Not stories about ghosts, werewolves, vampires or IRS tax audits. Oh, no. I’m not talking about stories you read to make yourself shiver. I am talking about story ideas so big, so ambitious, they intimidate me as a writer.
I have a few of these, some of which I’ve been mulling over in my brain for years– but which I have never had the courage to put on paper or hard drive. Perhaps tellingly, these are mainly mainstream literary ideas, rather than genre.
Among these concepts–
1. A contemporary novel, working title Life in the Abyssal Plain. This is only tangentially informed by my own life (a strictly autobiographical novel based on me would be useful only as a door-stop), but I find its protagonist– a man who has always felt out of step with his universe, reaching middle-age with nothing to show for it– compelling. But, frankly, writing about real life is much more intimidating than writing about dragons and space battles.
2. An unnamed Vietnam War novel. Although I have thought about it a lot, this one is so intimidating I will probably never write it, at least as a novel set in Vietnam. I lived through the Sixties, but I was never in Vietnam. I was in the Army, but my service was years later and I never saw combat. If I tried to write a novel about the war in Vietnam, I would almost certainly commit a thousand errors. It would also take a particularly rank sort of hubris for someone like me to write, as a non-participant, about a subject for which there are so many books– If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, Fields of Fire, and Matterhorn as just a few examples– by people who were there, and who are still around.
But I did live through the Sixties, and I was in the Army after the war, serving with men who were in Vietnam (by-and-large damn fine people), and I can say something about that. I have an unpublished novelette based on my time in the Army, but I need to rethink it pretty thoroughly before I try to recreate it as a novel.
3. A Civil War novel, working title Leaves in the Stream. Yeah, probably a little too close to Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, but it captures the concept I have of the war sweeping an entire set of families, white and black, downstream through history, with the characters unable to resist the current. Its protagonist is a young Southerner fighting for the North. I relate pretty strongly to this character– I come from a southern family proud of its Confederate heritage, in which I was the only kid impertinent enough to remind everyone about the inconvenient fact of slavery (funny, I’m also the only one who now lives north of the Mason-Dixon. Hmmm…). My novella The Peach Orchard was actually a first essay at telling this story, as well as my first real attempt at historical fiction. It will probably serve as the jumping-off point for the novel when I write it.
This novel is close to my heart. The Civil War in general hovers over Southerners in way it does not for Northerners. More than that, this is family history for me, as well as the history of my nation, and I think there are important things I can say about it.
The problem is that this concept scares me witless.
This is the one story I have to get right (above and beyond just getting it right as a story). More than the overwhelming historical detail (and that alone is staggering), I absolutely don’t want to turn out yet another pot-boiling soap opera (and there have been so many Civil War pot-boilers, starting with that gold-plated turd, Gone With the Wind). That sort of failure would kill me. The terror of doing this wrong has been paralyzing. And then there’s the scale of it– if you do it right and don’t restrict your focus to one battle or one section of the country (as with Across Five Aprils, for example), you’re almost sure to turn out something longer than War and Peace— and length is not necessarily an indicator of quality.
Writing The Peach Orchard was confidence-building, but in the scheme of the whole novel it would be only about one or two chapters. I’ve been reading historical fiction on the war, including The Killer Angels and The March, but in some ways that’s counter-productive– reading works by masters only serves to remind me of far short I fall.
Which is probably what this all boils down to– my sense of inadequacy as a writer. I’m not formally trained, and I feel that most keenly when I contemplate projects like these. The sad truth is that I am far more confident handling science-fiction and fantasy (although Princess of Fire has lately been causing me to question even that) than in making everyday life interesting– which is probably a pointed comment on my writing abilities in-and-of itself.
At some point, however, I will have to screw my courage to the sticking point and just do these stories. Or, to put it another way, close my eyes and think of the book covers. Because, frankly, these projects represent something of a bucket list for me as a writer. And I ain’t getting any younger.