One of my favorite short stories by American master O. Henry, “The Green Door,” opens with this amusingly electrifying passage:
Suppose you should be walking down Broadway after dinner, with ten minutes allotted to the consummation of your cigar while you are choosing between a diverting tragedy and something serious in the way of vaudeville. Suddenly a hand is laid upon your arm. You turn to look into the thrilling eyes of a beautiful woman, wonderful in diamonds and Russian sables. She thrusts hurriedly into your hand an extremely hot buttered roll, flashes out a tiny pair of scissors, snips off the second button of your overcoat, meaningly ejaculates the one word, “parallelogram!” and swiftly flies down a cross street, looking back fearfully over her shoulder.
That would be pure adventure. Would you accept it? Not you. You would flush with embarrassment; you would sheepishly drop the roll and continue down Broadway, fumbling feebly for the missing button. This you would do unless you are one of the blessed few in whom the pure spirit of adventure is not dead.
All authors, I think, are true adventurers at heart. We have that instinctive natural curiosity that makes us wonder where that old side road goes, what that narrow footpath through the woods leads to; what used to be housed in that elaborate old brick building with the boarded-up windows; what happened on an old street a hundred years ago; what the person in the next car at the intersection is thinking and where they’re going. We seldom ever learn the real answers to these questions, but we are quite willing to make up our own—and that’s where the adventure of writing begins.
All writing is adventure, in the vicarious sense. Imagination is adventure of the mind, and what is fiction-writing if not the exercise of the imagination? Our plots are what-ifs and I-wonder-wheres with our own answers added. We send our characters down the footpaths and alleys and through the green doors of adventure that we have not the power, the time or the nerve to explore for ourselves.
But there is another kind of adventure that happens before we ever put pen to paper. O. Henry again:
The twin spirits Romance and Adventure are always abroad seeking worthy wooers. As we roam the streets they slyly peep at us and challenge us in twenty different guises. Without knowing why, we look up suddenly to see in a window a face that seems to belong to our gallery of intimate portraits; in a sleeping thoroughfare we hear a cry of agony and fear coming from an empty and shuttered house; instead of at our familiar curb, a cab-driver deposits us before a strange door, which one, with a smile, opens for us and bids us enter; a slip of paper, written upon, flutters down to our feet from the high lattices of Chance; we exchange glances of instantaneous hate, affection and fear with hurrying strangers in the passing crowds; a sudden douse of rain—and our umbrella may be sheltering the daughter of the Full Moon and first cousin of the Sidereal System; at every corner handkerchiefs drop, fingers beckon, eyes besiege, and the lost, the lonely, the rapturous, the mysterious, the perilous, changing clues of adventure are slipped into our fingers. But few of us are willing to hold and follow them.
For an author, every chance slip of paper, dropped handkerchief and face at the window is the spark of an idea—whether seen in real life, discovered in a book, or in some dusty online archive (virtual dust, thank goodness). The flutter of excitement when we happen upon something interesting, the way our minds begin to spin as we imagine the different ways it could be worked into a story—that’s adventure too. Ideas are everywhere, and every idea is an adventure.
A minor character walks into a movie for a few minutes, but lingers in our mind so we feel compelled to write a story about them (or someone very like them). A cameo appearance by a captivating person in an old memoir or a history book has the same effect. A little-known incident from a corner of a famous battle begs to have a story built around it. An intriguing but too-short item in an old newspaper, a cryptic biographical note in a family tree, the bare facts listed on an immigration record—and the even more interesting gaps of things not told—each one is a gateway to an adventure of the imagination. Each has a story behind it, and each takes us down a myriad of rabbit-trails to even more interesting tidbits.
Sometimes unearthing these things is like detective work; other times they simply land in our laps like O. Henry’s hot buttered roll. Following each rabbit-trail is an adventure in itself, taking us back a hundred years into history, into the minds of people both real and imagined, into worlds of our own imagining. And at the end of a few hours of brainstorming and rabbit-trailing, we look up from a pile of books or a laptop screen, look around and take a deep breath, and feel like we just got back from the North Pole. Because, in a way, we have.
Elisabeth Grace Foley is a historical fiction author, avid reader and lifelong history buff. Her first published story, “Disturbing the Peace,” was an honorable mention in the first annual Rope and Wire Western short story competition, and is now collected with six others in her debut short story collection, The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories. Her other works include a series of short historical mysteries, the Mrs. Meade Mysteries; and short fiction set during the American Civil War and the Great Depression. A homeschool graduate, she chose not to attend college in order to pursue self-education and her writing career. Visit her online at www.thesecondsentence.blogspot.com or follow her on twitter @ElisabethGFoley