Thursday, November 15, 2012

Where Ideas for Stories Come From - 1


Ideas for writing come from all kinds of places.  My Buffalo Soldier historical series grew out of a combination of inspirations.  One day, I was sitting at my computer, surfing the Internet, and I came across a site about the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry on the western frontier, and I realized that not many Americans know a lot about the colorful history of these African-American soldiers and the role they played in the westward expansion of the country.

The germ of an idea was planted.  What if I did a series of short stories (more like novelettes actually) that introduced them to readers?  The more I thought about it the more it excited me.  Several years ago, when I lived in North Carolina, I was a writer and artist for a short-lived magazine, Buffalo that was based in California.  I had a regular cartoon feature, did a few historical articles, and did the illustrations for several of the magazine’s covers.



So, I already had a bit of grounding in the subject; it was just a matter of how to kick it off.  I decided to center it on a few fictional characters, with the main character, Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Carter, and show the kinds of activities they were engaged in.  While I strive to make it historically accurate, I try to avoid long lectures on history.  Instead, I insert the historical facts and incidents in through the characters’ dialogue, or short descriptive passages to establish context.  My main objective is to tell an interesting story that will keep the reader turning the page.

I can’t be sure I've succeeded.  Reader feedback has been limited, but what has been received is encouraging.  There is, for instance, this review of the latest in the series, Buffalo Soldier:  Incident at Cactus Junction that a reader posted on Amazon:

Charles Ray does a great job setting the stage for a slightly different classic western tale involving the "Buffalo Soldiers" of yore. The story follows Sgt. Ben Carter and the soldiers he commands on a mission to the sleepy town of Cactus Junction which needs help with finding out who is rustling the local rancher's cattle. The townsfolk are surprised to see black men in uniform and are at first reluctant to accept them or work with them. However as Ben and his men take on the task of finding the missing cattle - and the tough men who took them - the town soon warms to the Buffalo Soldiers. The story was put together well with great characters and descriptions. Although the plot is simple and the story straightforward, it should satisfy those readers who, like me, enjoy the old American west tales of adventure and action. If you're a western fan you'll enjoy this one.

This California reader gave the book four out of five stars, which I take as high praise indeed.  My friend, Zimbabwean author Virginia Phiri (Highway Queen), who has read and reviewed a number of my books, also commended the series, describing them as ‘good writing, and good reading.’ 

I use a lot of my own military background, as well as my childhood in Texas during the 50s and 60s, to establish the social, cultural, and geographic setting, as well as trying to make the language used by the characters as credible as possible.  None of the specific incidents in the stories are real, but they’re all based on historical events of the era after the Civil War when America was opening up the western frontier to settlement and development. Make a video of your own at Animoto.

I do research on a continuing basis seeking new story ideas, and to make sure that the equipment, tactics, and events have a ring of credibility.  For instance, during my research, I discovered that the US Cavalrymen, contrary to what you might see in the movies, didn't use repeating rifles during this period.  They used the single shot Springfield because the army viewed it as more reliable and durable than the new Winchester repeaters, and it was cheaper.  Even in those days, the government was concerned about the bottom line.  I also learned that white soldiers received $24 dollars a month pay, and black soldiers $12 – which wasn't bad money in the 1870s when you consider that when I enlisted in 1962, my pay was $72 per month.

So, you see, ideas for your writing can come from anywhere.  You just have to open all the doors and windows in your mind and let the light shine in.