Thursday, October 08, 2015

How Writing a Novel is Like Finding a Woolly Mammoth in Your Back Yard, or The Writer as Archeologist.

AP photo

A few weeks ago a soybean farmer in Michigan was digging around on his property when he found something that he thought was a buried fence post.* He tried to dig it out, but discovered it was much bigger than a fence post, and attached to something. He kept digging, and lo and behold, after much toil he discovered that his fence post was actually a tusk attached to a skull. He called in the archeologists, who discovered that the skull was part of the skeleton of a huge woolly mammoth that had been butchered and stored in a pond some one hundred and fifty thousand years earlier by prehistoric hunters. Now, that is quite a discovery, to go from a hole in the ground, to a fence post, to the tale of early American mammoth hunters, butchering their prey after a successful and thrilling hunt and then sinking the carcass into a pond to keep it fresh for a while longer. Why did they not retrieve it later? Did they move on? Millennia later, a scientist holds a bone in his hand and wonders.

In related news, I’ve been working on the first draft of a new novel. Every time I begin a new book, I survey the landscape until I find a likely place to hunt for a tale worth telling. Then I haul out my tools and I start digging, trying to find the gist of the story. At first I tend to slog around, flinging shovels full of mud out of the way, occasionally coming up with promising bits and pieces of bone, but nothing that excites me. Until I just happen to hit upon something that is different from all the mud I have been digging into. Often I think I’ve just found a fence post, but as I continue to dig, my author eye tells me that I have stumbled upon something that is going to be interesting. Then my heart rate picks up because I realize that what I’ve found is made of gold, and if I keep carefully digging, then scooping, then delicately brushing away the detritus around the story, I will have discovered a tale worth telling.

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*read the story here.

4 comments:

rolandclarke.com said...

Love the analogy. I always think of myself as a sculptor, but then you have to have an idea. Being an archaeologist allows you to keep digging until you find that idea. I just started researching for a short story, but it's turning into a novel..............

Donis Casey said...

Short stories will do that, Roland.

Eileen Goudge said...

Great post, Doris! I love the analogy. So true. I just hope I end up with something as exciting as a woolly mammoth skull when I finish the novel I'm working on.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Absolutely, Donis. Exactly the way I feel. We probably could have talked about it for hours if I hadn't had to to get up and talk that night. Thanks for sending me this.