If a Butterfly
If a Butterfly began as an 2003 exercise in completing a novel, but the process started the year before.
In 2002, I started participating in NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month begins on November 1st and runs through November 30th each year. I first heard about it in 2001, and it sounded like a cool thing to do, but I promptly forgot about it. On my way to work on November 1, 2002, I heard a report about it, and signed up on their website when I got home that evening. I had no idea what I was doing, and didn't write anything until the next day. By the seventh day I had only written 2,400 words. By the end of the month, I had added about 37,000 more, but the story was dead in the water for a variety of reasons, primarily because I was so worried about my poor word count that I had lost faith in my characters weeks before. That attempt, originally titled Into Each Life, eventually became The Jagged Man.
In 2003, I was determined to do better, so I started thinking about plot ideas and characters much earlier, but it all seemed like an artificial process, like trying to force something into a mold that didn't want to conform to that shape. I remembered hearing an NPR story about a butterfly researcher named Lincoln Brower, and a research trip he took to the Monarch butterflies' overwintering sites in Mexico, and how many of the Monarchs that year died from a devastating frost. An idea had formed.
I saw a young couple (in my mind) traveling across the country, while a butterfly was on its migration from Canada to Mexico, and I remembered the famous quote from MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz (father of the Chaos Theory). What you usually hear is, "If a butterfly flaps its wings in Central Park, will there be typhoons in China?" (Or something along those lines. It seems to change with each reiteration.) Lorenz' quote is actually, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” Nobody ever seems to get it right.
I wondered what might happen if the couple "kidnapped" the butterfly and carried it out of its usual path. Could the new path the butterfly would take begin to affect other people and events? I started outlining. I decided weather had to be an important factor, and I wanted to set the book in a particular year (to take advantage of historical weather data), so I chose the current one, 2003.
I had to go on a business trip to Washington, DC, in September of that year, and my trip was nearly delayed by Hurricane Isabel. What if the young couple ended up driving into the path of the hurricane? What if the hurricane changed the path of the butterfly again after the couple let it out of their car? What if a butterfly researcher, in DC on a business trip, met the young couple? My wife and I drove up and down the I-81 corridor, through the South, and into Pennsylvania on many of our summer vacations, so I was already familiar with the territory. In September 2003, I was in DC, a city the couple and the researcher might possibly cross paths in, so I did some pre-NaNo research while I was there (visited museums, saw monuments, etc.).
Waiting in a jury selection room earlier in the year, I remembered hearing a court clerk ask someone named Billy to come up to his desk. A woman stood up (ah, it was a Billie, not a Billy). An idea formed, and I soon had a character named Wilhemina, who went by the name Billie, but had multiple personality disorder, and was always trying to keep Billy and Fred and Agnes (her other personalities) quiet. Another character and another situation had formed. Before long I had added several more, and a multi-layered, complex plot was running out of control, hiding in various corners of my feeble mind.
I wrote 53,105 words of the story during the 2003 NaNoWriMo, but was only just beginning. The more I added, the more complex the plot became, and the book (over the next eight years) grew to more than 300,000 words. I spent much of 2011 and 2012 editing it, trimming it down, and polishing it. The agents and editors I spoke to about Butterfly almost universally agreed that it sounded interesting, but it would be difficult for them to market it to a publisher at full length (now about 240,000 words), especially from a first-time author.
So, Butterfly will now be coming out in two parts. Book One is titled Chrysalis, and Book Two is called Emergence. The books have the combined effect of something like Six Degrees With Kevin Bacon, but with a butterfly.