This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!
In session #1, I decided on a few problems I was going to try to solve: the name of my protagonist, how the beginning on the story fits with the rest, and as much of the structure at the “act” level as possible.
My protagonist is a man, born in the Midwest US, around 1985. I don’t mind somewhat off-the-wall names, but sometimes it’s nice to pick a name that feels like it belongs in the time and place of the story.
If you’re not aware, baby name websites are ubiquitous these days, and a great resource for writers looking for names. One of the first search results I found was actually the Social Security website, which lists most popular names per US state, by year: https://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/state/.
Looking at some Midwestern states, we get this:
Just looking at the top two, Michael is a clear favorite, with Matthew, Christopher and Joshua as runners up. If you look at the top five, the lists are all very similar across these states.
Next, I like to look into the meanings of the names. This doesn’t really matter, but it affects my personal perception of the name, if nothing else. I do a bit more searching.
- Michael – “Who is like God” – The archangel.
- Matthew – “Gift of God” – The apostle.
- Christopher – “Christ-bearer” – 10th century origin
- Joshua – “Yahweh is salvation” – Another biblical character.
As expected for the time period and location, they’re mostly biblical in origin, and the one exception still has a very Christian origin.
At this particular moment, “Christopher” sounds the best to me. It feels like a Midwestern ’80s name. The “bearing god” meaning also plays into some ideas I have for him. I’ve been thinking that the protagonist starts back in the last ice age, as the “god-bearer” of his little tribe, literally being in charge of some small object revered as the tribe’s god. He is “attuned” to this god, communicating between it and his people.
I also like to sometimes use names that relate to concepts from the story. For example, the protagonist’s locked-away memories, which are transferred from host to host. So I did some more searching for philosophers, writers and scientists who worked on similar concepts.
There’s Carl Jung and his theories of collective unconciousness. There’s Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s ideas of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Ribot, Hering and Richard Semon are others who apparently had influential ideas about genetic memory.
For now, I’m going to call my protagonist Christopher Lamarck. This isn’t final, and it can always be changed up until the first chapter is out.
Sorting Out the Beginning
Because Razor Mountain is a set of ideas I’ve been kicking around for a while, I don’t recall the origin of the beginning. I think it was just a concept I came up with to provide immediate mystery. The protagonist (henceforth, Christopher), wakes up on a small plane over unpopulated Alaska. The other passengers and the pilot are gone.
This does provide immediate mystery. It also gets Christopher to the geographical location where the story starts – close, but not too close, to Razor Mountain. It leaves him in a bad situation with virtually no resources. The problem is: why is he even on that plane, and where did those people go where he was sleeping?
The reason he thinks he’s on the plane is because he sells products to small electrical utilities in western Canada and Alaska, and he’s traveling for his job. This is a lazy choice on my part, because my day job involves writing software for electrical utilities. If I suddenly need to come up with some details about his job, I can do it pretty easily from personal experience.
The reason he’s actually on the plane is a little more difficult.
It’s possible that the forgotten part of him (the ancient semi-immortal ruler of Razor Mountain part) has pushed him in this direction. I think there are also definitely going to be people in and around Razor Mountain that want him to come back after being away for decades. After all, if he built this little society around himself, he should have people who are wholly devoted to him.
However, there also need to be some people in this society that are very much against Christopher. That helps drive the conflict and gives me opportunities to put up barriers between Christopher and his goals. His allies and his enemies can work against each other. This might even fit in with the people missing on the plane – perhaps one group tried to bring him here, while another tried to kill him in a way that provides plausible deniability.
So, the beginning of the story goes something like this: Christopher wakes up on the plane, on a business trip. The passengers and pilot are gone. It is inevitable that he will crash in a desolate area of Alaska, alone and without supplies.
The reason this happens (which is not revealed until much later) is that “allies” from Razor Mountain manipulated events in order that he be on that plane, in this area, with the intent to divert him directly to Razor Mountain. However, the “enemies” subverted this plan. Perhaps the passengers or pilot were “enemy” agents, or double-agents. In any case, the enemies won out, then jumped out, leaving Christopher to die in a fiery wreck.
Obviously, this doesn’t answer all the questions about the opening, and it raises a few new ones, but the rough shape of this sequence is starting to feel better to me. In fact, it’s starting to drive a lot of the larger world-building for the story, which I like. It sets up a big mystery on the first page, and the resolution fits naturally near the end of the story, when Christopher finally gets deep into Razor Mountain, where the allies and the enemies are going to be.
