Shakespeare pinched stories from wherever he could find them — Gesta Danorum, the Decameron, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Plautus’s Lives, Sydney’s Arcadia, even his contemporary poets and playwrights — but no one ever called him unoriginal. That’s why I feel completely justified in an experiment I’m undertaking, which I call Twice-Told Tales.
Originality is not all it’s cracked up to be
During NaNoWriMo, I’ll be working on an intricately-plotted detective novel that I’m calling (for the moment) Mr. Tracey Investigates. “Intricately plotted,” I say, but not by me. The fellow who came up with this story did so nearly a century ago — he was a story-telling machine who wrote more than two hundred books in his lifetime and published more than one hundred detective stories. He knew his stuff. So I’m letting him provide the story (or at least its bones) while I concentrate on the writing.
There’s a long, long history of stories getting re-told and re-worked. In fact, it’s been happening since time immemorial. In the modern age, however, this idea fell out of favor. New stories were the big thing — that’s why book-length fiction is now called the “novel” (“novel” = “new story,” not “old story re-told). However, it seems that novelty is no longer a “thing.” In the current age of endless re-makes — of movies and TV shows, many of which weren’t all that original to begin with (and most of which seem to be based on comic books) — I figure I’ll just be tapping into the Zeitgeist if I re-write a murder mystery from a hundred years ago.
A good mystery never gets old
I’ll explain some other time why I’m doing this, but first I’d just like to explain what I’m doing: I’m re-writing a story from the Golden Age of Detection in a more modern narrative idiom. As an exercise (to practice writing technique) and as a kind of experiment (to see how much I can make the story my own without changing any significant elements of the plot).
If you have read any of the detective stories that were popular in the 1920s (when my story was first published), you’ll see that they are all about the puzzle — discovering and fitting together the pieces of evidence that eventually add up to a solution of the crime. These novels tend to skimp on characterization, psychology, thematic depth, and many of the other things that make stories rich and memorable — they were written for a voracious reading audience, who gobbled them up like jelly beans and never asked about nutritional content.
I’ve always loved mystery novels — I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew when I was about eight years old — but I think if I ever write one of my own (all my own — plot and everything) it will be a story in which the mystery seems almost incidental, unfolding in the background, while I focus on a human story that plays out in the foreground. Until I’m ready to try something of my own, though, I’m going to try fleshing out a story first invented by a master of the detection genre. I’ll borrow one of his amateur sleuths and a very ingenious mystery plot, and write it the way I would if I had thought it all up by myself — moving the reader closer to the protagonist and the other characters, trying to see them for interesting human beings in their own right, not just pawns on a chessboard, to be shoved around until the author can shout “Check mate!”
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be reporting in, explaining what I’m doing and how it’s going. Next time, I’ll talk about how I prepped for NaNoWriMo 2017.