Mistakes can be blessings

oops2Usually when I make a mistake, it’s something that continues to kick me in the head no matter whether I admit it or not. There’s always payback. Bent nails, split wood, crooked trim, creaky hinges–the list goes on and on. And when it comes to my writing, it’s worse. On the plus side, however, many of the mistakes I’ve made ended up as object lessons. Sure, they focused on how not to do something, but they were still valuable.

It took a long time to come to that realization, and to this day I hate it when I get things wrong. Over the past few months, however, I’ve found that a mistake I made is actually guiding me to writing a much, much better novel.

I know it sounds weird, but here’s what happened. I started a new novel set somewhere in the Midwest in the early 1970s. It would be a paranormal tale, but it wouldn’t feature vampires or any of the other other-worldly critters that are so popular these days. The scenes came flying out, and I was having a fabulous time putting them in order. My multiple point-of-view tale had some excellent opening scenes, a solid tension level, and a charming array of oddball characters. It also had a fantasy element sure to drive a highly entertaining story.

But about 25,000 words in, and after a few kind volunteers read and commented on the first three chapters, I realized I’d completely missed the mark on the setting. Not that I’m all that good on setting anyway, but on this occasion it wasn’t a less-than-stellar job of description. This time I missed both the best time and the best place for the story. I just couldn’t get the mileage I needed out of the 1970s or from a vague, imaginary metro area somewhere in the heartland. More than anything else, the story’s reliance on a syndicated gossip columnist dictated that it needed to take place in the post-Depression era.

It also became apparent I needed to focus on an area I know well–the South, and more specifically, Atlanta, GA.

OopsThirty years worth of technology–to say nothing of a world war, and more words added to the English language than at any other time in history–presented me with a challenge. Moving the story in time and space would require big changes. Of course, I always had the option of ignoring my misgivings. I wouldn’t be the first to wave off early warnings. (Or lament it!)

Yesterday I finished revisions of those first six chapters, and I’m now ready to move on with the story. The good news is that I’ve got a much greater appreciation for the world my characters inhabit, and I’ve developed it through researching ways to get around the many social, linguistic and technical differences between 1973 and 1943.

Slang, hospital equipment, cemeteries, newspapers, clothing, a virtual absence of television–all of it contributed to a tidal wave of changes. And the story will absolutely benefit from it. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll post part of it here, but that’s a definite possibility. Keep an eye out for it!

And for those of you struggling with an evolving story, I urge you to take a fresh look at your setting. Make sure it works for the tale you’ve decided to tell. There might just be a much better one!

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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