I finished The Miracle of Santa Maria a few weeks ago and have now turned my attention back to the previously stalled Cassidy Yates adventure, which is now going well. I'd thought the problem with the stalled story was that I'd written about a quarter of the book and Cassidy had yet to appear, a slight problem usually when he's supposed to be the hero. But the problem was something more fundamental than that.
Most of my stories come about through combining several ideas, usually three. I've always believed in the maxim that writing fiction is the art of making connections. So The Miracle of Santa Maria was a combination of the Pike's Peak Eclipse, Sleeping Beauty, and the miracle of the title. It didn't become obvious while I was writing how those three elements would tie up, but I was sure when I did get them to meet I'd have a story, and luckily that's what happened in the end.
The untitled Cassidy story was the combination of just two ideas rather than three, perhaps explaining the stalling. The first was an idea that had been knocking around in my mind for a while and is essentially the genie in the bottle idea. A man saves the life of someone unsavoury and that unsavoury person resolves to repay the debt by saving his life in return. This is something that happens frequently in westerns and usually involves an initially savage but ultimately noble Native American who tags along with the hero after the hero saves him.
This never feels quite right to me and is often a bit too convenient, as the noble savage keeps on turning up unexpectedly and saving the hero's life when things become tricky. So I wanted to do it in a way that made the hero tarnish himself by accepting help from the unsavoury one. The idea never got anywhere though until I thought of inverted the idea and making it that an unsavoury person saves the life of a good man. Now the good man feels he has to repay the debt, no matter how much trouble that causes him.
That felt like an idea for a western and when a second idea came along a story suggested itself. The second idea came when I was wondering when frog spawn might start appearing in my pond. A google enquiry about frogs made me happen across the term Frog War. This term was only referenced on wikipedia so there's a strong chance it's not a real one, but apparently it describes a situation where rival railroads battle to be the first to build a track through a narrow pass. This happened frequently during the expansion across the American West; one famous incident even got Bat Masterson involved.
This captured my imagination, so combining the two ideas instantly got me a story of a good man working for one railroad having his life saved by a bad man working on the other railroad. He then helps him no matter that it ruins his own life. Those two ideas got me about ten thousand words, but then my enthusiasm petered out and I went to work on Santa Maria instead.
I should have realized that I usually need three ideas to get a story up and running. When I’d finished Santa Maria the third came along in the form of the nun with a gun. I'd started writing the female lead in Santa Maria with the intention she would be a guntoting nun, except she went through the whole novel without picking up a gun. When I got to the end, she hadn't acted like a nun either so I let her do what she wanted to do. That left the guntoting nun free to wander off and join the Cassidy Yates tale. Once I'd let her do that, I had my three ideas: an inverted genie being let out of a bottle, a Frog War, and a nun with a gun. So now the story is surging along.