Mugging my first myth

Back in the late 1970’s, when I was just out of high school, I got my first novel idea. My best friend Susan’s boyfriend David (how’s that for direct association? I wasn’t confident enough to mug up close and personal yet) played Dungeons & Dragons (not even AD&D yet) with a group of friends. After every gaming session, I’d sit and listen to him tell the story of what had happened in the game.

While I don’t remember David’s character or any other character detail anymore, I do remember that one of the players ran a rather obnoxious Phoenix for his character. Because the Phoenix doesn’t have hands or pockets or anything to carry things with, he had a dwarf NPC (non-player character) as an aide of sorts. This dwarf’s stats were fun: Strength: 18 (the highest possible on 3 6-sided die), Stamina: 14, Charisma: 5, Intelligence: 3 (the lowest possible). I’m sure he had a real name, but David referred to him as Fencepost, because he was about as smart as a fence post. Fencepost’s only two purposes in the game was: carry Phoenix’s stuff, especially the skins full of oil, and to dump said oil on whatever Phoenix wanted to set on fire. Simple.

So after many weeks of tromping through the caves and dungeons and what-have-you of the adventure, they finally reach the lair of the Goblin King and his elite fighting force. Beyond this room was the massive treasure chamber, which was the goal of the quest. So the Dungeon Master (DM) goes through the cast of players for each melee round, as always for the game.

First round: Phoenix is fighting this batch of goblins. Sends Fencepost to pour oil on the Goblin King.
Second round: Phoenix is fighting that batch of goblins. Fencepost is pouring oil on the Goblin King.
Third round: Phoenix is wading through more goblins, heading for the throne. Fencepost is pouring oil on the Goblin King.
Fourth round: Phoenix is waylayed by more goblins, almost to the throne. Fencepost is pouring oil on the Goblin King.
Fifth round: Phoenix gets to the Goblin King and sets him ablaze!

Hurray! The Goblin King is dead! They’ve won the battle! Hurray! The player celebrates his great victory

Except the DM isn’t finished with his description. See, Fencepost is stupid, so he’s just dumping oil on the Goblin King (who was fighting his own battle during all of this), so oil splashed all over and continued dumping, especially on Fencepost. And Phoenix didn’t order his minion to stop or move away when he set the king ablaze, so Fencepost got torched too.

While David laughed about how that left the obnoxious character without a way to get his share of the loot out of the dungeon, my mind went an entirely different direction.

What would it take for a Phoenix’s buddy to not be set on fire when the firebird burned?

I went back to what I could find of the original myth, of the bennu (as the Egyptians called it–“Phoenix” is actually Greek), a bird who lived for a thousand years, burst into flame then rose, newly born, from its own ashes. Cool, but it didn’t give me any answers to my question. All it told me was that there was the Phoenix was a single, unique individual, which seemed all the more lonely to me. It needed a buddy it couldn’t set on fire.

Thus, the mugging began. Someone who wouldn’t be harmed by a Phoenix must have some immunity to fire. Made sense, but how could someone be immune to fire? Well, to my teenaged mine, someone who controlled the element shouldn’t be hurt by it, so he would have to be the fire controller. That sounded lame, so I went with Flame Controller. Sounds MUCH cooler. And if there was a controller for fire, then the other elements should have controllers too. That all made sense. All of this was exciting and spurred my imagination. I wanted to write about all this.

Though I had a cool concept, I still didn’t have an actual story. I figured I’d start with some poor sap inheriting Flame and having to buddy with the Phoenix, figuring out what to do with this new power. That part of the story has stuck through a multitude of versions (over 30, last I bothered to count). However that’s still not enough story for a book. I needed conflicts, I needed character goals, I needed opposition, and a world that made sense, and a whole pile of things that I didn’t have a clue about for a very long time.

That was something that took me a while to figure out: that a novel is much more than a single cool idea. It’s a zillion cool ideas that all work together, like a community. All these things have to pull together to tell a single story, and the more cool ideas a story contains, the more sense of wonder it brings. So while the entire Phoenix idea kicked off my original writing and showed me a good source of inspiration for stories (myth mugging), it began my life-long quest to find all the little ideas that need to work alongside the one big, guiding inspiration in order to make a real story.

Since the dawn of this century, I’ve spent most of my writing time trying to figure out all those things that I didn’t have a clue about and, especially, all those things I thought I had mastered. I’ve learned how to build a reasonable world, one that hangs together and makes sense. I continue my battle against a massive fear of conflict, and probably will for the rest of my writing life. I no longer shy away from writing the hard, deeply emotional, scenes, even though they bother me greatly to write. I have finally mastered a level of prose work that isn’t filled with personal trigger-words (“Dele-isms” that speak volumes to me but says nothing to anyone else). I have confidence that I will find all the tonnage of cool ideas to fill the nooks and crannies of a book and will support whatever story I’ve decided to tell (many of them mythical sources, since it’s so rich). As the saying goes, “I’ve come a long way, baby.”

And that Phoenix story, my very first book idea? That’s still sitting in the sidelines of my mind, wanting its shot at being told. If all goes as I’m thinking, it’s the next thing I’ll be writing. For all that it’s given me, lead me to learn and become, the least I can give it is my very best. It’s been patient, after all.

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