This is a tale of two stories, one I abandoned, realizing I was way over my head, and one that I finished in a week. I offer these examples in the hope someone can learn from my mistakes.
I generally write urban fantasy with a humorous twist. However, two years ago, I had a grand idea. Or maybe you could call it a Grand Wizard idea (sorry). I decided to write a novel based in the US Civil War with cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest as the villain, based on the fact that they called Forest “The Wizard of the Saddle.” I intended it to have an X-Files meets Wild Wild West feel. This was a horrible idea on many levels.
While Forrest was a famous, and some say brilliant, cavalry leader, he was a Confederate general and a slave trader. And given the sentiments in US politics today, any comedy involving a slave owner would probably go over slightly worse than a remake of Hogan’s Heroes. However, as a writer, I experienced something even worse. I could not find any empathy for Forrest, and I believe you have to have a little love for your villain.
Forrest’s legacy after the war was even more problematic. He survived the war and went on to found the Ku Klux Klan, and he is a hero to white supremacists. Not an organization or group of people I want to promote or encourage on any level. Finally, I am not a historian, and I’m a little soft on geography as well. I could probably do decently filling out the names of states on a map, but I probably would not get 100%. The US Civil War is one of the most documented and dissected periods in history, and no matter how many films, articles, or books I ingested, I felt like I only had the first layer of the onion peeled.
Even though I failed in this endeavor, I did find it an enriching experience. While I might never be able keep up with a Civil War buff or historian, I know how McClellan’s leadership differed from Grant’s and how the political organization of the Confederacy affected the provisioning of their military. I even hold opinions on these topics. So my wholly failed endeavor taught me more about American history than my secondary education—not to disparage my teachers, I just know my learning style and designed a curriculum to fit.
However, I did mention two stories. Well, a few months ago, I was hanging out with some writer friends, and we came up with the idea of a vampire doing porn in the 1970s as a protagonist. Now, unlike Civil War cavalry, this was a little more my speed.
I found the 1970’s a great time to write in. Not that I remember it, I was a toddler in the 1970s. However, all the pop culture of the time is available through the Internet in bite-sized nuggets. You want fashion of the times, you can find thousands of pictures—including one of David Hasslehoff wearing a pink shirt with only two buttons, both below the navel. Need to come up with the names of pornography studios or actors, just a web search away. Want the protagonist to drive a Dodge muscle car made in 1977, Wikipedia will tell you the Super Bee wasn’t made after 1971, but the Charger was in production.
But here’s the main takeaway from my 1970s story. It was easy to write because I was not writing about any relevant historical events, just using the trappings of the time as a setting. If I had been writing about the assassination of Harvey Milk and the White Night riots, I am sure I would have felt just as paralyzed. Now that I have finished a historical piece, I have to say I’m a little hooked. I might have to write a story that takes place during the Civil War someday, but I think I will avoid characters who might show up in a history book.
Shannon Ryan lives in Marion, Iowa. He writes weird, funny stories in the urban fantasy genre, featuring satanic telemarketers and awkward vampires. His latest book PANIC NO MORE is about a computer programmer harassed by a Greek god.