When I wrote my novel Windmills, I screwed up. One of the keys to good writing is control over your material and, as I’m just starting out, I’m bound to make mistakes here and there and Windmills has a big, unsatisfying subplot hanging over it. That is the story of Charlotte Laurent, the wife of antagonist Dominic Ford and the best friend of protagonist Lucy Nicholson. She is a major character in her own right and a huge part of the plot. And yet, while pretty much every other character in the book gets a proper conclusion to their story, Charlotte is left dangling. The last we hear of her is that she ran away from her murderous husband on Lucy’s advice, and that’s it. She has no role in the final endgame or the overall conclusion of the novel, and the reason for this is simple; the ending of Windmills was planned years in advance and, in fact, years before Charlotte even became a character in the novel. She never existed in the first draft, and while I certainly feel like the book is stronger for her involvement, there was no natural way to fit her in at the end. So I cut my losses, had her vanish and consequently almost everybody who reads Windmills has one big question for me at the end; what the hell happened to Charlotte?
On one level, I kind of like the ambiguity. Back when I was trying to potentially write a sequel to Windmills, every plot I came up with revolved around Charlotte. What would she do next? When she learnt that Dominic was dead, would she come for revenge? Would she become a danger to Leo and Lucy? Dramatically, this made sense, but in terms of character? It would mean warping and mutating Charlotte from who she really was into a pantomime villain more like her late husband. Charlotte left Dominic of her own choice, did not warn him or try to figure out why she should run. She just left. She did not want to be with him anymore. The truth of it was, I just couldn’t bend Charlotte to my will and make her a bad guy, because it’s not who she is. She’s a confused, scared girl who made bad choices based on feelings for a dangerous man. Flawed? Certainly. Malevolent? No.
So Charlotte would not be the core of a Windmills sequel, which is good because it meant that I didn’t push through with the bad idea of writing a follow up. But it did not change the fact that Charlotte does not have a satisfying conclusion to her story. And deeper than that, I was curious to know what happened to her. How would she react to learning about Dominic’s death? Where would she go, what would she do? The more I thought about it the more I wanted to know. Finally, I decided to write a little short story, just to see what happened.
That story is now finished, and I had an absolute ball writing it. It comes in at about 10,000 words; a fairly decent length for what is essentially an epilogue. I was scared that I would use it as an excuse to revisit Leo and Lucy, but it turned out that Charlotte had enough to her to make the story completely hers. This does not belong to anyone else but Charlotte. This is the story that I owed her, the conclusion she deserved.
When I was fourteen I wrote my first ever attempt at a serious novel. To contextualise this, throughout my childhood I tried many times to write what I was sure would be my big, bestselling debut. I never really made it past a couple of chapters on any of these though, but it didn’t mean I hadn’t spent months planning out every detail and nuance of the books. Of course, I was a little kid and didn’t have the attention span to sit down and really write anything, but the intention was there.
Now bear with me, because this gets a little complicated. At my old high school we had a program called ‘activities week’, which ran at the end of the school year. Basically, students got to choose from a range of generally cool activities to do, things like abseiling, horse riding, archery, etc. In the middle of it though, was the only one that bore any interest for me; filmmaking. Basically, we had a day to cobble together a short movie. Needless to say, there was no question as to what I’d be doing. In year seven I made a two minute movie with some friends, but by the time the next year rolled around I had a plan. My best friend at the time, Jenny, and me, had written a script, cast it and roped everyone necessary in to make our epic little thriller film about a serial killer. It was going to be awesome.
I had ripped off the concept from my two favourite films at the time; Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. At the centre of the plot was Frank Carsons, a mild mannered police officer who had a split personality. Sometimes he would become a vicious mass murderer. The film, imaginatively, was going to be called Slasher. I spent hours mapping out the plot, backstory, characters, everything. All for a ten minute film. I could not wait.
The final product was less than brilliant. Turns out that a bunch of thirteen/fourteen year olds running around pretending to be tortured police officers and twisted serial killers did not make for a convincingly compelling drama. On top of that, our parents, probably correctly, thought the whole thing was disturbing and so Jenny abandoned all our epic ideas for sequels leaving me alone with a lot of notes and material.
Even in retrospect I think our parents overreacted. I have always liked twisted, dark stuff not because it relates to some evil recesses of my personality, but because that sort of thing is so far from my life that it fascinates me. I want to understand it; I want to know what makes these people tick. While other people my age were excited about the new Pirates of the Caribbean or whatever other trashy Hollywood piece of garbage was coming out, I would be watching old horror movies. Characters like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates set my imagination on fire because they were interesting beyond the level of typical, lowest common denominator entertainment. They seemed real to me because they were complicated, layered and deeply messed up people, but never monsters. The artists who created them treated them as characters, not villains, and that drew me in. When I made an attempt at my own crime drama in Slasher I wanted to do the same.
