Where to Start
What bugs you? What ideas, hurts, injustices, constraints wear away at you? What questions provoke you? Intrigue you? What answers just aren’t good enough? What questions need clarification? What are your “What ifs” questions? What if someone does or does not declare their love for someone? What if someone decides to help––or not to help? What if someone decides not to fight and attempts a different approach?
For me, a longstanding, unresolvable matter was––and still is––the utter waste of war. The conundrum: How do you contend against it without falling into its snares? During the Vietnam War protests, a question of brief circulation asked, “What if they had a war and nobody came?” It was a quiet little wow! moment for me, a young teenager at the time and became my “What if” question. I never thought to write about it but it resonated with an earlier experience I had when I was a young boy.
Something in me woke when I was nine. I was standing in the midst of tens of thousands of little white crosses stretching as far as the eye could see. My Royal Canadian Air Force dad had been transferred into NATO when I was eight and our family moved to France. At every possible weekend and holiday during our three years there we traveled by car and camped throughout Europe, an amazingly rich experience for a child.
By the second summer, my parents wanted to see the war memorials in northwest France. They must have lost friends during the war but the war was never explained to me. Before school started, I was told, “There was a war. Germany lost. You don’t talk about it. That’s all.” Attending an international French school for the kids of NATO and the diplomatic corps required this courtesy, so the sight that day of the endless rows of uncountable crosses converging to the horizons was baffling. Mother was trying to exercise my sluggish adding and subtracting skills by asking me as we stood in front of various crosses, “And how old was this one when he died?” I don’t remember those – the ones ending in 40-something – only the last one. His death occurred in a year I hadn’t seen before: 1917 and his birth year was in the 1890s. “Mommy, the numbers are wrong,” I said. She replied, “That’s because he died in the first world war.” I was flabbergasted into silence. There were two wars? In the same place?
By the afternoon my parents were excited. We had reached the Vimy Ridge Memorial where so many Canadians died. When we parked something in me had had enough – all those little white crosses; all that commemorated death – and I quietly refused to get out of the car. My parents were miffed and left me in what they must’ve thought was some childish sulk. I, however, felt an enormous inarticulate vindication. I knew all that death was wrong and wondered at the novelty of my righteous certainty.
Back in Canada, as a teenager, I learned about Gandhi’s non-violent movement and its success in throwing the British out of India, heard Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches and read his essays. Yet pacifism did not appear to be a comprehensive solution. Critics raised valid issues: How would Gandhi’s movement have fared against the Nazis instead of the British Empire? Or Stalin’s purges? Or China’s cultural revolution? Pacifist attitudes after WWI factored in delaying Britain’s preparations and entry into the war against Hitler. Deepening the conundrum was the unaccountable acceptance-resistance of European Jews entering the maw of extermination. Pacifism seemed to fail before brutal tyrants who could care less about noble stances. On the other hand, Dr. King’s non-violent approach has contributed, three generations later, to the Black Lives Matter movement.
While I remained in provisional sympathy with non-violent approaches, the pacifist versus barbarian theme needed exploring and eventually, I started The City of the Magicians with this as a founding premise. The writing of it took me––and is taking me––in directions I never expected.
So, what bugs you? What ideas, hurts, injustices or constraints nag you, wear away at you? What questions provoke you? What questions need clarification? What answers just aren’t good enough? What are the “What ifs?”
It’s one place to start from. As you explore this, your writing and your characters will likely take you in directions you never expected.