Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Finding the Funny: A Story Comes Together

Back in November 2012 I set myself a goal of starting a brand new Grandpa Anarchy story every day of the month.  By the end I struggled for new ideas.  Thus on Nov 26, I created a file called "Jungle Opera" and copied from TV Tropes the entire entry for a Jungle Opera.  I didn't have a plot.  I didn't even know which characters were involved besides Grandpa Anarchy.  But that was my story idea for November 26:  a generic Jungle Opera story.

Oh, I had one other thing written down:  "Holy Guacamole".  I had a fuzzy idea about making that the maguffin that they were after, but it seemed like a remarkably lame joke to base an entire story on.

It's no surprise that "Jungle Opera" was one of the six stories that I failed to finish in November.  Even as late as mid January, I had no idea what it was really about.  Then I heard a bit on To The Best of Our Knowledge (PRI) about Ciudad Blanca, the mysterious White City that supposedly lies hidden in the jungles of the Mosquito Coast in Honduras.  Someone claims to have found it... again.  I did quite a bit of research that night and turned it into a long, expository opening scene featuring Dr. Whitney, an archaeologist / explorer featured in another Grandpa Anarchy story.

"In 1526, five years after the defeat of the Aztecs, Hernando Cortes first heard legends of the mythical city of Hueitapalan, or Xucutaco in the local nahuatl tongue.  The name means Old Land of Red Earth."  Doctor Whitney -- a man dressed like a Victorian British explorer, complete with pith helmet -- hacked at the vegetation with his machete.  "This legend has become confused with legends of Ciudad Blanca, the famed White City.  In 1544 Bishop Cristobol de Pedraza of Honduras wrote to the King of Spain of a city of gold on a river that cut through the Mosquito Coast.  From there the legend grew, with some even claiming that it is the birthplace of the feathered serpent Aztec god Quetzalcoatl."
"Feathered serpents, again?' asked Grandpa Anarchy, swinging his own machete.  "I thought we left all of that behind in San Theodoros."
"No, Mr. Anarchy, we are still dealing with Central American legend.  Honduras, to be specific."
"But Doctor," said Ravella the Traveler, "we're nowhere near Honduras...."
Grandpa Anarchy was, of course, the world's oldest and most famous hero.  He wore his usual rumpled grey suit and fedora, even out here in the jungle.  Ravella was his current sidekick, a young woman with dark skin and straight black hair who was dressed for exploring in in dune-colored shorts and shirt, with dark socks and sturdy hiking boots.
"Now, now, all in good time," said the Doctor.  "First allow me to finish my story.   Theodore Morde reportedly found Ciudad Blanca in 1939.  He wrote about it in Lost City of the Monkey God, but did not reveal exactly where it was.  He was killed by hit and run in London England just days later, possibly silenced by the U.S. Government or other nefarious forces.
"Others have claimed to find the White City.  Reported sightings of a city of carved white stones and golden idols continue to surface, but each time, events conspire to conceal its location again.  Locals claim that this is on purpose -- the city is not lost but hidden, a refuge and haven for indigenous gods alienated by the spread of Christianity."

This, at least, gave me an opening to work with.  I had no idea how it was going to end, and it wasn't a very compelling opening, but I liked basing the story around Ciudad Blanca.  Also I had a sidekick, a kind of play on "Dora the Explorer".  Best I could manage, at any rate.  It wasn't much, but I now had part of a story, and not just a title only.

Later I decided that they were searching for Ciudad Blanca somewhere in Africa.  Why?  Because nobody ever thought to look there!  I liked that absurd joke, and I wrote a bit more... but I still didn't know where I was heading with it.

Monday I pulled up my story and decided to work on it in earnest.  It took me a bit to come up with a destination, but I thought, "Hmm, Monkey God," and I Googled that.  What came up was the Chinese legend of Sun Wukong the Monkey King, from Journey to the West.  Also coming up was Hunanon, the Hindu monkey god, who is thought to have provided some inspiration for Sun Wukong.

