The Lazarus Files

I listened to an interview with Stephen King over the weekend. He was on Sunday’s Morning Edition on NPR, talking about his new book, 11/22/63. Since I’ve read pretty much all of his books, and consider him one of my major influences, I was ready to listen. Besides, when it comes to writing, I’ll listen to Danielle Steel if I think she might drop some hint that’ll help in my own writing.

11/22/63 is, in a sense, a time travel novel, though it doesn’t take the form of, say, The Time Machine or any other sf time travel story. Hey, we’re talking Stephen King, not HG Wells. I heard him read one of his short stories once, and he prefaced it by saying he intended the story to be light and funny, but everything he writes ends up taking a dark turn somewhere in the writing. It’s just how he is.

The basic premise of his new book is that there’s a diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine (where King grew up) that has a small time rift in the back room, and it always takes you to l958. The protagonist (I’ve forgotten his name already) decides to go through the rift and stay there in order to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy.

Good plot. How many times have people speculated about what the world would be like if someone had killed Hitler, or if Kennedy’s assassination had been prevented? Interestingly enough, I’ve talked to a few people who were alive during Kennedy’s administration and they say that, in their opinion, he was a mediocre president, that the only reason he’s remembered so fondly is because of the assassination. I wasn’t alive then, so I can’t say either way. I can say that, from what I know of history, aside from giving the space program the kick in the ass it needed, I’m not sure he didn’t anything earth-shaking.

But I digress.

The aim of this is that, in the interview, King said that he originally tried to write this story way back in 1971, but was unable to finish it. He thinks there are two main reasons for that. For one, his writing abilities had not matured enough to write something like that. He said he had to do a lot of research for it, and that’s understandable. I’m sure you’d have to take into account all the conspiracy theory/grassy knoll shooters stories out there, and all the mysterious deaths of those associated with the assassination. I think there have been, according to some people, something on the order of 100 suspicious deaths of people who knew something about the alleged conspiracy to kill Kennedy, from Jack Ruby killing Oswald (and then dying of an aggressive form of cancer while in prison. Read a book called Dr. Mary’s Monkey for an interesting theory on that), to strippers from Ruby’s club who might have known more than was good for them. Whether you believe these things or not, they make for interesting reading.

The other reason Mr. King says he couldn’t finish the book, or so he suspects, is that the event was still too fresh in 1971. Kennedy’s assassination was his generation’s 9/11, a defining moment for them, the one where they all remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard Kennedy had been killed. It’s easy to identify with that. Like I’m sure most writers have done, I’ve given thought to some story involving 9/11, if only because it’s such rich material, with lots of possibilities. But I’d have to treat it with respect, and I haven’t been able to come up with a feasible plot. I think it’s because I still shudder every time I think of those planes crashing into the WTC. And then I get pissed off all over again. I remember how dark it felt in the days afterward—at least to me—and how I wondered if this might be the nation’s killing blow (I still haven’t made up my mind on that one. The Patriot Act makes me want to strangle some people, but that’s something for another day).

Mr. King didn’t explain why it was he decided to take out his Kennedy assassination story, dust it off and finish it. But it reminded me that his last full-length novel (he’s come out with two short story/novella collections since) Under the Dome, was the same sort of story: something he started back in 1976 but had to walk away from it. According to his Author’s Note in the back, it was the technical detail that scared him away—he didn’t think he could treat it the way it deserved and get all the scientific stuff of shutting a town up under an invisible dome correct. So he went to work on something else.

I like to think of these kinds of stories as Lazarus Files: stories you’ve started and abandoned for one reason or another. But, just as Under the Dome was for Mr. King, that story sticks with you and you’d like to do something with it someday.

Or, at least, that’s true for me.

For years, I tried writing fantasy and science fiction, mostly the former. My first major project was a very LOTR-ish story involving a quest for an item called the Phar Medallion. I wasn’t sure of the Medallion’s properties, except that the right person could use it to achieve…something great. Help win the Big War. In this case, the Medallion War.

At one point on the story, my party met a character named Luke Fontaine. He was a human, a self-proclaimed bounty hunter, and he showed little or no interest in joining in an effort to save the world. He didn’t see any immediate profit potential in it. Of course, he rode off out of sight, then doubled back and followed the party, helping to save them later from an attacking beastie.

The original novel fizzled out not long after this encounter, and I finally realized the reason: I wanted to know more about Luke. I had a basic back-story—the one he told the party—but that was it. What were the details? Why, exactly, had he fled Sutterfield, the city he was from? I sensed there was more to his story than he was telling, and I think I even hinted at that in the original story.

