For years I resisted the idea of writing fictional stories about plants. I had a day job, which entailed helping people design and maintain their gardens, and I had a night vocation, which was writing stories about careers I might have wanted in a different life: professor, antiques dealer, etc. I’d written my MFA thesis story about an ethics professor who could see the future but had done something terrible in his past. Though I liked that idea, the sci-fi aspect felt daunting. I didn’t read sci-fi that much and I couldn’t resolve the issue of seeing future events before changing them so I abandoned it. For a year afterward, I wrote nonfiction here and there, feeling like I didn’t have a fictional story to tell.
Forgiving the Youthful Self to Grow Into an Adult
Still, the idea of resolving one’s past regrets in order to be whole and move on stayed with me. It’s part of growing into adulthood. In fact, it’s a topic everyone can relate to. You forgive yourself for earlier dumb / failed / mean / awkward behavior and become a happier person. But some of us can’t. We get stuck. We become an adult that harasses our youthful self for not living up to a better ideal. It can be depressing. Years earlier, I had gone through a phase like that. Thankfully, with therapy and changes in diet, I resolved the painful issues of my life. (And I encourage you, if you’re feeling depressed, to seek help.)
Merging the Past With Plants for a New Protagonist
Finally, after months of feeling like I didn’t have a fictional story to tell, I realized I could take the anguish from the sci-fi book professor and mold it into a new character more in line with my current life – a professor of botany. I imagined him as a young cool guy who was passionate and experienced about plants but vulnerable and cowardly when it came to his past.
It clicked. Once I put difficult emotions into a plant person, I woke up artistically. My mind started rolling. I came up with a detailed profile. He was a composite of botanists and growers and sellers I’d known in the horticulture industry. It was easy to shape him because I knew him. I’d known him for years.
I named him Andre Damazy. The first name was a French name, the last name, Polish. He would be the one ethnicity I was, Polish, with the one ethnicity I wish I was (French). I knew what being Polish meant from my own background; I knew some of what being French meant after having lived and worked in Paris for a time. And the last piece I knew he had to be?
Paris as the Adventure World
American. When I went to work in Paris, I was 32 years old. I was a fish out of water and yet felt comfortable there. It was an incredibly influential time in my life to work in a French office. I grew and changed. I’d been mentally stuck in my job, getting physically heavier and more sluggish and more corporate. When I was in Paris, I realized how the French lived and wanted to live that way. Not as a sedentary slave to a company I didn’t believe in but as a moving, thinking, creating being who enjoyed life. So when I examined Andre, I didn’t see him as French and I didn’t see him as a Pole, I saw him as that kind of American. Perhaps, he was someone who lived permanently in France and perhaps someone who was more integrated into the culture, but he would experience a life change in Paris.
A Protagonist, a Setting and a Story
Now that I had a main character and a setting, I needed a story. That came from my life too. I knew there were a lot plant explorers, historically and currently, in the UK and Europe. In fact, one day, I read an article about a plant explorer who, while in the mountains of China, had to split a package of ramen noodles among several people in his expedition because food rations were so low. I was startled and impressed by how much they suffered to discover new plants. It seemed intense. I wanted my protagonist to be in the same intense place at some point in the book. But I still had a fundamental question: if he were a plant explorer, what plant would he be seeking?
That’s the topic I’ll address next week, and where the speculative part comes into the story.
Please share what you’ve been working on and how it began. What was on your mind? What had you been thinking about?
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