Now I had somewhere to go with my opening.  Quetzalcoatl was supposed to inhabit Ciudad Blanca, but Thomas Morde's book talked of monkey gods.  Thanks to Google, I actually found the text of Morde's book and read a bit.  Even better, Morde himself made a connection between Aztec monkey gods and Hunanon.  What if my explorers found the city and found Sun Wukong himself?   And then... I don't know... there could be a big battle between them and Quetzalcoatl, and a bunch of feathered serpents.  Or something.

I went back to working on my story.  I wrote a bit where Dr. Whitney stumbles and falls -- down a steep cliff, or maybe falls into a buried chamber/room.  They find the Lost City.  They find Sun Wukong and wake him up.  He says some things.

At this point the story was getting longer and longer, and it just wasn't funny.  One big problem I was having was that Dr. Whitney was the crazy one who thought you could find a Central American lost city in Africa -- but in my previous story he was the logical, scientific type who refused to believe in ancient astronauts even as evidence of them began to pile up.  I was having a hard time reconciling that with my current plot --but he was the explorer, they went where he said to.  He had to be the one to send them to Africa.

After some thought I decided to go back to the beginning and write Dr. Whitney as if he were drunk.  Perhaps this was why he was searching in Africa, or perhaps the idea that he might actually find the city in Africa had driven him to drink in the first place.  I rewrote my entire opening with this in mind, trying to compact the exposition and slur a few words to accommodate a drunken scientist approach.  Drunk scientist explaining his theories seemed like it could be more funny, but I wasn't sure I was actually getting there:

"In 1526 Hernando Cortes first heard legends of the mythical city of Hue... Hua.. Hueitapalan, or Xuca.. er.. Xucutaco in the local Nahuatl tongue.  Means Old Land of Red Earth, something like that."  Doctor Whitney -- a man dressed like a Victorian British explorer, complete with pith helmet -- hiccuped.  He turned to hack at dense vegetation with his machete.  "This has become confused with legends of Seeuuu.. Sewi... Ciudad Blanca.  The White City."
"Doctor," said Ravella the Traveler, "you're drunk."
"I am not drunk, Officer," the explorer replied.  He paused to stare at his machete.  "Where was I?  Oh yesh.  In 1544 Cristobol de Pedraza wrote to the king -- he was the Bishop of Honduras, you know.  Not the king, I mean.  The king was the king... of Spain.  Anyway Cristo saw a city of gold on a river.  On the Mosquito Coast."  The doctor's arms swung wide, nearly hitting Grandpa with the machete.  "From there the legend grew.  Some say it is the birthplace of the feathered serpent Aztec god Quetzalcoatl."
"Feathered serpents, again?' asked Grandpa Anarchy, swinging his own machete.  "I thought we left all of that behind in San Theodoros."
The doctor paused to take another swig from his canteen.  He waved his hand about wildly.  "No, no, no.  No.  Central American legend, Grandpa.  Honduras, yes?"
"But Doctor," said Ravella the Traveler, "we're nowhere near Honduras...."
Grandpa Anarchy, the world's oldest hero,  wore his usual rumpled grey suit and fedora, even here in the jungle.  His current sidekick Ravella was dressed for exploring in in dune-colored shorts and shirt, with dark socks and sturdy hiking boots.  She was a young woman with dark skin and straight black hair.
"Now, now, all in good time," said the Doctor.  "Lemme finish.   There was this guy... Theodore Morde.  He wrote this book... Lost City of the Monkey God, in 1939.  Said he found the lost city, but didn't say exactly where.  And then he died!  Hit and run in London England just days later.  Some say he was silenced... by the U.S. Government.  Or other nef... nefari... other bad people."
The doctor stumbled and leaned against a tree.  He took another swig.  "Others... others have claimed to find it.  Sightings surface of a city of carved white stones and golden idols.  But every time it vanishes.  Some say it's on purpose -- the gods of the city are hiding it."  He spread his hands again, machete swinging in a wide arc.  "Rubbish!"
"But all of those reported discoveries were in Honduras!" exclaimed Ravella.
"'Zactly!" exclaimed Doctor Whitney.  "Despite many attempts, no one has found the lost city in Honduras.   So I thought, why not look somewhere else?  That is why we're in Bangalla, in the heart of Africa!"
"He is sooo drunk," said Ravella.

