Characters in Search of a Plot

I don’t have a drawer of abandoned manuscripts; I have a goddamn vault.

I’m not even slightly exaggerating when I say I’ve started scores of projects since the age of eleven, when I first decided I wanted to be a writer. It’s probably over a hundred, but that sounds so ridiculous, right? Like I might as well say a million. But if I were to comb through all my files and notebooks, I bet there really are least the false starts of a hundred books.

I did a twitter thread about this earlier this summer, actually, if you’re interested in some of the many projects that have surfaced and sunk over the years. Some of them belong at the bottom of the ocean; others are worth re-inflating, someday, maybe. Most are more likely to be scavenged for their treasures, which can be reworked into new beauty.

The one that leaps to mind the most, though, is the one filed away in my head as The Antares Project, a steampunk adventure I started circa 2006 and keep fiddling with every now and again. I love the characters and the universe. I hinged this AU on a fascinating historical fact: During the War of 1812, at the Battle of Baltimore, all of US history hinged on rain. When the British were shelling the city, it had just recently rained — so even though a shell landed in the gunpowder stockpiles in the armory, it didn’t explode. If it had, the fort would have fallen, and likely all of the mid-Atlantic would have followed, and from there, the nascent nation.

From that, I envisioned a North American continent that never coalesced coast-to-coast, as it has in all three of its largest and most dominant nations. The American South gets re-absorbed under British dominion — which means that slavery ends about 30-odd years earlier, since Britain abolished it in all its colonies. Since this is steampunk, I introduced automatons as an answer to the labor upheaval that would create — a measure which of course spawns socioeconomic tension of its own. The Northeastern US retains independence but now has to rely much more on external trade for its survival. Western expansion goes slower, and happens most rapidly in the upper Midwest, where there are ongoing bloody wars with Native tribes defending their territory. (Another historical tidbit: had Britain won the War of 1812, they planned to block the continent to European settlement as part of a treaty with the Natives who were fighting on their side — and because they had sort of looked at everything west of the Mississippi and said, “Enh, not worth the trouble it would be to make use of”, which is ironically the same attitude the Romans had about Britain for a long time). The West is fought over by China, Russia, Spain, and Mexico — plus I let the Mormon nation of Deseret be a thing. Airships (because what is steampunk without airships?) become the dominant form of cross-continental travel, since railroads are impractical over long distances when you don’t control the territory and don’t trust your neighbors.

So there’s the world. Then, the characters! I love these characters. A runaway Southern debutante smuggling stolen information. The stable-boy-turned-airship-hand who’s loved her since childhood. His captain, a Chinese woman from California who has torn financial success from the world. Their navigator, daughter of German immigrants to Wisconsin, who left pine trees for open skies. A lesbian whose medical career was forged in the fires of Mexico’s wars of independence. A Scotch-Australian mechanic leaving behind his criminal childhood. And their ship! A helical based off a da Vinci design, sleek and swift, not a lumbering skybeast (scientific plausibility be damned).

Why, then, is this manuscript in a drawer?

Because it has no plot. I’ve tried in vain to find one, but nothing takes. No MacGuffin makes sense, no quest has legs. I’ve started and re-started it three or four times, and I just can’t make it work. I have some great scenes, some sparkling dialogue, a few great action sequences, and absolutely nothing to hold it all together.

That’s frustrating. I love this idea so much, and I want so badly for it to work. But it just… isn’t. And I can’t force it. I have to be patient. I believe there’s merit here, that this project is worth keeping in my head. At some point, I have faith that I’ll stumble over some new historical fact or other inspiration that will perhaps finally reveal a working plot to me. But it is hard, in the meantime, to know I’ve got so much good material that I am utterly failing to do right by. (On the bright side, my agent also informs me steampunk isn’t selling to publishers super well right now, so maybe by the time I figure out what the story is supposed to be, it’ll be back in vogue!)

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Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

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This article has 2 Comments

  1. Maybe it was not meant to be. Some ifeas need to dievto make room for new ones to be born. I would not stew over thise lost ideas. Anyway The Man in the High Castle already appropriated a similar scenario.

    1. Well, the theme this week is “the manuscript in the drawer”, so we’ll all be talking about old ideas! Believe me, I’m perfectly aware that not all ideas pan out — as I mentioned, I’ve started scores over the years, and not all of them have the juice. But this is one I’m still attached to. There’s enough good stuff in the world that I think I can find the plot, someday.

      And Man in the High Castle is, I believe, a WWII-based alternate? That’s a significantly different historical period to work with, and a wildly different aesthetic, so I certainly wouldn’t be concerned about that.

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