Fantastic History #21: The Accretion Theory of Story-Telling by Tiffany Trent

First, big thanks to Catherine for inviting me here. Because I’m a process geek, I thought talking a little about my story development process might be fun.

Stories for me come together in very odd ways; they’re pastiches of anything from weird science news to little snippets of conversation I’ve heard. (Beware! she says. I am a magpie!) I call this the “accretion theory” of storytelling, but I suppose I could as well call it distillation or alchemy. Whatever it may be, I love taking seemingly disparate or unrelated ideas and mashing them together to make something—a mixed-media collage of story elements.

All of my stories seem to start with a simple base and then get all kinds of flotsam and jetsam pasted on to them. In fact, this year’s anthology project, THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY, co-edited with Stephanie Burgis was very much like this. At the core, was an underwater ballroom (that actually existed!). We asked our authors to riff on that idea. I think I was perhaps the only one who used the actual historical ballroom, but that’s absolutely the idea. We wanted people to add their own spin to it, so we had a ballroom used as a smuggler hideaway, a ballroom under the inland sea of Mars, a ballroom on the verge of collapse, a ballroom that was the scene of a magical heist, a Faery rock-n-roll fete, etc. And in my own story, the signs of accretion were very much present because I used my keen interest in mudlarking, historical research about Chinese and Indian lascars in 1800s London and the quarters that sprang up to serve them, and the underwater ballroom itself to add another story to THE UNNATURALISTS series. Thankfully, our readers were willing to go along for the ride, and we got some truly lovely reviews in response.

Another example: A novella I have on submission is an accumulation of my feelings about adoption (I’m the mother of two adopted children), space exploration, symbiosis, anglerfish mating rituals, sacred cycles (like the Aztec flowery wars), and virulence, to name but a few. The last bit in particular has long fascinated me. In my day job as a science writer, I often come across interesting scientific facts or principles. One recent idea is that many bacteria that become virulent require the activation of only one gene to become virulent/disease-causing. I wanted to think about this in terms of an entire race of beings who when quiescent interact with their environment in one way and when virulent act in another.

I have absolutely no idea if anyone will buy this novella, of course, but I loved setting myself the challenge of writing something so dense and difficult. Whether I succeeded remains to be seen.

As to how I manage to find and remember all these tidbits, I used to try to keep them all in my head. But the combination of motherhood and middle age has left me with precious little storage capacity. I now have a notebook where I just jot down whatever little story seed interests me, sure I’ll use it later. There really isn’t much pattern to what seizes me, except wonder or a sense of the sublime or macabre. But I reread them all periodically to see if any of them are speaking louder than the others and try to figure out how I might string some of them together.

I think a lot of why I do this is that these story seeds are bits of code that I string together to decrypt a bigger story. I often don’t even know why or how they go together (and truthfully sometimes they just don’t!), but I’ll try to find the story in them with everything I’ve got. Stephen King mentioned in On Writing that the bones of stories are already there; we writers just have to find them. Like him, I believe the story is already present. We just have to fit the bones together to make it whole.


Tiffany Trent is the author of eight novels of young adult science fiction and fantasy, including the HALLOWMERE series (Wizards of the Coast) and THE UNNATURALISTS duology (Simon & Schuster/Saga). Her first novel, HALLOWMERE: IN THE SERPENT’S COILS, was named a New York Public Library Book of the Teen Age. THE UNNATURALISTS was a 2012 Green Earth Book Award Honor winner. She has published numerous short stories and is the co-editor with Stephanie Burgis of the anthology THE UNDERWATER BALLROOM SOCIETY. She teaches in the Southern New Hampshire University online MFA in Creative Writing and is a science writer for a research institute at Virginia Tech.