So, like I was saying, “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk” began as a paragraph in my ideas file. And I still have that scrap of an idea, from that file, in its original form, punctuation errors and all. It reads:
A mobster/serial killer brings a new victim out into the desert to kill them. He, unfortunately spies Stone sitting on a cliff in the distance and believes him a witness. Another character is a coyote with broken teeth, who’s been hanging around Stone’s body for quite some time in the hope he’ll finally be able to eat him. Killer is killed while failing to kill Stone. The coyote gets to eat the killer, to which Stone wakes up and says “Satisfied?”
Right away, those of you who’ve read the story or heard the podcast can tell there are some basic differences between the finished product and the original germ of an idea. For instance, the story’s not called “Coyotes Among Stones at Dusk.” I don’t recall the specific reason for trading out one canid for another, but probably it’s just that wolves make for more traditional predators, and if I was going to have metaphorical predators present in the story as well a wolf would be a better fit. I do recall researching just what sort of wolfy creature might inhabit the deserts of Arizona and came upon the Mexican gray wolf. Their rarity gave me the opening paragraph to the story, which I rather like.
Another difference is the mention of the character of Stone by name. That is what the old man seated on the cliff of the mesa in the story is known as. He’s a character who’s been with me for over 20 years now and he began life in a completely different story that is not included in this collection. As you might have noticed, though, at no point in “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk” is this character named or otherwise explained. All the reader is given is that there’s an old man seated on the edge of a mesa who is clearly alive, but who is also clearly not affected by the desert conditions around him, whose blood does not flow like that of most humans, who only moves when it suits him to, and who is so impervious to physical harm that wolves have chipped their teeth trying to eat him. (The whole mysterious old man seated in the desert thing, I acknowledge, is very reminiscent to me of a similar character from the aforementioned A Canticle for Leibowitz, though I assure you that while there are similarities, the two characters do not share the same origin and are not of the same religion.)
I know who Stone is, why he’s there, what brought him there, why stuff doesn’t hurt him, etc. Is it important that the reader know any of it for this story to work, though? Absolutely not. In fact, I think it’s better for it that they don’t because I’m fine with the old man’s presence being left as a mystery. I like it that he just sits there, as still and timeworn as any of the other stones present. He never physically moves, but remains a vital moving gear in the mechanics of the story. Without him, this would just have been the story of two criminals executing a third in the desert, as witnessed by a wolf.
And that was the other major reason for keeping Stone’s background details thin. I was trying to limit the story’s perspective to that of the main character, the wolf, so layering anything else becomes difficult to do. If it is difficult and unnecessary to the story, why try to force it in, I say?
Plus I was plenty busy trying to set up the backstory of the mobsters themselves…
In the original draft of what was then called “Wolves and Stones,” the story’s perspective was still the wolf’s, but I also included written dialogue between the human characters to help explain why they were out in the desert, trying to rid themselves of one of their own (the guy in the trunk). There are some criminal politics at play in this, as well, in that the lanky man is attempting to force the big man into pulling the trigger as part of an initiation, to get in good with their boss. They then spot the old man on the cliff and things proceed. Being two-bit hoods, there’s lots of cussin’ involved, too. Which is partly the reason Belinda described the story as Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London.
Belinda is not a fan of cussin’ in her writing. She doesn’t write about two-bit hoods; she writes poignant stories about small town life—where the politics and emotional turmoil can run just as deep, but tend to happen over bingo cards, and any dead bodies found in car trunks tend to be in cremated form, sealed within a well-burped Tupperware container. F-bombs are not her bag, and among her initial notes about my first draft, (dutifully turned in by Tuesday evening, midnight) was the comment that perhaps I didn’t need quite so many. In my defense, I only had four, but she thought I might not need any. My argument, which still stands, is that capturing natural-sounding speech is the job of the writer and when writing about men who communicate largely via cursing there was some degree of it to be expected in their depiction. She, of course, understood and even grudgingly agreed. Being a proper lady, though, she still felt the need to encourage me to find creative way to maneuver around the matter. I bristled at this and resolved to remove not one single f-bomb. I might have even added another one, just for spite.
I tinkered with the story for a bit more, and even submitted it to the Animals category of the 2011 WV Writers Annual Writing Contest. (I actually won 2nd place in that category, but for a different animal story, one called “Native Arts” which eventually became “The Ones that Aren’t Crows,” as found in A Consternation of Monsters–further illustrating how long it takes me to find a proper title.) That’s where I left it. For a while, at least.
