William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Following "The Followers"

Who knows how stories really start? Polished ideas begin like bits of interstellar dust, floating around random and formless. But add in gravity and time -- lots and lots of time -- and eventually those tiny motes will collide, stick, accumulate, and, at the key moment of critical mass, ignite into a star.

For my new novellete,"The Followers," that first mote appeared when I came across this photograph. It was part of a Yahoo! news story about the Medford Historical Society displaying a new collection of rare Civil War photos. I was struck by this scene of marital normalcy in the midst of America's most tragic and bitter war. Cute little kids at Daddy's feet, wife doing the laundry. Oh, and somehow the family is tagging along behind Daddy's regiment as he marches 15 miles or more per day and occasionally has to go fight in the midst of unthinkable carnage.

Around the time I found this photo, I was also working through another story idea, a near-future piece about bioengineering and zombies. I'd been putting notes together for weeks and had zombies constantly gnawing in the back of my mind.

Two specks of dust in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, they collided in my imagination...and stuck.

I took U.S. History during my junior year of high school. Typical of most history courses, I found it immensely dull and forgettable. If you think about it, making history that boring is pretty difficult. History is one long epic saga filled with intrigue, battles, sex, human sacrifice (figuratively and literally), double dealing, great loves, the bitterest betrayals, and ultimately the fate of the world. How could anyone not love that? Turns out, pretty easily so long as you reduce it to a bunch of sterile factoids crammed into an emotionless textbook that you stare at for 50 minutes while trapped in a little plastic desk. U.S. History was turned from a thing of vibrant fascination into this desiccated, lifeless, but somehow still shambling shell. What more appropriate backdrop, then, for a zombie story?

On an impulse, I turned to Wikipedia and searched for the Battle of Gettysburg. Apparently, there was enough of junior year U.S. History still hidden in my subconscious to lead me toward another dust mote that was compatible with the accretion still gathering mass in my imagination. Detail after detail clicked into place. At a time when we remain increasingly nervous about Iran's nuclear intentions, thoughts of weapons of mass destruction are never far from the headlines. Add that speck into the mix.

What if zombies were such a weapon? What if one side had been able to wield that weapon at the most pivotal moment of the most pivotal battle in American history?

I opened my "Ideas" file on Google Docs (virtually all of my in-progress files now live in the cloud) and typed this:

July 1863, outside of Gettysburg, PA. Union army commander General Meade has his back against a wall, his forces having failed to defeat the Confederate leader, General Robert E. Lee. After two days of death and retreating to higher ground around Cemetery Hill, the Confederate forces have the Union surrounded on three sides. Then comes word that Union reinforcements are nearing. The Confederates must smash the Union army the next morning while they can.

The story starts with one of the camps under Confederate General Longstreet, who controls the western forces. Longstreet knows that Meade is a weak, indecisive general prone to not pressing an advantage when one materializes. Meade has not allowed General Grant’s ideas about total war to dominate the Union army, but Longstreet actually agrees with Grant. Longstreet knows that they need a total victory across Pennsylvania, and Lee, the eternal gentleman, may not have the guts to be merciless. Look at all of the prisoners they’ve taken. Longstreet wants a knockout blow and is weighing options with his officers. Longstreet calls for a 10-minute pee break, goes outside, and is approached by a private. The private wants to show him something. He takes Longstreet back to a tent behind the camp -- one of thousands of such tents typically inhabited by the families of soldiers who follow behind armies. The private beckons Longstreet to follow him inside of the tent. At first, Longstreet refuses. Then they hear a low, ragged moan from inside the tent. It sounds like a woman, but...not quite.

I visualized the ending scene of the story as clearly as this beginning, and I loved it instantly. Thirty minutes later, I'd put holds on every Gettysburg-related book in my local library's collection, kids' books included. The best of the bunch by far was Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears. If you have an interest in the subject, I highly recommend it.

You might think that the moment of critical mass and story ignition came today, upon the story's publication. I don't see it that way. The real moment happened during my research when I found out that General Longstreet had lost three of his children to scarlet fever less than two years before Gettysburg. Instantly, I went from having a cardboard prop to a real man, filled with pain and loss, trying every day to hold himself together in the midst of this Civil War insanity. With that one last speck, the story reached its tipping point, and today's publication became inevitable.

I started writing the first draft on April 23, 2011, almost ten months ago, and finished on September 3rd. The story weighed in at over 12,000 words, and I thought, "Good Lord, will people actually read all the way through this?" I had originally envisioned the story at half that size. But every time I read it over, the more I felt that, if anything, I was skimming and leaving way too much out. Rather than keep second-guessing myself, I decided to bring in an alpha reader or two and start gathering responses.

Right off the bat, it was clear that the story had a fundamental flaw in logic: why not simply have the zombies attack before the battle? Events were happening because I needed them to happen for the plot's sake, not because they were byproducts of characters' desires. (A solid plot derives from character, not the other way around. This is why action movies with no attention to character development fall flat and why, come to think of it, history classes are so dull. All of the character has been stripped away.) The second draft's mission was to remedy this, and by third draft, I think the bugs were worked out.

One of my editors from CPU magazine, Vince Cogley, volunteered to be a beta reader. He applied his editing skills and (hitherto unknown to me) gift for imagination in speculative fiction toward draft #2 and proposed a different ending for the story. Originally, the scene with General Meade was the final clincher. Vince's feedback resulted in draft #3 tossing out this scene and replacing it with the final Longstreet scene you have in the published version. The trouble was that each had its own merits and reasons for being present, but you can't have two endings in one tale. I fretted over this for two weeks, unable to decide which ending I liked better. Then, one night while putting the kids to bed, it struck me: this wasn't like picking a prom date. With a slight bit of twisting, I could keep both, capturing the plot and back story benefits of Meade's scene while preserving the emotional impact of Longstreet's final actions.

And that, y'all, is how "The Followers" came to be. I hope you enjoy it and will pass the good word on to your friends. Please check it out at Amazon or Smashwords. If you see fit to leave a review, I'll be doubly obliged, and my hunger for human approbation will be satisfied...for a while.