Barbara Follett was a child prodigy when it came to writing and world building. Her life, documented by her nephew, seemed to conspire against her and ultimately left much of the promise of her young brilliance denied to her. This despite the obvious energy and determination she exhibited. Then she disappeared.
This gem of a mystery has led me to explore what happened after she disappeared. Many might focus on the events leading to the disappearance as a means to explain it. I prefer to think of the disappearance as the starting point. What happened in the life that might drive what happens now? Is the character in danger, or at peace in a new life? Can something from the old life ruin the new life or put it in jeapordy? Is the new life recognizable or has, in this case, the author fallen into her own creation only to find she doesn’t really understand it?
I think I have notes for two stories that were the result of reading about Barbara Follett.
I ran across this little mystery published in Slate recently and found it rich story soil. The idea that someone in the public eye might wish to disappear but find they are more well known and sought after once they have vanished is intriguing.
As a for instance, imagine how a reluctant hero has her Legend increased after she withdraws from public eye. Maybe she was a healer, and now she must retreat further because the demand for her abilities is impossible to manage. Assignment: explore what happens next.
Another possibility is that a less innocent – okay – evil person uses a staged disappearance to intentionally build a legend for nefarious reasons. Assignment: explore what happens when people are betrayed by the false legend.
There are infinite possibilities here. These sorts of real life mysteries offer a framework for a writer to start delving into a story and characters. Why did this happen? What effect did it have on those it happened to?
I enjoy reading about history and often, when the creative juices just aren’t bubbling the way I’d like, I randomly pick up a book of history and start reading. Usually what I read does not produce a direct result on what I am writing but the very act of reading about and thinking about history gets my writing muscles going again. It is a way to focus again on the creative.
There are other times when reading history actually stimulates new ideas. The story of Barbara Follett, a young writer with fierce independence and endless creativity, who vanishes, is one such example. These stories bring together the human elements of a tragic or mysterious life that have intersected with something universal like a well known event, or well known person, or even a widely used technology. These stories create a launching point – better yet – an opportunity for setting up a story.
This does not mean I would look at the Barbara Follett story and write a novel about a writer who has her enormous potential squashed, romance(s) ruined, and then disappears. Fictionalizing real events is not what I’m after here. What I want to do is inspect the elements and create something new. Perhaps the troubled writer actually disappears into her story world. The novel might happen there. Is life any better in the story world because she, as creator of it, has an advantage? Or is she surprised by what she finds in ‘her’ story world?
Riffing on things we find in the real world is what writers do, but sometimes just observing others fails to capture the larger than life elements that drive great stories. Finding and studying these better documented stories can provide the spark an author needs.