by David Edgerley Gates
The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock (September/October) includes stories by me, Eve Fisher, and Janice Law - all of us SleuthSayers contributors. Here's looking at you, kid.
My story, "Cabin Fever," was written quite some time ago, and it's taken a while for it to work its way to the top of the stack. I'm mentioning this because what I'd like to talk about here is how stories get started, why an idea takes hold, and what kind of legs it needs to get us across the finish line.
Here's a curious thing. For some years now, Craig Johnson has been coming through Santa Fe as each new Longmire title launches, and for the past six years, his visits have coincided with the shooting schedule of Longmire, the TV series. As it happens, when Craig came to town to promote Hell Is Empty, the Longmire cast and crew were shooting the episode based on the book. And also, somewhere in this time period, or not long after, I'd started "Cabin Fever." The point is, Hell Is Empty has Walt tracking down an escaped con through a winter blizzard. "Cabin Fever" has my guy, Hector, held hostage by escaped cons in the middle of a forest fire. But. I didn't catch up with Hell Is Empty until later that year and the Longmire season opener wasn't broadcast until a year after that. There wasn't any cross-pollination. My idea came out of thin air.
Or not? We've all had the experience of things floating around in the zeitgeist, or drifting by, in our peripheral vision, that suddenly take on shape, and density. In our sentimental moments, we might even call it inspiration, the light on the road to Damascus. On a less exalted plane, it's more like you're hitching a ride, and somebody pulls over. I couldn't tell you where the set-up for "Cabin Fever" came from. Hector's truck breaks down, he's out in the back of beyond with no cell coverage, and a weather system's blowing in. He decides to try and find shelter, and beat the storm. There turn out to be other people lost in the woods, and soon enough they find each other.
I think it's safe to say that a story's going to change with different storytellers. The approach, the attack, the retreat. We might call the story "Stop Me If You've Heard This." A cop, a priest, and a hooker walk into a bar. You and I are entirely likely to go off at right angles to one another, or in completely opposite directions. It depends on what we think the story is. Where's the emphasis, who's got the POV, when do you show your hole cards?
Supposing that Craig and I did have a similar idea, and at more or less the same time, the end results turn out differently in the actual telling. I can give you another example. And in this case, I know where and when the match lit the fuse.
I was faithful reader of Marc Simmons' weekly column Trail Dust, in the Santa Fe New Mexican, until he retired the column last year. (Simmons, a highly-regarded New Mexico historian, has a reported forty-nine books under his belt.) He wrote a piece about the Butterfield freight line and a stagecoach loaded with gold that disappeared on the eve of the Civil War, in the desert west of Lordsburg. Was there treasure buried in a place called Doubtful Canyon? OK. First off, Lordsburg. John Ford's movie Stagecoach is based on the Ernest Haycox story "Stage to Lordsburg." I couldn't possibly pass that up. Secondly, how does anybody resist a name like Doubtful Canyon? There's your title, ready-to-wear. Last but not least, the bare bones of the story itself, men on the run with thirty thousand in Yankee gold, in hostile Apache country. I'm lathered up already.
The story I wound up writing ("Doubtful Canyon," of course) clocked in at some 20,000 words. It capped off, at least for a while, the bounty hunter series. I thought it was terrific, fully fleshed, peopled with rattlesnakes and rascals, and a satisfying answer to the puzzle, if made up out of whole cloth. It wasn't an easy sell, though, not at that length. I was a little disheartened. About a year later, then, you can imagine my shock when I ran across a new novel on the Westerns shelf at Collected Works bookshop called Doubtful Cañon - Cañon the Spanish spelling. What fresh hell was this? I knew the name, too. Johnny D. Boggs. I'd read one of his earlier books, Camp Ford, and liked it a lot. I was going to revisit my opinion now, you can bet your sweet ass.
Much to my chagrin, this Boggs turns out to be no schlump, as a writer. And this being Santa Fe, we bump into each other, sooner rather than later, at a library event. He's genuine, personable, and funny. All-around good company. The guy coaches Little League, for John's sake. Impossible not to like, which is even more annoying.
Johnny's novel is a YA, and yes, it does take off from the same start point, the missing stagecoach full of gold. There are other synchronicities. We both tell the story from a distance, in hindsight, although he gives it twenty years, and I gave it fifty. Part of this is, I think, a sense of perspective, tilting the horizon, and another part of it artful misdirection. Johnny and I both used a split screen, in effect, and the device of a not entirely reliable narration as well, but we deployed it differently. In my case, I alternated the two time-frames, too.
As a writer - or as one of two writers grazing the same section of fence - I'm probably more interested in the confluences between Johnny's approach to the canvas and mine. A critical reader, who doesn't have skin in the game, might well be more interested in where we diverged. But absent the annotated Library of America edition, we'll skip the play by play. The question isn't whether the idea is original, it's whether we made it our own.
Here's a last little teaser, a sort of exercise. I ran across this poster at my local frame shop. Tell me it doesn't conjure up all sorts of possibilities. I'm not sure how I'd use it, myself, but I'm going to let it rattle around in the cupboards for awhile. How about you?