The Quaking Aspen is a story intent on writing itself, morphing violently and without my consent from short story to novelette to novella to an RBFN (read: Really Big Fucking Novel). When I first started adding flesh to its bones, protagonist Mitch Maslany was clear as day in my head – a whisky-soaked blend of Billy Burke a la Zoo and Mark Lanegan circa 2014; venomously snarky, hopelessly reclusive, and jaded to all hell. Supporting character and love interest Sid Doyle, however, was another animal entirely.
I didn’t even know his name, nor the fact that he was a man, before I began writing.
“Good morning Fishlake! This is Zion Tower with your weekly accu-weather forecast, free of charge, as always, ladies and gentlemen.”
To be perfectly honest, his character didn’t even exist until I delved maybe 2,000 words deep into the manuscript.
“We’re facing a bit of drizzle and the sky’s looking a little dreary, but it’s definitely an improvement over yesterday’s wild storm front. At the moment we’re experiencing a balmy sixty-five degrees with an expected high of seventy-seven later on, but leave the jackets at home, people, ‘cus humidity is at a whopping eighty percent and only expected to climb!”
When I discovered Mitch would need a companion to really drive the story’s message home, to make it as hard-hitting as I knew it could be, Sid was born. Slowly. Piece by piece, starting with his name.
“You do realize there’s another radio by now, don’t you, Mitch?”
Choosing his name was, in fact, the only bit he allowed me to pick out for him. Everything else, Sid did on his own. He built his personality first, metered out in snags of dialogue. Playful, teasing, loquacious, but all influenced by an undercurrent of kindness and good intentions.
“A handheld. A walkie-talkie. C’mon, surely you’re not so old you don’t know what those are?”
Since Sid, for the majority of the story, remains a disembodied voice hassling Mitch through a radio, his appearance didn’t seem to matter–but it did, to me. I knew my MC inside and out, especially out, from his crooked, constantly-smudged glasses to the gold hoop in his ear and the story behind it. It seemed only fair that Sid receive the same treatment. But where to start? How to figure it out?
“You do realize I’m only forty-two?” Mitch grunts.
“Eight years older than me, at any rate. Makes you a dusty old bastard in my book.”
No matter how diligently I daydreamed, Sid remained an amorphous blur in my head. So I did what any writer with some tiny sliver of artistic capacity would do: I decided to draw my characters.
“Plus, you could’ve fooled me, what with those silvery streaks in that flowing bird’s nest of yours. Not to mention the glasses. It’s like a mad scientist had a lovechild with a West Coast hipster. Fascinating, really.”
Mitch came first, naturally. I attacked the details of his appearance while Sid stood, an empty outline, beside him, and I couldn’t help but notice just how fitting that was. I put my sketchbook away, deciding I’d tackle Sid the next day. The cramp in my hand made it an easy decision. Honestly, I was just avoiding what I knew was an impossible task.
“Maybe you should use those binoculars to spot fires and leave the spy-work to the honorable folks at the NSA,” said Mitch. “What kind of supervisor peeps on his employees? At three AM, no less?”
“Technically, you’re a volunteer.”
But then something bizarre happened. I was sitting in bed, scrolling through mind-numbing social media feeds, not really absorbing any information. The sketchbook taunted me from across the room.
Sid was calling.
I picked up the phone–and, like everything else he’d done so far, Sid created himself.
“Well, in any case, I am sorry about last night. Really, I didn’t mean to spy on you. The lightning woke me up and I saw your lights were on, is all,” he says. “But just so you know, lookouts do typically bring binoculars. It was on the list of supplies I emailed you.”
It barely took half an hour, less than half the time Mitch demanded despite being seated. And while the sketch was black and white, Sid whispered to me all his colors.
Hair, dirty blond. Eyes, dark green. Skin, pale, not olive in tone like his older counterpart.
I didn’t even realize Sid was a smoker until a cigarette magically sketched itself in his hand.
“You can open your curtains,” says the supervisor. “No funny business. Scout’s honor.”
“In the scouts, were you?”
“No. But it’s a thing people say, isn’t it?”
Even now, 97,000 words (and counting) into what was only meant to be a 5,000 word tale of existential horror, Sid continues to surprise me with his actions, his words, and the scenes he leads me into; taking me by the hand, guiding me toward a richer and more meaningful story.
It’s strange. It’s alchemy. It’s magic.
It’s Sidero fuckin’ Doyle, ladies and gentlemen.