Mining for Stories

Courtesy of my work, I’ve just spent the past month doing the grand tour of Queensland mine sites. A week typically starts like this: Monday morning, wake up at 4:30am, struggle upright, race for the taxi, race for the gate and board the plane, conk out until arrival, drive through the desolate outback hoping not to get lost, spy the towering mountains of dirt with relief, arrive at the mine site.The sheer size of these places is incredible. At the first site I visited, I drove along a highway bounded by mountains on the left and the right—except that I realised a few kilometres in that the mountains on the right weren’t, in fact, real mountains at all. They were the piles of dirt taken from the 80km long mine. So it wasn’t surprising to learn later that it usually takes about seven years between the time they first start digging a mine, and the time the mine becomes operational.

They can do this on such a large scale because it’s coal mining. Once found, it’s very easy to follow the coal seam. Not much finesse is required. Not so with gold mining, however. For each tonne of rock, the return can be anywhere between five milligrams and five grams of gold. So it’s crucial to follow the gold seam with great care and precision, else you’ll end up with mountains of rock and nothing to show for it.

I find that developing characters and a storyline is quite similar to mining, but instead of mining for natural materials, I’m mining for characters and themes. After the initial exploration to determine the lay of the (story’s) landscape and the areas with the highest potential, I then start digging for more information on the characters and the history of the world.

Much as I would like to dive straight into the narrative and just write that darned novel, it’s not until I’ve spent weeks discovering the characters by writing through the key incidents in their lives that the themes and character arcs become apparent. Each character starts with a gimmick—in the novel I’m working on, I have the assassin who can’t kill, the tavern wench who wants to be famous, and a farm boy who claims to be a destined hero, but isn’t really.

Then I’ll start writing about the event from their past that made them that way. I’ll usually discover a few other characters I want to weave into the story, as well as some interesting character traits. The assassin has a penchant for hanging out in crowds, the tavern wench is a bookworm and a dreamer, and the farm boy swings a sword the way he would a scythe.

After this is where it becomes more like gold mining, following that elusive seam to discover key threads that I’ll use in the novel. I tend to pick out scenes of high emotion, where they’re interacting with the other characters I’ve come to take an interest in. Mainly because they’re fun to write, and you discover more about people when they’re under stress. For example, I started exploring the relationship between the assassin and the (slightly mad) king he served, and discovered that the assassin was very confident in himself and his abilities. Which led me to wonder how he reacted the first time he met the king, back when the king was still a prince. And so on.

It does mean that I spend a lot of time writing scenes that no one will ever see. They won’t ever appear in the novel, or in some overpriced companion book. But by digging through all the worthless rock, I’ll find the precious nuggets that I need to bring the story together, and it makes my characters all the more richer for it. Even if, unfortunately, there’s no cold, hard gold involved.

Leanne Yong is an aspiring author who is working on her second young adult novel and hoping to turn her words and characters into real gold in the hand one day. Check out her blog at Clouded Memories for more information and a journal chronicling her latest foray into novel writing.


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