I've always believed we should live in the time in which we live (remember the movie Midnight in Paris?). We shouldn't whine about how great the good ol' days were or complain that the present is just too technical and fast paced. But, lately the good ol' days seem kind of nice. I have a desktop, laptop, iPhone, Apple Watch, and Garmin watch, which consume a lot of my time and all seem to act up at once. I feel like I'm wrangling a bunch of demanding brats. But could-or should-I live without them? In this day and time, that idea seems impossible. That might be the reason why I enjoy writing stories set in the past.
While looking through the list of April holidays, I noticed that the 11th was National Eight-Track Tape Day. I began thinking about what was involved in setting a story in decades passed. Here are three tips to get you on the right track:
If you’ve needed a start kick to start your novel or short story, begin with a question “What if?” to yourself. For example, what if your main character received an email from a rich Raja in India, telling him that he’s been chosen to receive a bazillion dollars—and it was true? What would your character do? How would it change his life? Or, what if the man didn’t want the money but went to India anyway to hand-deliver his refusal to the Raja? What would unfold? You don’t have to be a writer for these questions to send your imagination soaring and your pages ensuring.
Or how about this one? What if Hemingway’s missing draft of A Moveable Feast is found by a man who buys a locked trunk at an estate sale. The manuscript is stolen and the thief heads to Mexico where he runs into a writer in a seedy bar who grabs the manuscript and leaves. A chase ensures. Reading this novel, would remind one of the movie, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where dozens of greedy people race to find a treasure. This happens to be the premise of Shaun Harris’s The Hemingway Thief.
Clive Cussler was a master of the “what if? And he took it one step further by using historical events but changing their courses. In Sahara, Cussler theorizes “what if” President Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated, but abducted by the Confederates and placed aboard the Confederate Navy ship, CSS Texas. What a way to begin a novel! The ship is chased by the Union Navy and sails into the open sea to avoid capture, only to be blown off course during a storm and end up in the Sahara Desert. Everyone aboard the ship dies and over time, the vessel becomes buried in the sand. It is discovered more than a century later.
Cussler also changes the course of history in Treasure. The tale begins with Roman soldiers sailing a fleet of ships carrying the Library of Alexandria to a secret location where it is to be hidden in an underground cavern. The soldiers are slaughtered by the enemies. Only one ship and its crew escapes, but they never reach land and the library is lost. Then, almost 2000 years later, the ship is discovered buried in the sands in North Texas—of all places.
Cussler’s plot premise is the same in each novel, but intriguing nonetheless.
Amazon Prime’s series, The Man in the High Castle, is based on Phillip K. Dick’s “what if” novel about the Axis Powers winning World War II and dividing the United States into the Great Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States. Just reading about what could have happened had me up all night.
Even if your “what if” idea doesn’t go anywhere, it’s a great way to get a stalled imagination running again. Give it a try. What if your idea turns into a bestselling book?