“As a writer, one is busy with archaeology.” ~Michael Ondaatje
Accidental Archaeologist: Honestly, I didn’t even know I was digging, let alone what I was digging for. Through the decades before I started, I always thought I’d write a book. I’d write someday, you know: “in the future.” Before I started, it really didn’t feel like a burning desire. More like a romantic notion of having an interesting occupation as I moved toward and through my golden years.
Turns out there was a steady pilot light of burning desire deep inside of me all along. And I think that the banked fire within led me to take notice of the archaeological artifacts I had been stumbling across, and to gather and store them away, like curious fossils found on a leisurely beach stroll. Each item was interesting, but they hardly seemed interrelated or valuable.
I’m not sure which of my little found treasures provided the nudge that led to my putting carpenter’s pencil to jobsite notebook, with the spark of a story idea. I’m guessing it was the cumulative trove, so to speak.
Return of the King: Although I’ve credited Tolkien for my interest in history and myth, starting in the sixth grade, it likely began even earlier. Thanks to my parents, I was surrounded by history, via books and through visits to historical sites. After loving Tolkien’s work, and while I took every history class available, I read quite a bit of epic fantasy. But I was always left a bit dissatisfied. During the decades between college and embarking on my writing journey, I read mostly historical nonfiction, with a dash of historical fiction thrown in. But then Tolkien returned to my life with the coming of The Lord of the Rings movies. After enjoying the movie version of Fellowship of the Rings, I reread the trilogy.
The experience reminded me of an elemental part of myself that I’d buried away. Through fiction, I was feeling things I hadn’t felt in half a lifetime. And, although I couldn’t grasp the personal dynamics of my being so moved, I knew I wanted more.
Roots Reach: So I started reading epic fantasy again. I enjoyed some of it, but again, it seemed much of what I found was lacking. Which led me to ponder what I was actually seeking. Was it something about the world building? I would’ve guessed this was it. After all, I was the kind of reader that had read all of the LOTR appendices, who knew Gondorians from Rohirrim. But I came to see how even the most intricate setting and backstory by themselves could not make an epic successful. I also quickly realized that it didn’t matter to me if there were dragons or elves involved. Nor did I care about the type of magic, or even whether there was any magic at all. I started to wonder whether it had to do with the characters. But if what I sought wasn’t necessarily their backgrounds or worlds, was it their goals? Was it the villain, or what they were up against?
Little did I realize, my digging had begun.
From Bits O’ Bones: So while I pondered what to read, and what made a fantasy story more or less effective for me, I sifted my mental sands and came across my aforementioned fossils. One such nugget I’d squirreled away years prior was a former teacher’s theory that Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan were modeled after the Goths. That’s right, he suggested that Eomer and company were based on the barbarous heathens that had been the first to sack Rome. With that fossil already in the sifter, I next came across a distant relation’s theory that our family’s descendants were not only Germans who’d fled persecution in the Rhine region, but that we were descended from the Goths. Yep, Goths. And not just any old Goths, but Goths who’d been ceded land by the Roman government, for their service in fighting for the empire.
Whoa! Another find for my basket. We’re related to the Riders of Rohan? And they weren’t simply barbarous pillagers, but fought for the empire? And they also weren’t necessarily heathens, but somehow ended up being protestants? Huh. So, were these supposed ancestors good guys or bad guys? It suddenly seemed to depend on one’s perspective.
Now I had a couple of bits o’ bone that seemed to fit together. I’d stumbled across enough to fuel my enthusiasm for a large-scale dig.
To Exposed Skeleton: Mind you, I still hadn’t admitted to myself what I was up to. But my excavation was in full swing. I started reading about Goths and Rome online. I ordered a related book or four. Only when a friend asked me why, and I blurted the answer, did I realize it. “I’m going to write a book about them.” From there, I went full throttle. I depleted all three of my region’s libraries of books on related topics. After about a year’s worth of digging, I started to lay out what I’d found for examination. There were a lot of fragments that didn’t exactly fit. And in some cases I’d set aside pieces that I later realized I needed. Construction began in earnest. And before long, I’d laid up an admirable set of connected bones. I didn’t know it wasn’t quite complete when I started writing, but that didn’t matter. Nothing like coming up against an incompletion in your skeleton to motivate a supplemental dig.
