It's funny the way ideas come together in your head to help you a craft a plot for a novel. You may have a striking image or situation in your head, but you can't seem to build on it, or link it to anything, to make that image or situation grow. You have the beginning of something but you can't construct a story to your satisfaction. I'm an outliner, pure and simple, not someone who wings it as I go along, so I may sit on an idea for years, decades, before I start working on it in an actual book. I don't think there's anything unusual about this, and I'm only bringing it up now because I had a moment this weekend, wonderful moment, where something happened to give me a clue about to how to flesh out an idea I've had in my mind a long time.
Actually, the moment this weekend wasn't wonderful. And the scene I've been turning over for years is not something imaginary but something I experienced. In late 1994, I went on a three month trip to Egypt with a friend, and for about 10 days, this friend and I stayed in the oasis town of Siwa. A fascinating place, Siwa; it's dead smack in the Egyptian desert, isolated from everything, about 30 miles east of the Libyan border. It's a spread out place, about 50 miles in length by 20 miles wide, and has over 20,000 people living there. Arabic is taught in school, of course, but over the centuries the Siwans have also developed their own language - Siwi.
Siwa has a history dating back to ancient Egypt, and during Greek times, Alexander visited it, making a trek across the desert to visit a famous oracle there. Siwans are Berber people so they don't have much in common culturally with the rest of Egypt, and until well in the 20th Century, when Cairo finally exerted control over it, Siwa existed as a kind of semi-autonomous place. The Italian army occupied the oasis for a stretch during World War II, as did the British army, and Rommel's Afrika Korps took the oasis town three times. It's said that German soldiers skinny dipped in the lake of the oracle and that Rommel sipped tea with Siwan chiefs. Last point, just to help explain how unusual the place has been: in a part of the world not exactly known for tolerance of homosexuality, Siwa historically had a tradition of open and accepted male homosexuality. This tolerance extended to same sex marriage (again, from what I've read, between men only), though these practices have been, in the contemporary era, repressed.
So my friend and I visited Siwa, and during our stay, I took notes. With its physical beauty, peculiar history, and distinct customs, how could I not see Siwa as a possible setting for a story? It has atmosphere in spades, and its isolation only makes it seem that much more ideal for a murder mystery. Besides all that, my friend and I had a discomfiting experience one afternoon there, just one during an otherwise great visit. I use the word "discomfiting" because while the incident wasn't life threatening and didn't make us want to leave Siwa or go to the police, it made its mark on our psyches. It was the sort of incident that with a tiny bit of embellishment could be turned into something nightmarish in a story. Perfect, in fact, as story fodder. For a minimal amount of discomfort, you get a terrific idea. My problem was, I couldn't figure out how to build on that idea to create the rest of my Siwan novel. Not that the novel, after all these years, has to be set in the actual town of Siwa, which must have changed a lot since I went. But I can work around that. I have an oasis setting to work with, the idea of a couple in this setting, and stuff that happens to them there. I just could not figure out....
Until this weekend. That's when my wife and I got into an argument about something. I don't even remember, at this point, what the argument was about (something inane, no doubt), but after it ended, an idea popped into my head revealing how exactly I can use that unsettling Siwan incident in a book. I saw how I can develop the incident. Construct a plot around it. Thanks to something my brain latched on to during that argument, I now have a broad outline for a book I was starting to think I'd never be able to write.
So thank you, argument. Or I guess I should say thank you to my wife because she's the one I argued with. And thank you to the man years ago in Siwa who put my friend and I in an uncomfortable position. Without that one incident, I would merely have had an enjoyable time in Siwa, one I'll never forget, but would I have left there with a story idea?
From chaos, the possibility of creation. From unpleasantness, strong material. What can I say? That's just how it often works.