From this sentence forward, I'm assuming any Esteemed Readers still with me have read the book, so I'm not going to worry about casually dropping spoilers.
I've talked elsewhere about how writing involves an element of magic. Whether it actually does or whether my subconscious simply plays wacky tricks on me, I prefer to believe in magic. Encountering that magic is one of my chief reasons for writing. When I try to explain this to non-writers I get met with blank stares and people nodding while slowly backing away. Fair enough.
Writing is tedious and hard and takes a whole lot of time and effort, frequently without paying back a fraction of what it costs in labor. Believing in magic enables me to do my job. And besides, magic is the only way I know to explain Banneker Bones. If you can think of a more rational explanation, keep it to yourself please, as I still have to write the rest of Banneker Bones 2 and I'll need confidence in magic to get me through:)
I had a plan. I had an outline and I even had a title: Banneker Bones and the Case of the Alligator People. I knew this story was the first in a series I would call The And Then Story, named after the way I used to tell stories as a child, excited and out of breath, unable to speak the words fast enough, and never getting to the end, because and then something else happened. When I was three, I amused my relatives and a waitress by telling a story about Snoopy that lasted a nice dinner because every time I approached an ending, I'd say "and then."
And so it's to be with Banneker Bones. I don't know what's going to happen in this series. I wish I were J.K. Rowling (who doesn't?) with a master plan for seven intricately entwined novels adding up to a cohesive whole. I'm sure my readers also wish I were J.K. Rowling, but I'm not, and beyond the second story in this series, I don't have a plan. I can see as far ahead as what I'm writing now and that's it. But at the end of Banneker 2, I'll write "and then" and eventually Banneker 3 will present itself.
And after all, Batman, on whom Banneker is based, and who himself is a rip-off of Zorro, is an "and then story." Batman never really retires, whatever silly-third-movie-making-when-he-shoulda-stopped-at-two Christopher Nolan thinks, and Batman's story is never really over. There's always another villain to fight and another chance to save people and/or Gotham City and/or the world/universe/multiverse.
When I decided Banneker was a story without an ending, I knew I had to model him after the one story I never get tired of reading. I could lie and pretend not to follow comics (who is this Batman character you speak of?) and claim Banneker was a completely original idea (no such thing), but the entire contents of this blog, this review in particular, and the fact that every third picture that has ever been taken of me is of me wearing a Batman T-shirt would prove me a liar:)
Not to worry, I've hidden references to Batman throughout this and my other books to acknowledge my debt. When I get to writer heaven, if Bob Kane feels sore about it, we can fight it out. There's a character in this story named Frank Nolan Kane, which is hands down the nerdiest name I've ever given any character in any story. His first name was nearly Tim, but in a fight between The Dark Knight Returns and Batman (1989), Frank Miller wins. Not to worry, there's a Mayor Burton late in the story and a bright red phone kept under a glass case. My wife and son aren't the only ones this story is a love letter to:) Batman fans may note there is no character in this story named "Joel" or "Schumacher" as Batman and Robin can never be forgiven.
For this first book in the series, my goals were modest: introduce my characters and their world and try not to rule out any future possibilities. Latimer City is a big place and there all sorts of interesting people and things waiting to encounter our heroes and when they arrive, I'll be just as surprised as Esteemed Reader. In Book One, I've simply tried not to preclude the possibilities of all the adventures to come.
The And Then Story has a little bit of everything. I've rarely been so happy as when I spent a morning writing a long chapter for this book (the chapters were made shorter in revisions) that opened with an attack by velociraptors and closed with an attack by sharks. There aren't any aliens in this story (unless they look like people, and they might) and no one travels through time, but I've got a lot of books to fill, so we may see both those things in future Banneker sequels. All Together Now: A Zombie Story was originally envisioned as Banneker 3 until the tone of that story ruled it out for middle grade readers (Banneker will never be that dark). This series will end when I'm no longer able to write it. The book I write before an asteroid strikes me will simply be the last one. Until then, there's always going to be another Banneker whether I write it down or not.