But I wanted to know more.

Then it hit me: why not tell the story of the Phar Medallion from Luke’s POV?

It was a major step for me. The Phar Medallion was losing itself in its complexity—I just wasn’t ready to write an epic fantasy way back then (this was in the early 90s). Juggling multiple POVs and integrating them into a feasible whole was really beyond me then (and maybe still is).

But telling it from one person’s POV? One lowly person, not the leader or even the most favored person in the party. A worm’s eye view, so to speak. I thought maybe I could do that. So I wrote A Hard Road, the story of how one Lucas de la Fontaine was disowned and became a bounty hunter to support himself. It wasn’t exactly high fantasy, and maybe it hinted at my future writing crime. After all, bounty hunters associate with the criminal lowlifes all the time, and this let me dip my toe in that pool, albeit unknowingly. At least a bounty hunter was marginally a good guy, even if he was on the fringes.

I wrote two and a half Luke Fontaine novels, none of them long enough for a good fantasy. The first one clocks in at 69,557, the second just shy of 80,000 (that’s not too bad, actually), and the half one…well, obviously, it never got finished. The problem I eventually ran into with them was that I was trying to tell an epic story from a first-person POV. Not easy to do, at least not then. I wouldn’t guarantee I could do it now, either.

Still, I’d like to dredge these things up and do something with them someday. They’re still in my Documents folder. They’ve skipped from spiral-bound notebooks (all originally written in longhand) that I still possess, to word processors (I’m not referring to word processing programs here; I mean an actual word processor, a machine guaranteed to piss you off) and, finally, to computer. I “dust them off” occasionally, and spend some time wondering how I can update them, make them better. I think the basic stories are good, and the first one could expand pretty easy with some more detail on his training as a bounty hunter.

Then, of course, there’s the urban fantasy I wrote something like six or seven years ago now, The Firstborn. Vampires, mages and a race of beings predating humanity called The Firstborn. I’ve been told by different people that it’s a good story, that I should try and sell it. Problem is, if I’d tried marketing it back when I wrote it, I might have had a better chance than I do now. The market is saturated right now with vampires and magic-users of various sorts, not to mention all the werewolves and zombies (and God knows what else). I can remember wishing there were more of these types of books. Now I wish they’d go away and quit crowding good sf off the shelf.

Still, I wouldn’t mind rewriting The Firstborn, because I had a good overall story arc that led to an apocalypse and letting the mages unleash their true potential. I had a mage and vampire get together under some unusual circumstances, with the idea being that the vampire would become pregnant and the resulting hybrid (this was before Underworld and it’s vampire/werewolf  hybrid) would be something closer to what the original mages were. I even had it set up that vampires and werewolves were actually different forms of mages. Somewhere back in ancient history, mages had had a parting of ways as to the practice of magic. All are long-lived, but they achieve that longevity different ways: mages through saturated their blood with magic, vampires with the intake of blood, and werewolves through their guardianship of the planet. A lot of this, as I’ve said, was too derivative of the White Wolf series of games and needs to be changed up some to make it my own, but I may still try to do it. It’s a new take on the urban fantasy, after all, and it might just appeal to somebody out there. If I’m lucky.

And I have some odds and ends lurking around in a folder I’ve called Unfinished, for obvious reasons. A Weird West tale that accounts for the bad guys always wearing black. An epic fantasy a little over 60,000 words long and just getting started that’s about a demon-hunting order discovering the pantheon of gods isn’t exactly that they’ve always thought it was. A sf story that is a sequel to a novel a friend of mine wrote. There’s even a space-opera purposely written with a Star Wars flavor to it just to see if I could do it (so far, not so good LOL).

How many of these will ever get finished? I don’t know. I’ve also got some good ideas for future crime novels, and I’m very focused on that genre right now. I have my Rural Empires setting that has room for lots of development, and there might even be another story about Lyle Villines. I’ve had a trickling of an idea dance through my thoughts on occasion. I like Lyle. He might go back out there into the world of the drug cartels.

So how about you? Do you have Lazarus Files of your own? I don’t mean the ones you hang onto—as I have done, I’m embarrassed to admit—that you know damn well won’t go anywhere, but you can’t bear to part with them. I’m talking about finished or partially finished mss that you know have potential, if you can just find the right angle to breathe new life into them? Do you think you’ll ever dust them off and make them into what they should be? Or will you let them gather more electronic (or real) dust in the bottom of your hard drive/drawer?

I’d be interested to know what those stories are and what you plan to do about/with them.

Later,

Gil

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