It still wasn't that funny, and I was still starting before they found the city, and leading up to the same not-very-funny encounter with the Monkey King that I'd had trouble writing before.  It just didn't feel right.  My best Grandpa Anarchy stories drop you right into the middle of the action.  Weird things are happening and you're in the middle of it trying to figure out what's going on.  How to do that, then?  Drop them into the middle of a battle between gods and feathered serpents?  I had a lot of background on the city to get out, and it didn't seem likely that they were going to discuss that in the middle of a battle.  I also probably needed to cut a bunch of exposition, but I'd done a lot of research to get that exposition in the first place.  I wouldn't have had a story without that exposition, so I was reluctant to trim it very much.

I thought about it some more.  I decided that I really needed to start with them having just discovered the city.  And... yes, Dr. Whitney has lead them to Africa in search of it, but he's depressed because it actually worked.  That's the joke, that's where the funny is:  he knows on some level that, with Grandpa Anarchy along, even something as improbable as finding a lost Central American city in Africa is entirely possible, but when they succeed, he's shattered because it goes against everything he's been taught his whole life as a scientist.

After I decided on that, the rest of the story began to fall into place remarkably quickly:

Grandpa Anarchy, world's oldest hero, hacked vines with a machete.  A stone monkey stared back at him, grinning.  He cleared more vegetation and stood back.
"It's just like you said, Dr. Whitney.  Monkey god statues."  He glanced down at the doctor, a man dressed like a Victorian British explorer, complete with pith helmet.  Whitney was laid out on the jungle floor like a quarterback with a concussion.
"I need a drink," the doctor said.
Grandpa glanced to his sidekick.  "What's with him?" asked Grandpa.  "We found what we were looking for."
Even in the heat of the African jungle, Grandpa Anarchy wore his trademark rumpled grey suit and fedora.  His current sidekick was dressed for exploring in in dune-colored shorts and shirt, with dark socks and sturdy hiking boots.  She was a young woman with dark skin and straight black hair, and her name was Ravella the Traveler.
"I don't think Dr. Whitney really expected to find the lost city of Ciudad Blanca in the heart of Africa," she said.
Grandpa frowned.  "Then why were we looking here?"
"It was just a crazy theory," said the doctor.  He stared up at the jungle cover.  "Weird things always happen around Grandpa Anarchy.  In San Theodoros that silly Adventure Boy babbled about ancient astronauts, which I knew for a fact did not exist.  And then they attacked us!  In the digs in Parador Grandpa and I found the Holy Chalice of the Last Supper.  It's a legend.  It never actually existed.  But there it was, and in Parador of all places.  And when Grandpa accompanied me to a dig in Basenji, ten-foot tall Buddah statues came to life and fought us!"
"That was a mean fight too," Grandpa said.  "You haven't been hit until you've been smacked upside the head by Budda's palm."
Ravella sighed.  "So you mounted an expedition to  Bangalla, Africa, in search of a Central American lost city...."
"For years people have been searching for this place," said the doctor.  "Herenando Cortes wrote about it in 1526.  Hueitapalan, or Xucutaco in the local Nahuatl tongue.  The Old Land of Red Earth.  Bishop Cristobol de Pedraza wrote of it in 1544, in a letter to the King of Spain.  He saw a city of gold on a river on the Mosquito Coast.  British explorer Theodore Morde claimed to have found it again in 1939.  He wrote of it in Lost City of the Monkey God.  Of course, he died several days later, run over in London."
The doctor sat up suddenly.  "Don't you see?  People have been searching Honduras for centuries for the legendary lost city!  I just figured, what if it's not there at all?  What if it's somewhere no one has ever looked?"  He waved his hands about wildly.  "What if I brought Grandpa Anarchy along, and his current sidekick?  Then it wouldn't matter where I looked -- I'd be sure to find it!"
Dr. Whitney collapsed on the ground again.  He moaned.
"I don't see what you're so upset about," Grandpa said.  "Your theory worked!"
"Yes," said Ravella, "but it was unscientific.  In fact, it was blatantly stupid.  That's the problem."
"In my experience," said Granpda, "you look for a lost city, you find a lost city.  It's pretty easy, really.  Never heard of an explorer who was disappointed to find what he was looking for."
Dr. Whitney covered his face with his hands.  "Grandpa, when you look for a lost city, you find it...."
"That's what I said!"
"Oh, nevermind," the doctor replied.  "Let's just make certain this is really it, although I have no doubts whatsoever.  According to Morde, there will be a temple on a high stone dias...."
"Yep.  I see it," said Grandpa.
"There will be a long-staired approach, with stone effigies of monkeys lining the way...."
Grandpa rapped the handle of his machette against the nearby statue.  "Already verified that one."
"There should be a collosal image of a frog, and opposite it, an image of a crocodile...."
"Is that what those things are?  There's two big things here, but they're covered in vines...."
"Inside the temple we'll find a statue of the Monkey King," said Dr. Whitney.  "No, wait.  This is you we're talking about.  Grandpa Anarchy himself.  We have to ask ourselves:  What Would Grandpa Anarchy Find?"  He paused, then said, "Inside the temple we'll find... a living monkey god?  No, something more unexpected."  The doctor paused for a moment, then his eyes widened.  "Hanuman!"
"Gesundheit," said Grandpa Anarchy.
"I mean Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god," said the doctor.  "He'll be there... not a statue, but the actual god.  In suspended animation.  No, wait... it'll be Sun Wukong himself, the Monkey King from Chinese legend, from Journey to the West, with his golden-banded staff Ruyi Jingu Bang by his side.  He'll be in suspended animation, and we'll have to wake him up because... yes, of course!  Because we're about to be attacked by the god Quetzalcoatl, who rules the city with an iron fist and with the help of his fellow gods and many feathered serpents."
"Are you feeling ok, Dr. Whitney?" asked Ravella.
"And a yeti," said the doctor.  "Quetzalcoatl, his fellow gods, feathered serpents, and a yeti.  Attacking us.  In Ciudad Blanca, in  Bangalla, in Central Africa.  A yeti named... Nebuchadnezzar."
"Now you're just making stuff up," said Grandpa.