Allies and Enemies
Christopher has allies and enemies in Razor Mountain society. I need to start thinking about what those groups look like. What are their motivations? What does Razor Mountain society look like in general?
This society is built around serving and protecting its “immortal” ruler. To do that effectively, for hundreds of years, it also has to be hidden and insular. It probably won’t last long if local governments find out about it. There will also be problems if people in the society leave and go out into the “ordinary” world. Anyone who does so need to have good reason not to tell anyone about this place.
Groups like cults, and even countries like North Korea, have similar needs to control their members and citizens in this way. They typically do so with specific kinds of disinformation and brainwashing, and by limiting any information from outside. They also tend to have small “ruling” groups with more knowledge, who are invested in the system. This investment makes them less likely to disrupt the system. However, if they have too much knowledge or power, it can lead to coups.
This seems like a promising avenue to explore for the allied and enemy groups within Razor Mountain. It also makes sense that there is a third group – those who don’t know much about Christopher, except as some sort of powerful, beneficent ruler. And this group is probably much larger than the “allies” and “enemies” who have more inside knowledge.
Artifacts and Rebirth
The reason Christopher is immortal is because thousands of years ago he found a set of objects in a cave deep beneath Razor Mountain. These artifacts may be mystical, or portrayed as mystical in the inner circles of Razor Mountain, but I think they’re actually devices from an ancient, crashed alien spacecraft.
(A spacecraft drilling deep into a mountain would explain its distinctive, razor-sharp peak. The mountain essentially sheared in half, and one side partly sank.)
One of these artifacts allows him to transfer himself into another person. This process is apparently not entirely convenient, because it recently put him in the body of a baby named Christopher, far away from Razor Mountain, with memories of his previous lives sealed away somehow. It may be that another artifact is required to unlock those memories. That would introduce times of weakness for him, and might explain why he would build up this society and let at least a few people know about the artifacts: he needs help to maintain his immortality.
Artifacts and Time Travel
The artifacts serve one other important purpose. One of them allows time travel. From a story arc perspective, his allows Christopher to come to the realization that everything about Razor Mountain is wrong, and he must go back to the moment when his ancient self discovered the artifacts to put a stop to it.
This time travel element might also be a way that he has maintained his power. If his plans fail and things go wrong, this allows him to go back and set them right.
Time travel is a dangerous element to introduce. I have to figure out which “version” of time travel I’m using. (Stable time loops? Altering a single timeline? Divergent timelines and infinite universes?) It’s also a big hammer that can theoretically fix all sorts of problems, so it needs to be limited in some way.
My initial thought is that it’s one-way, and only backward in time. Christopher won’t want to go back himself, so he’ll have to send others to warn him or fix things in the past. This introduces another useful dependency on others, and another potential opportunity for the “enemies” to throw a wrench in the works.
What did I accomplish this session?
My protagonist has a (maybe temporary) name: Christopher Lamarck.
To justify the strange situation Christopher finds himself in at the start of the book, I started fleshing out Razor Mountain society. It consists of a small group of allies and a small group of enemies, both with some knowledge of Christopher’s powers and the artifacts that grant them. The bulk of the society, however, consists of a group that knows very little about these things, and is either unaware of Christopher, or is fed vague and mythological misinformation about him.
The artifacts themselves are alien devices deposited by the crashed spacecraft that shattered Razor Mountain long before humans ever laid eyes on it. One artifact allows Christopher to transfer himself into another person. Another artifact allows people to travel one-way backward in time. The details of these artifacts still need to be worked out, and there may be other artifacts with other powers, if they turn out to be useful or especially flavorful.
I still need to think about the act structure, but I’ve got a little more material for figuring out Christopher’s motivations, goals and conflicts. Right now, he’s the only character in the story, but it feels like there’s space for interesting characters in these “allied and “enemy” groups, as they develop further.
I think I can start approaching the outline from two angles: story and back-story. At the start of the story, what happens to Christopher when the plane goes down? How does he survive? He’s landing miles from Razor Mountain, in inhospitable terrain. What does this outermost fringe of Razor Mountain society look like?
In the back-story, proto-Christopher and his tribe cross the Beringia land bridge, and he needs to somehow come to Razor Mountain and find the artifacts. Once he does, how does he figure out how to use them and begin developing his little society? What goes on there in the thousands of years of history where it remains hidden?
For now, that back-story only indirectly impacts the text, but eventually I’ll be looking for bits and pieces to include in the “alternate” chapters.