I should start writing fantasies.
Two weeks ago I finished what I hope is the final draft of a story that takes place in an exclusive New York condo tower. I was inspired to write it by an ad that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine for a building with units priced from $3 million to $60 million. The story is primarily an exploration of income inequality, and deals with the convoluted relationships of people of different strata—residents, visitors, and service staff—who coexist there.
This morning’s Sunday Times has a front-page story about those towers, the result of a year-long investigation into ownership of the units. As it turns out, around 60 percent of such units in the city are owned by shell companies, designed to hide the true owners, who were revealed to include many foreign nationals, several of them under investigation by their home countries. It’s a fascinating news report.
This may not kill my story, but it does continue a trend I’ve been wrestling with for years.
In 2010 I started a novel with what I thought was a great idea—a shy protagonist who begins to find success and acceptance, and the more successful he becomes, the fatter he gets. I was several chapters into the story when the slightly more famous author Ian McEwan announced his forthcoming book, Solar, featuring—that’s right—a protag who gets fatter as he becomes more successful.
Then in 2011 I started another novel. This one a near-future tale about cars and traffic and the people who manage transportation. Unusual and ambitious, perhaps, but I’m into that kind of stuff. Trouble was, every time I “invented” a new automotive or traffic control feature, some scientists and engineers somewhere made it real in the present. (If you’ve followed the news reports of self-driving auto technology, you know what I’m referring to.) No major problem, as I could always move the story further into the future. But the real story killer came when I decided to have the traffic control genius come from an eastern European country, someplace where traffic was just abysmal. My research said there were two cities that fit the bill. I nixed Moscow since I didn’t want to become bogged down in Russian politics. So that left Kiev, Ukraine. I did a ton more research and wrote some great chapters taking place there.
You all know what’s happened since. Story on hold until they sort it all out. It could take years, but I might actually have a better tale to tell at that point. I hope.
I’ve long believed that writers should read great fiction to learn how to write, and that they should read nonfiction and current events to know what to write about. It’s always a possibility that my latest story idea will be deflated by some real world development, but it’s a risk I will continue to take—I still believe the conflicts of current events often make a great basis for exploring relationships.
Sure beats the idea of me writing fantasies.