In very short order I had a completed story, and one that I thought was pretty funny.  It was shorter and more to the point.  Some of the things I'd wanted to expand on were missing -- such as the idea that Ciudad Blanca was the home of the gods who deliberately hid it from mortals (they could have moved it to Africa), and the conspiracy surrounding Morde's death (I was planning to have Sun Wukong mention that this was the work of, I don't know, Quetzalcoatl or of Sun's enemies).  Both things didn't actually contribute much to the story, of course.  And so, they're gone.

Thus a Grandpa Anarchy story comes together starting from nothing more than a title.  Even better:  now 29 of my 30 stories from November are finished!  Trouble Focusing remains the only one I haven't completed.

Incidentally, I've had fun using imaginary countries for my two Jungle Opera stories (the other is Stone Temple Space Raiders).  San Theodoros is an imaginary Central American dictatorship that Tintin visits more than once.  Bangalia is a Central African nation in the Phantom comic strip.  Parador... well, several of my friend are fans of the movie Moon Over Parador.  It's another Latin dictatorship, in South America.  As for Basenji, that's the Central Asian county that Jeannie comes from in I Dream of Jeannie.  It borders Russia.

2013 Writing Goal of writing one Grandpa Anarchy Story a week Update:

January 2013

Jan 19:  DarkFireDragonNinja  (begun several years ago)
Jan 24:  OmniGen Again  (begun Jan 23)
Jan 25:  Veteran of the Bone Wars  (begun Dec 30)
Jan 29:  Nemesis  (begun Dec 10)

February 2013

Jan 31:  Turncoats (begun Dec 8)
Feb 3:  There Ain't No Justice  (begun Nov 29)
Feb 5:  City of the Monkey God  (begun Nov 26)

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