A few years later, after we’d moved back to Greenbrier County, I was called upon to do a live reading for a local annual literary event and was casting around for a story I’d not already read in a previous year. I had several candidates that had never been read live, but none of them would fit into the 20 minute time limit I was given. Even “Wolves and Stones,” as it was still called, didn’t fit because at 14 pages it would have taken around 28 minutes to read (using my usual estimate of 2 to 2.5 minutes per page). Plus there was all that cussin’, which would have been a bit uncomfortable to read before the standard literary tea crowd.
That’s when I finally decided to answer a question that had come up in my mind during the original writing of the story: if the story was truly told from the wolf’s perspective, and if I really wanted to show events exclusively from the wolf’s point of understanding (cars shown as metal beasts, cigarettes as burning sticks, etc.) how could I then also include English dialogue that he be unable to understand? Sure, you can’t convey the same level of detail in the backstory of the criminals without it, but if I was creative there would be ways to suggest a lot of it that would not require dialogue.
As an experiment, I went through the story and removed the dialogue. The actions, as witnessed by the wolf, still told most of the story. Explaining every single thing I knew about the backstory was not necessary provided the characters actions could convey most of that story. Sure, you lose the fine details, but you get what’s happening all the same. Furthermore, it cut out around four pages and all the EFFing cussin’ to boot. Suddenly, I had a story I could read.
That night, I explained to the attendees at the reading that my story was still a little experimental, but I was pretty sure they’d be able to keep up. They were. It seemed to go over well. More tinkering followed until we have what we have.
One thing that I did not find a way to convey in the story, however—and it’s another plot point that isn’t largely important to the story itself—was a way to reveal the identity of the man inside the trunk. I won’t spoil that here—at least not just yet. I will say, though, that he’s a fairly pivotal figure in the connected world of stories within A Consternation of Monsters. In fact, if things had gone differently for him in this story—if he had not lived, for instance—at least half of the other stories in the collection would not have happened at all, or would have happened very differently. In some ways, he’s the lynch pin of the whole collection.
My inclination is to run a contest of some sort, giving away a copy of the book to whoever can successfully put a name to the guy in the trunk. However, I also suspect that not enough people have read the book, and the character does not appear in any of the podcast adaptations so far, beyond “Wolves…” So it would be one of my friends who would win—and probably one who read the first draft to begin with. I hate to not do a contest, though.
But, if someone who has read the book wants to drop me a line with a guess as to whom is in the trunk, I’ll come up with a suitable prize for the first person who gets it right. Might be a free story. Might be something I mail you. Might be that person’s name written into a new story. It’ll be fun. Send in your guesses to email@example.com.
I guess, though, this means I’ll have to redact the actual character’s name when I post the draft of “Wolves & Stones” complete with dialogue in part 3 on Monday.
The other thing that occurred to me about the origins of the story itself is that they owe a great deal to a comic book short story by Paul Chadwick, featuring his character Concrete. For those who don’t know (and shame on you for not), Concrete is a comic book that first saw publication in 1986, featuring a character named Ronald Lithgow, a former political speech writer for a senator, whose brain is transplanted, by aliens, into a gigantic rock body. He escapes them they flee the planet with his old body, and he’s basically left to start his life over again in this new and amazing form. Naturally, you probably assume he becomes a super hero and starts fighting crime. But he doesn’t. That’s not Ron. Instead, he basically becomes a celebrity by default, because in order to live among regular people the government concocts a cover-story that Concrete is a government-created cyborg. He instantly becomes a celebrity, gets his 15 minutes of fame, then the world moves on to the next big thing in pop culture and Ron is left to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, with his newfound abilities.
During one particular story, Concrete spends the night in a desert, watching the animal life around him using his enhanced vision. At one point in the story, a car arrives and a man gets out and goes to the trunk of the car. The man pulls a large bag from the trunk, of the size and weight that might contain a body. Concrete assumes this man has murdered someone and is about to dump the corpse. He wonders what he should do. Only when he investigates, he finds that what the man is truly dumping is not a body but a giant bag of junk food.
I can’t help but think that this story influenced my own back when I wrote the original note in my ideas file. I doubt I knew it at the time, but the fact that Concrete is stone-like, and Stone is similarly tough to kill, had to be a factor in there, at least subconsciously. That and the potential killer/actual killers are the only points the story shares otherwise. However, the original image I saw in my head that inspired the story in the first place was of Stone seated on a very similar desert hillside to the one Concrete sat upon, at night, only with a coyote seated beside him with a mouthful of broken teeth.
(If you’ve not done so already, you should read some Concrete. The entire run has been collected into a series of nifty paperbacks. Or you can track down the mini-series collections, some of which are in color. I prefer Chadwick’s art in black & white, though.)
As for my original ending, Stone didn’t get to wake up and speak, as I’d intended. He just didn’t want to when I reached that part. I’m always a firm believer in listening to what the story and its characters are telling you. They’re not often wrong.