Welcome to a new week and the last day of April, friendly SEers! You’re with Mae today, and I’d like to chat about trunk novels.
We’ve all got ’em—some more than most. Trunk novels are how we cut our writing teeth, and for the most part, they should (usually) stay in the trunk. After all, they were a learning curve. A few of mine have even spilled over into the trash. Hopeless dreck that will never see the light of day. But occasionally, there’s gold to be found in them thar trunk novels—that gem of an idea you spun several decades ago when you were struggling to manage POV or scene setting.
I give you . . .
The Lifespan of a Trunk Novel
Some of you probably weren’t even born, but in ’88 I wrote a novella that would ultimately spawn a long life. Why do I remember the year? Because I was working in property management at the time and my supervisor read Herald of the Storm. I was experimenting with magical realism and grew rather fond of “Herald.” I had no clue it would hang around as long as it did. A nugget was born.
Herald of the Storm blossomed into a full-length novel. If I’d known what YA was at the time, I would have pegged it for that genre, but YA didn’t exist back then—or, if it did, no one was reading it. The book had no market, so it went back in the trunk. * Bummed *
Title change to Elf-Shine. I was writing urban fantasy and had no clue. My lead character aged from sixteen to twenty-three. I added an elaborate ancestry tree and family history dating back to the early 1800s. Without realizing it, I created two story lines—one set in the present, one in the mid-1800s (who did sh*t like that back then? ). I fell in love with the characters and the dual story lines, but once again there was no market. I had too many POV characters plus a mash-up of genres, not to mention those crazy timelines. What was I thinking? * Sigh *
The freaking story wouldn’t leave me alone so I fished it out for a new rewrite. Untitled, this time. I beefed up the family ancestry, even created colorful charts and diagrams, plus a detailed family history. I knew these characters inside and out. The genre segued to mystery and gothic. I was sure something was finally going to come of all that work and proudly sent it off to my critique partners. They loved it. One said she thought it was my best work to date. Pumped up, I made it three-quarters through the rewrite, then hit a stone wall. Still no market. * Sulk *
Thirteen years after its last resurrection, “Herald” started calling again. By this point, the original story concept had been with me for twenty-nine years. I probably should have ditched it long ago but there was something “magical” about the book—at least to me. I was determined it should see the light of day, so I started another rewrite. I added a new character, and even went so far as to send the opening chapters to my editor. She liked it but thought it needed work. Ugh! She suggested a few changes, but before I could consider them, the entire plot of Cusp of Night popped into my head one night when I couldn’t sleep (a blog post for another time). Herald was abandoned again.
So, here I am in 2018 and I’ve just completed book two in my Hode’s Hill series. I owe my editor a synopsis for book three next month, but as a panster, I don’t think that far ahead. Worse—the characters I kinda/sorta/maybe thought of making my leads in book three pretty much reached the end of their story line in book two. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with an idea for book three—and then it hit me. You know those moments when the stars align, and everything falls expertly into place?
I struck gold!
Herald of the Storm/Elf-shine is never going to see the light of day, but I’d already created a complete mystery set in the mid-1800s that I could easily plunk into book three of my Hode’s Hill series. And a character I never anticipated, pantsed her way into book two, setting herself up as the perfect lead in book three. So that trunk novel story line set in the mid-1800s—with those characters I’ve carried around inside my head for thirty years—are finally going to have their story told. I never would have believed it, but there’s gold in them thar trunk novels!
Whatever you do, hang onto those early attempts at writing. No matter how wobbly they may seem, those concepts resonated with you for a reason. Maybe the way you told the tale wasn’t perfect back then, but there is still plenty you can harvest:
- Plot Devices
- Backstory / History
Sometimes, the guts of our next novel is only a “trunk” away.
Do you keep your trunk novels? Have you ever pulled one out, reworked it, and published it with a spiffy new gloss? Did you ever write something in a genre that was unknown in its day, but is now popular? I remember submitting a paranormal romance to an agent in 1990 and receiving a reply that “no one will ever read these two genres together.” Yeah…right. I wonder what that agent is marketing now 😉
Maybe as writers, we’re just always ahead of the curve, stretching into new boundaries. Some of those frontiers aren’t as new as we’d like to think, but old ideas that have been kicking around for years. Or decades. Buried gold—in a trunk.
Let’s hear your side of it. What are your thoughts on trunk stories?