I suppose that’s why, when the film didn’t receive nearly the enthusiastic response I’d hoped for, I didn’t give up. I went back to the script and notes; re-wrote, re-shuffled and completely changed the whole story until I had the beginnings of an epic novel on my hands. I would prove how good my story was, and so I dove in. I spend all of 2006 writing that damn book; for the first time in my life struggling with keeping a story together, with writers block, character development, everything. I obsessed, procrastinated and for the first time in my life I felt like a writer. I renamed it Checkmate and tried to fix everything that was wrong with the film. When I finally finished the damn thing it was like a weight had been lifted. I had written a book and I knew I could do it again. From then on I couldn’t be stopped. I wrote so many different things, indulged so many sometimes terrible ideas and eventually, three years later, the first draft of Windmills emerged.
In many ways, Windmills is not all that different from Checkmate. Obviously its better; I had years of experience on that first attempt. But the two stories have a lot in common. They’re both dark, crime related tales told from multiple perspectives and made up of a cast of characters that are neither good or evil, but somewhere in the middle. They both are full of the sort of ideas that have always fascinated me. I still believe that Checkmate, even if it will never see the light of day, is one of the most important things I have ever written, and it never would have existed if it wasn’t for those films I loved as a fourteen year old kid.
This leads me to something I’m very excited about. On the 18th of March, a TV series called Bates Motel is starting. A couple of weeks later, on the 4th of April, another series titled Hannibal will also begin. Naturally, these are the television adaptions of the stories of those two fictional characters that inspired me so much when I was younger. The truth is, without Hannibal and Norman, I might not be the type of writer I am today. Windmills probably never would have existed. So, as you might imagine, I am pretty damn thrilled for these new versions of those classic characters to capture my imagination all over again.
A few months back, during one of the podcasts I occasionally am involved with over at Sanspants Radio, I got into a debate with a friend about Star Wars. He argued that the original trilogy, while brilliant for their time, are heavily clouded by fanboy nostalgia and are really quite dated by today’s standards. Naturally I argued against him, but the thing is, if I’m being honest, I was really just subscribing to said fanboy nostalgia. The last time I sat down and watched the original films was as part of a six film marathon and after sitting through the brain bludgeoning of the prequels I wasn’t feeling terribly fond toward Star Wars. I enjoyed them, but not really as individual films, more as part of the overall experience of drinking beer and watching movies with friends.
The thing is, with all the renewed interest in Star Wars prompted by the announcement of Episode VII, a sneaking fear was starting to invade my thoughts that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t really love those movies. After all, while I saw them all as a kid and thought they were awesome, my childhood was really more coloured by Lord of the Rings than anything else. Weirdly, I began to feel as though I was a liar when I went on about the awesomeness of Star Wars, like I was just saying that to fit in, when really, I hadn’t watched any of the films on their own merits in years. Did I really share the same love and nostalgia for the films as everyone I discussed them with?
Which brings us to this morning. Usually I like to watch something while I eat breakfast, just in the background. How I Met Your Mother or Scrubs are the standards. But I couldn’t find my hard drive and was too lazy to commit to a prolonged search, so I grabbed the first DVD I saw, which happened to be Star Wars, the original. Figuring I might just watch the first twenty minutes or so before switching it off and getting up to do something constructive, I put it on. In the back of my mind though, that strange fear lingered; what if I found it boring? What if now I realised that my controversial friend was right, that Star Wars was dated and lame by today’s standards? To hell with it, I thought, and settled in to watch. At first, I didn’t pay much attention. I checked Facebook and texted. And then, right around the time Ben Kenobi starts telling Luke about the Force, a warm, familiar feeling started to creep up in my chest. Then the lightsaber came out and I was grinning. Moments later Luke realised the Stormtroopers would be heading for his home and suddenly I was sucked in. I was laughing at Han Solo’s exasperated barbs, on the edge of my seat during Ben Kenobi’s final duel with Darth Vader and cringing during the garbage compactor scene. I found myself pausing the movie if I had to reply to texts and giving only one word responses so I could keep watching sooner. I was meant to be going to a work party but I didn’t care; I would finish the movie first, drinking be damned.
Because here’s the truth; while yes, I felt nostalgic about the first time I saw Star Wars and about how much I loved it as a child, more than anything else I remembered why it is such a cultural phenomenon. It’s a brilliant movie. It’s a perfect adventure story with great characters, awesome action scenes and an intriguing mythology. It moves at a rollicking pace and despite the effects and occasionally clunky dialogue it holds up brilliantly. As soon as my kids are old enough, I will show them Star Wars and expect them to love it. I might shield them from any and all knowledge of the prequels, but the original trilogy will stand as an integral part of their education, as it was part of mine.
I delayed seeing friends and more importantly, playing Red Dead Redemption for Star Wars. And I was okay with it, because it felt worth it. Hopefully, it will for years to come.
Writing words about writing words.