The Germ Theory

When I was taking the Masters’ Degree in English at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, I was taught the germ theory of writing. You hear a story or read an article in a magazine and take a word or a phrase from it and create your own story around it. It need only be a word or two, something that triggers your imagination and sends it off into the wilds of your creative mind. As long as you take the idea and don’t repeat it word for word you can go where you will with it. It is only something to spark your creativity. You can separate the idea completely from its source once you get going on your project because it will have no relationship to its origin anymore and is probably no longer even recognizable as coming from there.

I get my stories from my elders. They’re all great story-tellers. Anna’s Secret is a case in point. The story is based on the story of Anne Beaton’s hollow where a murder took place 150 years ago that was blamed on an ancestor of mine. He was subsequently cleared of the deed and left Prince Edward Island. I took the fact of her murder and fictionalized it by changing her personality, the circumstances surrounding her life and death, and putting in characters who never existed outside of my imagination. I asked myself questions like: What if she had been someone entirely different than who she was purported to be? Who was she really? Who did she really go to see? Was it an innocent visit or was it a clandestine affair as everyone thought? Who really murdered her? What were the motivations? Questions of this nature led to a well fleshed-out novel not based on the original story, which was probably based in truth. Then I took the original question of who she really was and who I thought she should be and dug and explored all her fictional relationships, which eventually led to the dénouement.

I have never used an outline. I tried it once because I was told it was the best way to work but it didn’t work for me. It kept me too bound by the structure of the outline. I felt I had to write by the rules when my characters wanted to do something different. I had to let them be themselves. They become living people in my mind and you have to let people do whatever it is they need to do. They talk to me and argue with me and agree with me just like real people. You can’t be too controlling or your story will become too rigid and awkward. Let your characters tell the story. Keep notes as to who is related to whom and when they did a certain thing and anything else you think you might get hazy on as the story moves along. That way you don’t have to keep going back to look for it, should you need that information again. So try writing without an outline, you never know where your characters will take you or why they want you to go there.

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