The story behind the story…
This week I posted a story called the Flambeau 50 to Black Coffee Fiction. The story started out as a writing exercise, and grew on me as I came across it again and again while mining my files for Black Coffee Fiction submissions. The problem was that it didn’t go anywhere, so I repeatedly passed it by. Then a few weeks ago, a story idea popped into my head. Somewhere in the process of refreshing my mind every few weeks with that story kernel, I finally figured out where to take the exercise and bring it into a full-blown story. Never throw out an old writing snippet: one never knows when it might bloom into something else.
The exercise began as a study of how to incorporate local geography into a situation. I had two teenage boys in Fifield, Wisconsin trying to figure out what to do for the night. It’s an area I’m familiar with, having lived in Prentice Wisconsin for the first six years of my life and having relatives a few miles north in Park Falls. During those first years, Dad would pile us into the car every Friday and drive to Park Falls for dinner at the local Pizza Hut (a habit that would forever link Friday nights with pizza in my mind). After dinner, we would visit my grandma and grandpa, along with my aunts and uncles who happened to still be in high school. I must have absorbed some of what my then-teenaged relatives were going through and made up the rest from my own teenage years. There’s not a lot to do in Park Falls when you’re a teen, or at least it always seems so. The twisting local roads are sparsely used and it seems logical that away from prying eyes, something like racing old beater cars would be born. In the exercise, the situation and rules of the race were laid out but that was it. There was no central story problem, nothing to challenge the protagonist, Knox.
From exercise to story
The first order of business was to give Knox, a problem. The exercise hinted at one, where Knox’s friend Steinke pressures him to enter the race. Knox demurs, but agrees to go see the car. After all, what else are they going to do on a Friday night? Just looking at a car couldn’t hurt. But when they arrive, there is a group of teens waiting for them. Knox isn’t sure whether he’s been set up or if its just something kids do, waiting for someone to race that night. The story picks up with Knox behind the wheel, realizing how dumb the situation is, but unable to resist looking weak in front of the other kids. Peer pressure is a little cliché, but so very relevant to the teenage experience. Knox, now the center of attention, decides to race. He may not take the race seriously, but he very much minds the implied social stigma of not at least making the attempt.
The story jumps to the middle of the race, where Knox decides he’s going to try breaking the record. How does he make the switch from “this is stupid” to “I want to beat the record?” How does the mind of the bulletproof teenager think? I only needed to mine my own experiences of stupid teenage acts and map out the thought process. He realizes that he’s having a good time, despite it all, he’s feeling confident in his control over the car, and then there’s a girl at the turn-around paying attention to him (which Knox doesn’t consciously realize is feeding his ego). How does Knox overcome his aversion to stupidity? In little spurts. It will just be a little more risk, his new-found skills with the car and his youthful reflexes will more than compensate. He listens to his need to make a mark on the world, his fear of amounting to nothing in life, and slips into a fantasy world where the movies are just like real life. He deliberately deceives himself and starts pouring on the speed. Like I was as a teen, he wants to believe he can control everything. Of course, at the height of his self-delusion, the foreseeable unexpected happens in the form of a deer. Knox loses control, and crashes.
I could have had Knox learn his lesson on the side of the road, and have either the police, the wrecker, or his parents come in for the story climax and resolution. In normal literature, that’s what would happen, but I’m not that knife of writer. There has to be something odd about the situation. Normally, this is where the sci-fi/fantasy brain kicks in and adds a dose of the fantastic to make the story exotic. But I kept things mundane because northern Wisconsin is exotic enough already. The fantastic in this story is still plausible if a little improbable.
I began to wonder how the teens could keep the racing tradition going for so long running the same two cars. If the cars evolved, I thought, the race would slip into obscurity because the kids wouldn’t be able to connect with those that came before. Look at the arguments about sports legends today. Players from different eras can never be truly compared because the rules and equipment have changed. Maybe Bart Starr is the greatest Packer quaterback ever, but his stats will never compare to Brett Farve’s or Aaron Rodger’s. In car racing, even so-called stock cars change from year to year, so it’s hard to compare Richard petty to Jimmy Johnson. Therefore, I decided the cars never change in this story.
But kids will wreck cars beyond repair when doing dumb stuff like this. So I imagined a fleet of cars, hidden from view, ready to replace any wreck. But who maintained these cars? The kids certainly wouldn’t have the funds to do so. Someone else was needed. This someone would also solve another problem. If kids had been doing this for over twenty years, then everyone in the area would have to know about it. Older, wiser heads should have long prevailed and put a stop to something so obviously dangerous. But what if that was the whole point of the race? What if the kids who crashed all lived, learned how close they came to death, and paid it forward by making sure the next idiot didn’t get killed?
Though I make it out to seem as if I planned this all out ahead of time, the fact is it all popped into my head in a few moments like this: two old crappy cars, built to withstand abuse, maintained in secret by the old competitors. The who’s and the why’s of it all came later as I turned the idea around in my head.
Maybe I’m just justifying myself after the fact. What do you think? Do you plan your story themes out ahead of time, or do they materialize in the middle of writing?