Today I am setting out on a journey. I’m going to write a new short story.
Because I am a teacher, and teach creative writing as well as English, I thought I’d do a series of blogs about the process of writing the, so anyone who wishes can see how I work and what it might take to produce a story.
Mind you, I’m not saying the story will turn out to be a good one. I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet here and suggest I am a great writer. But to go step-by-step through the process might help others who struggle with writing or are wondering where on Earth to start.
Nor am I promoting my writing method is the only proper one. There are as many ways to write as there are writers. So let’s just say this is one method by one writer. You can take from it what you will. I am what is called a “pantser” in writerly circles. That means I don’t normally plan a story out before I write — that’s what “plotters” or “planners” do. So I’m not going to do much planning before I kick off. Or I might make the exception and do that for this blog. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
To me, that is part of the fun. Writing a story is like reading it for the first time.
Getting the idea.
At the time I’m writing this blog, I have little idea of characters and events. I went to buy a newspaper this morning and in the early light I thought I should write another story sometime. So naturally my thought was what it could be about. I am currently writing a series of novellas about the Greek god Dionysus running a music hall in Victorian-era London. I am almost finished the first draft. Dionysus has his maenad followers with him, and they are also the basis of a series of short stories I’m planning called Tales of the Maenads, a sort of companion volume to the book series.
My maenad stories can be set in any period of Earth’s history. I decided, for no particular reason, that this would be another maenad story involving Nicolas Copernicus. Why? well, I’m interested in astronomy, and he was one of the most influential thinkers in astronomical history. Also, I wanted to find out more about his character.
That meant doing research. I had a couple of books already with chapters on Copernicus. One is the excellent This Wild Abyss by Gale E. Christianson (The Free Press, 1978). This a detailed biography of the astronomer and his work which should prove an invaluable resource. I also have a copy of Copernicus’s book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), reproduced in its entirety in On the Shoulders of Giants edited by Stephen Hawking (Running Press, 2002). This contains, besides Copernicus’s almost unreadable tome, an excellent biography of Copernicus.
So I read both of these but was still stuck for an actual idea. Copernicus led, it turns out, quite a boring life. He studied medicine and law, was appointed Canon of Frauenberg (Frombork) , wrote a book that revolutionised astronomy but which wasn’t published until the end of his life–literally. The first edition arrived at his bedside on the day he died. And that’s pretty much it. No juicy gossip about him, or questionable activities or notoriety (at least, not until after his death).
There didn’t seem to be anything on which to base story, especially one that would contain the worshipper of a pagan god. Then I realised Copernicus’s blandness could work in my favour. he was one of those helpful historical people whose life is not entirely known, or who was boring enough that incidents might be inserted in their life without upsetting too many historians. If little was known about him, I figured, I could invent “facts” as needed.
A few days later I was teaching and the students were working quietly (yes, in my class they do; I’m that sort of teacher). Bereft of ideas I took out my notebook and summarised what I knew of Copernicus. I jotted some ideas down, then crossed them out because they proved unworkable or just plain silly. I wanted the story to be about Copernicus’s book. I wanted my maenad character to be a servant of his. I wanted Copernicus himself to be a character in it, albeit perhaps a secondary one.
Then the thought struck me: what if someone wanted to steal the book or prevent it being published in some way. But who? The Catholic church at the time (the 1540’s) was actually quite happy for Copernicus to go against dogma and state the Earth orbited the Sun instead of the other way around. It was the Lutherans who were opposed to the idea. But having my bad guys Lutherans would not go down well with part of my potential audience. Besides, Copernicus had a Lutheran student, Georg Rheticus, who was instrumental in having the Revolutions published. My bad guy had to be someone else.
If the new Copernican system upset the old Aristotelian/Ptolemaic one, then it might be another pagan god who didn’t want the truth to be known about the universe.
Here was my idea. The followers of another god, upset that their hold on the minds of mankind would be even further eroded by the advancement of science, might seek to destroy Copernicus’s life-work. My maenad, although a pagan herself, and having doubts about the new system of her own, could realise that truth was better than lies and thwart the evil plan.
Now I had an idea, I continued my research about Copernicus, the city he lived in and other material that would help me flesh out the details. I decided on a name for my protagonist: Renata. Originally I settled on Katalin, but since Copernicus would be referred to as Father Kopernik, two characters with K-names might look odd.
So here I am. I have no idea about Renata’s character or precisely what part she will play in the story. I have little idea of the story itself other than a broad concept.
This is going to be fun.
Next part: Writing the first draft.
Russell Proctor – www.russellproctor.com