Where do stories come from?

Where do stories come from? Of course, the real answer is: You don’t want to know. But in this case I’m going to tell you anyway.

One morning, towards dawn, I was lying abed half asleep when these sentences began circulating in my head:

Ryan North was no magistrate. Why, he was not even a lawman. If people were free to come to him with a dispute, he was just as free to offer an opinion; and if they chose to act on it, that was their own business.


Why does this happen? I don’t know; it just does, more often in the shower than in bed, but usually when I’m not fully and lucidly awake. I’ve always assumed that everyone encounters these insistent prose attacks (or, more rarely, spells of verse), but I could be mistaken. In any case, after a while I got up and wrote them down.

But who was this Ryan North? When I was actually awake, I recognized him as the author of the brilliant Dinosaur Comics, so I renamed him after an ancestor I’d been researching.

Marguerite Yourcenar, speaking in an interview about her novel The Abyss (L’oeuvre au noir), said:

To begin with, I was interested in the histories of the families and towns in the area where I had grown up. Then I realized that these histories might be combined so as to recreate a microcosm.

One of my discoveries was a book from my father’s family library entitled Mémoires anonymes sur les troubles des Pays-Bas, a nineteenth-century reprint of a work written in Old French. […] At that time I also examined certain genealogical documents, some of which I still have while others were lost in 1944 or 1945. In these documents I ran across a person named Zeno, another named Vinine, and still another named Jacqueline Bell. These names, which were not uncommon in Flanders at that time, started me dreaming, but what I had in mind at that point seems to have been a series of character portraits spanning several generations; this would have included sketches of men and women who came and went quietly from this earth, the sort of people to whom Barrès used to refer to as “cemetery fodder,” as well as people who developed their gifts to the full.



In my case, I seemed to have conceived then of Stutley as more like the character who eventually became J.E. Chambers. He was to have been a sort of freelance inquirer into weird events — ghosts and ghouls and creepy critters — that troubled the empty landscapes of early nineteenth century New York and Pennsylvania. I have these notes scribbled down right under the opening sentences:

When would 2nd great awake have reached this area?
Prophets & charlatans — [what year was lake monster hoax?]
It was a time of prophets and charlatans, of great migrations of peoples and the long + peculiar work of becoming Americans.
What year was phalanstery constructed? Brook Farm?
Shakers must have passed though this area ==> map of villages? Ohio + NY certainly
Perhaps he is a graduate of Brown College — ? He is from Providence/North Providence/Kingstowne/Little Rest in any case.


Stories have a habit of insisting on taking their own turns and meanders independently of my own feeble wishes for them.

This one did too.

I don’t recall where I first read of Jemima Wilkinson, but right away I found her fascinating. I also don’t recall how she found her way into this story, although an inkling of it is plain enough in the notes transcribed above. More remarkable, though, is Nebuchadnezzar/Amos Walker/Jonah Northup. One evening, I sat down at the computer and typed: He calls himself Jonah now, and the whole last movement of the story unreeled almost on its own, although it also required some research about artificial lighting, pens and inks, agricultural prices, underground railway activity in western Pennsylvania, and quotations from the you-know-what, which took a little while.

Before this spate of ventriloquism, he had been more of a prop than a character, and now his story echoed backwards, as it were, through the draft, transforming the resolution of the Northup-Chambers story, which at that point just dwindled away more than it ended, and also requiring more material on Stutley’s childhood and his first encounter with the visitor (at that time still a plural visitors), as well as numerous other, smaller adjustments. Here I pass over without comment many hours of drafting and revising.

After a few of the usual form-letter rejections, Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies — a market I’d never submitted to before — rejected it with a very perceptive note, adding that he’d like to see it again it I did end up revising it.

His remarks brought into focus a vague dissatisfaction — and so I rearranged some passages, amputated some others, added new sentences and paragraphs, and pruned away, here and there, some excess rhetorical flourishes. I also corrected some lighting technology anachronisms (ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance), and set right certain idiocies concerning the handling of rowboats (what could I have been thinking?). Despite the many additions, the cuts brought the word count down by nearly a thousand. This took about a week; I set it aside for three weeks, then looked at it again; I made some more changes (mostly cuts).

I sent it back.