Thursday, December 22, 2016

From timeline to storyline

I have a hard time switching my brain off.  This can be rather troublesome when something's bothering me, as it'll cause me to worry myself into a tizzy, but this can also lead to me making some very interesting observations, as I'll have stuff "running in the background" while I'm working on other things, and suddenly I'll make a connection between the two that otherwise wouldn't have happened.  That's how "The Long Road Home" came about, and I told you previously that Richard Corrigan's creation was the result of one of those "running in the background" moments invading my sleep.  Today I'm going to tell you how me reading a timeline led to one of the major plot points in Swords &Sixguns: An Outlaw's Tale.

For those too young to remember, the world was gripped with "millennium fever" for quite a few years prior to us actually reaching the year 2000.  In late 1992, TIME Magazine slipped that foldout timeline you see above into one of their periodicals.  Despite being nearly a decade shy of the goal, it purports to give readers "1,000 Years At A Glance", starting with the invention of gunpower by the Chinese in 1000 and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  There's only so much you can fit on three pages, of course, but it's a decent overview, and the backside of it adds a few more lists to ponder, including what a time capsule for the 1990s should contain (among other things, TIME suggested some now-obsolete items like a disposable camera, a beeper, and a pair of baggy jeans).  That big timeline was what caught my attention, though, so I ripped it out of the magazine and saved it.

Now, by this point in my own history, I'd already created Richard, but he was still a minor character in a larger fantasy story that, as I mentioned before, wasn't working.  I had elements of something good, but that wasn't enough, there had to be something to attach it all to.  When I elevated Richard to "major character" status (or he forced his way up there, I'm still not sure which) and made him the focus of the story, things got better, but there was still something missing.  All I had was this bare-bones idea of "Richard falls through a portal into Arkhein" and that was it.  There was no explanation of what this portal was, why it existed, or even how in blazes he fell through it (though there was a brief dalliance with the idea of Richard getting struck by lightning while he was standing on top if it, thereby opening it up!).  Most important, I had no explanation for why he could go one way through the portal and not the other...why couldn't Richard go back to Earth?  This is where that timeline comes into play, specifically a section near the bottom of the first page:

I'll be honest, I wasn't very well-versed in history until my last couple years of high school.  Before that, I knew quite a bit in certain areas, but I had no real sense of scope, of how the distance between then and now can change depending on the way you look at it, and how seemingly-unrelated events overlap in weird ways.  That's partly where my interest in Westerns came from: realizing that it wasn't just a genre, it was an actual period in history that'd been reduced to a set of stylized tropes over the past century.  And on this timeline, two other historical periods that had been reduced to tropes suddenly jumped out at me, namely the Renaissance and the Black Death.  Everybody knows what these two events are in the broadest terms, as they've become ingrained into our culture, but until that moment, I didn't realize that they occurred at almost the exact same time.  The overlap between the two isn't huge, mind you, but it is there.  While some of the great Italian masters were creating their works, millions of people were dying thanks to the bubonic plague...and when you look up just a little further on the timeline, you see a notation for the earliest-known rendering of a small-scale gun (as opposed to a large-scale cannon, which had existed for a couple of centuries by that point), overlapping a third significant event in human history onto this period in time.  So there I was, with that whole "How do I fix my story?" problem bouncing around my noggin, looking at this strange confluence of historical events, when a question pops into my head: "What would've happened if the Black Death had been a little more virulent?  What if it had killed so many people, the Renaissance never happened?  How badly would that mess up history?"

Now I had something to work with.  Arkhein went from being a generic fantasy world with medieval-style trappings to a place that, up until a few centuries ago, was not too different from Earth in terms of progress.  Just as their version of the Renaissance occurred, though, they were struck by a plague even worse than the Black Death, one that emanated from a set of portals between our world and theirs, and which soon brought their civilization to a screeching halt.  Fast-forward to 1874, where an outlaw on the run stumbles across the last remaining portal and falls through, barely surviving the trip due to the thing within that is eager to wreak havoc on both worlds once more...

And that, my friends, is how you end up with a genre-bending series like Swords & Sixguns.

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