So, knowing going in that I was writing a book with no ending, I did my best to pick characters I like and would want to spend multiple books with. In college, I had a girlfriend who believed whole-heartedly in astrology and she quoted a never-ending stream of pseudo science at me and all I really remember from the hours of nonsense spewed (her being very attractive the whole time) is that I was born on an astrological cusp between the signs of Leo and Virgo, which is a most conflicting spot. Virgo is the shy worker, Leo is the proud dreamer, and a person such as myself born smack dab in the center exhibits both qualities in almost equal measure. I don't know that anything else in astrology is reliable, but that internal conflict of personality explained to me much of my behavior throughout my life.
And so in picking characters that would always be interesting to me, I centered them in this very conflict (I never get tired of writing about myself!). Ellicott is too shy for his own good and Banneker is too proud for his own good. From experience, I know that both humility and confidence serve a person well and so my boy-genius detectives balance each other. As a writer, it does me no good to believe my book is the best thing ever written as I need to revise, rewrite, and make it better. On the other hand, if I weren't an egomaniac believing everything I write is probably going to be the best thing ever written, I wouldn't write anything. Poor Mrs. Ninja is good enough to put up with me on the days I'm convinced I'm a literary lion and on the days when I despair I'm a no-talent hack.
Getting back to the plan, my outline called for Ellicott to be summoned to the Archimedes Program in Latimer City where he would meet his cousin Banneker Bones and the two would set off on an adventure involving alligator people (I thought it was funny to introduce robots to the story, then ignore them in favor of a plot about biological monsters). It was a simple plan. The first five chapters would introduce Ellicott and tell the story of his leaving Brownsborough, Indiana for Latimer City, all of which would be ordinary and plain like the black-and-white scenes of The Wizard of Oz (big thanks to literary agent Amy Tipton for the suggestion). Once in Latimer City, I would introduce robots and other fantastic elements, colorizing the world. At chapter six, Ellicott would meet Banneker, the two would become friends, and the rest of the book would revolve around alligator people.
And so, I was minding my business, writing my story, and when I got to the part where Ellicott reaches Latimer City, he and his mother are attacked by a security robot, which is quite dramatic and fun. Not to worry, the security robot is stopped and no one gets hurt (I warned you there'd be spoilers). And then in Chapter Six, this happened:
From the end of the hall, Ellicott heard a sound like someone choking on a peanut butter sandwich. When he looked, he saw a boy about his age with dark skin standing in the far doorway, his hand cupped to his mouth to hold in his wild laughter.
All Ellicott could see of the boy’s face was his hand, the trilby hat he was wearing, and his huge, square glasses. But that was enough.
So, this was the world-famous Banneker Bones.
What the heck is that!?! I didn't write Chapter Seven until a month later. I had a perfectly good outline and Banneker Bones made me throw the whole thing out. In the story, he's laughing at Ellicott, but I assure you, he's also laughing at me. Because Banneker decided to sick the security robot on Ellicott all on his own. I didn't decide it, nor was I consulted. He just did it and I couldn't make him not do it, even though there was no room in the outline for such shenanigans.
It turned out Banneker Bones was kind of a jerk. He didn't want to share his room with Ellicott and he was determined to get his cousin sent home. And this is why I say writing is magic. Banneker Bones exists as a character in another reality I've had the good fortune to meet. If he were solely my creation or under my control, he would've saved me a whole lot of time and played his role the way the outline called for. But noooo, he had to do things his own way and that's when I realized I was in Banneker's world. I serve his needs, not the other way around.
So for chapter after chapter, Banneker tortured Ellicott and in Chapter Twenty-Four he decided to moon all of Latimer City while flying a jet pack. By the time Banneker was done doing exactly what he wanted, he'd completely altered the plot of the book and there was no longer enough space left for the alligator people, who got bumped to book two (as long as Banneker's okay with it, so we'll see). For this reason, I haven't bothered outlining the coming stories. It wouldn't matter if I did.
Banneker does what he wants the way he wants. I just write it down. He doesn't care that Ellicott is technically the protagonist of this book. It's his name in the title much bigger on the cover than the other words because that's the way he wants it.
But not to worry, I got my revenge on Banneker. While I was passing on many of my own attributes to him (embarrassing as some of them may be), I gave him my greatest fear: bees. Then I set some giant robot bees after him and every time they attacked him I'd laugh the way he laughed at me and I'd think that's what you get for screwing up my story! But of course, without Banneker, there wouldn't be any story in the first place.
Join me in part three for further discussion of bees, a shout-out to Richard Adams, and as usual, a session of making fun of Ayn Rand (something else I never get tired of).