words, but make up my barbarian culture, my royal family, my character designs, I’m all right.
Besides, consider how many books are out there involving runaway brides or marriages of convenience. I guarantee you there are plenty of similarities among genre books out there. That’s what makes them genre.
How close can you get? Read “The Lord of the Rings” and then “The Sword of Shannara” and see how similar they are. (My husband, Bill, is a Tolkien freak who reviewed “Shannara” when it came out in the ’70s, and he remembers the publicity materials mentioning that Terry Brooks had to rewrite the story to distance it from Tolkien.) Is that a problem? No, not at all. Terry Brooks wrote his own book and he used plenty of the fantasy tropes but so does everyone in the genre.
Vampire novels? Werewolf novels? Urban paranormal fantasy? Mystery solving pets? Count the similarities and yet you still get unique, interesting books and plenty of them.
Ripped From History
Here’s another idea that arrived, flags waving and bells ringing. I’ve been doing research on the Middle Ages for my Martian series. They had loads of dysfunctional royal families, then, doing things that would have made them candidates for Jerry Springer’s show.
Consider Edward III. He was born in November 1312 and died in June 1377. He became king in January 1327. Do the math and you’ll see he became king when he was fourteen and reigned for fifty years. How did Edward III become king at fourteen?
Edward II, both an incompetent king and an incompetent husband, died because his wife, Isabella of France, took up with her lover and they murdered him. Edward III was crowned king, but he didn’t rule, his mother and her lover did that, acting as his regents. At seventeen, Edward III took revenge on his mother and her lover. He staged a coup, executed the lover, seized control of England, and locked his mother up in a castle for the rest of her life.
Neat, huh? Look into the life of Edward III’s mother, Isabella. She was known as the She-wolf of France. You don’t get a nickname like that because of your embroidery skills.
Does this mean that Edward III’s life is fodder for a historical novel? You could do that. Or it could be the start of a fantasy series about the struggle for the throne of a country riven by internal dissent. Think about warring factions that hate each other, that hate their own families, that claw at each other for power as they fight their way to the top. Why look, there’s “Game of Thrones.” A good working knowledge of English history let George R. R. Martin make mountains of money while telling an amazing story.
You can do this too. World history is packed with stunning stories such as Irene of Byzantium, who married into power and became empress when she had her son’s eyes gouged out. That was Constantine VI, and he was twenty-one when his mother blinded him.
If you think history is boring, it’s because you got that watered down, non-controversial pap that the schools feed to children so as to not upset their parents. Don’t limit yourself to European history either. Like Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas are full of jaw-dropping incidents that are forgotten today. All of these incidents can be reworked into any kind of story you like. Add fantasy elements or change the settings to the future and you’re on your way to a best-selling series and an HBO TV show.
The hard part is writing the books. It isn’t finding the ideas.
Look around for ideas. Read advice columns faithfully. They’re full of amazing situations. Walk your dog and watch the five fire trucks, the ambulance, and multiple police cars zoom by and wonder what happened. See the woman walking through the supermarket parking lot holding twenty-five heart-shaped Mylar balloons, all jet black. Where is she going? Why are the hearts black?
Ideas are everywhere. They’re waiting for you to turn them into stories.