Eventually I was satisfied with my story skeleton. Which, of course, incited me to want more.
The Lure of the Flesh: Isn’t that what every good archaeological exhibit does—inspires us to wonder? To seek? In the case of a skeleton, what did this creature look like? Was it a he or a she? How did she behave? What was life like for her? How did she interact with her fellows? Who else lived in her world?
Even though at this point I’d done no study of story craft, I began to see how these questions would flesh a story out, so to speak. This is when I took the facts I’d found in my research and began to apply them to actual humans. It started simply enough. Questions like: How do they look? Where do they live? What do they do all day? Then I went deeper, asking things like: What do they eat? How do they dress? Where do they sleep? And proceeded on with: What sort of rules bind them? Who is in a position of authority over them? What is their level of mobility? How are they restricted?
As I fleshed them out, the issues that arose quite naturally had me asking questions that took me to the next layer: How do they feel.
The Empathetic Archaeologist: Um, yeah—feelings. What a discovery! Feelings would be a big part of envisioning a story. Huh, who knew? So I asked myself a new set of questions. Who do they care about? Why? Who cares about them? Why? What do they want to do? Why? What’s stopping or restricting them from getting what they want? Do others want the same things? Or the opposite?
This is the layer that gave me the clearest vision yet of road ahead. I didn’t know it, but I was plotting the story, creating a rough synopsis via my disorganized notes. And, although I don’t consider myself a plotter, this is where the process came to life for me. I didn’t know much about the craft of writing yet, but I forged ahead, informed by the stories I’d loved. Elemental as they were at first, I found my way to character goals and motivations and conflicts.
One. Step. Beyond! Archaeology: The next layer for me is the most difficult to pinpoint or describe. I think I’ve gleaned various facets of it since I first began composing. And I’m still working to grasp it all and incorporate it into my work. Beyond our bones and sinew, beyond our obvious needs and desires, human beings are amazingly complex creatures. So much is built into our goals, much of which we veil even from ourselves. So many of our motivations are multi-layered. Many of our best intentions are laced with fear and shame, guilt and selfishness. Hence our conflicts, both internal and external, are just as intricate and complex. And that’s before we add the amazing stuff we humans are capable of feeling and expressing—like love and generosity, loyalty and honor. Comprehending this extra layer—this One. Step. Beyond!—it’s the makings of writerly Madness. I mean that in the best possible way (i.e. addictive, contagious, life-altering, incurable).
You’re Soaking In It: As I say, this step beyond laying out the bones and adding the flesh to a story is the part I still strive to capture. And I’ve only just come to realize—I always will. This is the gig! This is what brought me to the blank page. And I’ve come to understand that’s what brings us to read, as well. We’re searching for ourselves—for what it means to be human. We’re all grappling, and we want to slip into the skins of our favorite characters to see how it’s done, how others are coping and faring. It’s just that some of us are lured to start our own dig. We already have our bits of bones, and we simply haven’t stumbled across another excavation that offers up the right fit for them.
Exhibit Ah-ha! If our stories are like archaeology, my books will be my display pieces. Come over to the glass case out front. Take a peek at the bits of bone I’ve collected and laid up. Interested? Okay, next check out some of my artifacts. Now, are you drawn to take a closer look? Are you willing to take the time, to make the effort, to perceive this archaeologist’s interpretation of time and place—his findings and how they relate to the human condition? Will you find answers? Or at least better questions? If you suspect so, step inside my exhibit. Take a look at my complete rendering—my story. Together we can grapple with the complexities of being human.
Now it’s your dig, my fellow story archaeologists! Tell me about finding your artifacts. Did you know you were digging or collecting? Did you know the bits of bone you’d found fit together? How’s your exhibit coming along?