Last week, I was asked where I found the idea for my new book, Beyond Heaven and Hell. No surprise, there. It’s a common question. Readers are always curious about the writer’s inspiration.
I always sigh and shake my head when someone poses this question, not because my sources are secret, but because I never have a really good answer. I have never had a story spring, fully-formed into my mind. I’ve never taken a plot from my own life or from a news story. I’ve never re-written a fairy tale. I have never purposely manipulated any of the thirty-six basic plots which are said to underlie every story ever written.
A story’s idea develops over time. It is a dynamic process. No book that I have written has been exactly the story I started to write. As a result, it’s difficult to identify where I got my idea. I’m at a loss as to whether I should cite the source of the original idea, which may have little to do with the final story, or whether I should cite the idea I had while lying awake in the dark at three in the morning, the one that completely changed the story’s direction after fifteen thousand words had been committed to paper.
Perhaps an example would help.
Beyond Heaven and Hell, began in church. The initial prompt was a line from a hymn written to be sung on Palm Sunday: “Ride on, ride on in majesty…the angel armies of the skies look down with sad and wondering eyes…”
When I hear those words, in my mind I see a line of angels clad in Roman armor, spears in hand, gazing down from the clouds, ready to speed to his defense as Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem for the final time. I think of Michael the archangel who is said to command the heavenly arm. I recall images of Michael slaying the dragon (Satan) − a metal sculpture mounted on the wall of Saint Michael’s cathedral in Coventry, England and the stained-glass window over the altar at Saint Michael’s Church in Charleston, where I live.
I’m reminded of the story of the war in heaven when, as legend tells us, Lucifer, another archangel, led one-third of the heavenly host in a rebellion against God and did battle against the army of heaven commanded by Michael. Lucifer was defeated and he and his followers were consigned to hell.
I recall an animated film from my childhood that dealt with this war. It was a Disney production as I recall, and it narrated a legend of how the leprechauns came to live in Ireland.
It seems the leprechauns were residents of heaven when the war began. While they sided with God, they were too small to actually take part in the conflict, so they hid until the battle was over. Since they had not fought for God, it was determined that they could no longer remain in heaven, but no one believed they deserved hell. Instead, they were sent to Ireland, which the legend maintains, is the next best thing to the celestial city
Why did Lucifer rebel?
It is said that he rebelled when God determined to create humans. A legend tells us God created Adam and presented him to the host of heaven with the injunction that they bow before him, since he represented the pinnacle of God’s creative work. Lucifer took exception to God’s evaluation of humanity, and he refused to bend his knee.
What happened next?
A war in heaven would have been a civil war, angel against angel.
In the US, when we think of a civil war, we think of the war fought between the South and the North in the eighteen-sixties, but the American Revolution also had characteristics of a civil war. Both wars created divisions among friends, neighbors, and families, driving wedges between people who loved each other as each did what he believed to be right..
In a motion picture shown at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, we witness a discussion between the Randolph brothers. As the Revolution moves toward war, we hear John tell his brother, Peyton, “I am going home (to England). His brother replies “I am home” (Virginia). Brother against brother.
A civil war in heaven would result in similar situations as angels chose sides and prepared for battle. What if Michael was in love and the angel he loved chose the other side? What would he do? What would she do?
Why would an angel follow Lucifer? Especially someone close to Michael? Would Michael really send someone he loved to hell?
We now have a story, not only about angel armies, but armies at war, about those separated by the conflict and the heartache that results.
Now, from where did I find the idea for my story?
The legend concerning the war in heaven?
The recognition that the war was a civil war, with all of the complications that flow from such a conflict?
The hymn did provide the original inspiration. The war in heaven does provide the framework for at least a part of the book. The complications that arise from a civil war do form the heart of the story.
The person who posed the question last week was expecting a two-sentence response. Which of these should I cite?
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the war in heaven and this was an opportunity to explore the conflict and its consequences would be the easy answer, and no one would question it. The truth, though, is more complex.
The collection and combination of ideas to produce a story is a mysterious process that defies explanation. In another essay on this same topic, I compared the process to that of a weaver who must choose the colors that she will use, and I quote from a novel, Second Chance Café.
The author writes of a young woman who weaves beautiful scarves. They sell in upscale stores around the country and are often seen wrapped around the bodies of movie stars and celebrities. Each scarf is unique. How does she decide on the colors, the pattern, for a new scarf? She describes the process in this manner:
“I don’t know how you do that,” her father said, looking at the collection (of yarn) she held and shaking his head.
Honestly, neither did she. To this day, she could not explain how the colors came together in her mind. How one flowed into another as she sat at her loom. How the different strands of story became a whole. “I just see it. I don’t know where it comes from. Any of it. It’s just there.”