Behind the Writing: Journalists in Time

To be honest, I’ve been procrastinating about writing this post. So far, I’ve told you about the inspiration behind my two main characters: Talie Tappler and Mr. Cognis. I’ve also told you how my favorite professor from college gave me the first half of a story idea.

But where did the second half come from? Unfortunately, that’s a more challenging thing to explain. There’s a part of the story—a crucial part—that’s not really my story to tell. So when we get there, I’ll skip over it.

My Day Job

I work at a small TV station doing video production stuff for the local news. A few years back, we had this reporter—nice, bubbly sort of girl—who felt like she kept covering the same stories over and over again.

Every row home fire, every drug deal gone wrong, every missing person case, every domestic dispute… 95% of the time, these stories ended the same way.

One day, this reporter dropped by the editing room, and we wound up chatting. She was having a rough day. Her assignment involved a local family. The details of what happened to this family, and what would ultimately happen to this family, are not mine to tell. Not in a blog post like this.

The important thing is that this reporter was almost in tears because she knew exactly how the situation was going to play out. She’d covered similar stories enough times. It was like she knew the future, and there was nothing she could do to change it.

Tomorrow’s News Today

My old English professor had suggested I write a book about journalists in space. Basically, my professor was telling me to write what I know. But the idea of reporters flying about on news shuttles, rather than driving around in news vans, didn’t excite me.

Journalists in space might be based on what I know from my professional life, but it didn’t encapsulate everything I’ve learned about the news business. There was something missing. Something critical that my reporter friend was hinting at.

What about journalists in time? What about a news agency that could, through the magic of time travel, bring you tomorrow’s news today? Could that work? It occurred to me that the rules of time travel (don’t interfere with history) have a surprising parallel with the rules of journalism (don’t interfere with your story). That felt to me like a concept worth exploring.

I’d have to let these thoughts percolate for a while. A long while. But between this conversation I had at work and the previous conversation I’d had with my professor, the seeds were now sown for the Tomorrow News Network series.

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Behind the Writing: Journalists in Space

Writers hear this question a lot: where do you get your ideas? In two previous posts, I told you where the inspiration came from for two of my main characters: Talie Tappler and Mr. Cognis.

But those are just two characters. The original inspiration for Tomorrow News Network as a concept and as a short story series is a far more interesting tale. It begins with a conversation I had with one of my old English professors.

I’d been out of college for a year or two, and I’d landed a job at a local TV news station. News is a high stress industry, and truth be told, it does not pay well. I knew that going in.

What I did not expect, and what really took a toll on me emotionally, was how little time or energy I could spare for my own writing projects. Work left me so drained. I could barely string a sentence together. Writing a novel? That dream was slipping away fast.

My teacher listened to my worries, offered advice and encouragement, and as a sort of passing thought, suggested that maybe my experiences in the news business might sow the seeds of some future writing project. She knew I was in to science fiction, and she said she foresaw me one day writing an epic adventure about some sort of outer space news organization.

I think I mumbled something like, “Yeah, maybe.” But honestly that idea didn’t excite me. I mean, how would space news be different from regular news, aside from being in space?

Jy21 Space News Channel 10

Okay, I guess there’s some comedy potential, but not enough to carry me through a major writing project.

But as I said, this was just the beginning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my favorite professor from college had just given me half of an idea. The other half would soon follow.

A Cog in the Machine

Last week, I told you about the inspiration for Talie Tappler, the morally ambiguous main character of Tomorrow News Network. She’s a journalist. She’s a time traveler. And she does not time travel alone. The original inspiration for Talie’s sidekick, the cybernetic cameraman Mr. Cognis, dates back to a much earlier period in my creative life.

My latest illustration of Mr. Cognis in his cybernetic exoskeleton.

My latest illustration of Mr. Cognis in his cybernetic exoskeleton.

It was high school. I had to write a short story for English class, and I decided I wanted to write science fiction. I was a nerdy teen; what else would I want to write?

I came up with a story idea about a man of the future, a man with cybernetic enhancements grafted to his body and his brain. Due to the laws and customs of his day, this man was forbidden from having emotions.

I named this man Cognis, because all too often he felt like nothing more than a cog in the machine. But this name had a double meaning, because Cognis was intelligent enough, cognitive enough, to question his lot and seek some deeper meaning in life. Which would lead him to “experimenting” with “illicit emotional simulation programs.”

I thought I was being clever, packing my page-and-a-half story with symbolic allegorical stuff, casting society as the bad guy, and making a not-so-subtle allusion to drug use. Just the kind of stuff my aging hippie of an English teacher would love, or so I thought.

As I recall, my teacher gave me a C, which was probably generous of him, given how pretentious and angsty my little story was. And that was the end. I never wrote another word about Mr. Cognis, the emotionless cyborg who got addicted to emotions. At least, not until I started developing Tomorrow News Network and realized Talie needed a cameraman: a cameraman who might, on occasion, meddle with history when he wasn’t supposed to.

Excerpt from “The Medusa Effect,” story #1 in the Tomorrow News Network series:

“You were feeling compassion, weren’t you?” Talie said. “Don’t deny it. Look, there’s nothing wrong with emotions. I have a whole bunch every day, but you have to use them responsibly!”

Cognis flicked a switch on his forearm, and a crestfallen expression formed on his face. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Oh, turn that thing off,” Talie snapped.

And thus began a long and proud tradition in Tomorrow News Network of salvaging my old, abandoned story ideas.

More Golden Than Gold

Inspiration can come from totally unexpected places at totally unexpected times.

I was in church. I probably should have been paying attention to the mass, but there was a woman several rows in front of me. A very pretty young woman who kept playing with her hair.

I know, I know. Why would a good Catholic boy like me notice such a thing during mass? How shameful. Let’s set that aside for a moment. More than anything else, it was this woman’s hair that caught my eye, and for whatever reason it really got my creative brain going.

She was blonde, but not like any blonde I’d seen before. Maybe it had something to do with the low lighting, or the haze of incense, or the strange colors cast by the stained glass windows, but her hair seemed to sparkle in the darkness. It was almost luminous.

“A color more golden than gold,” I thought to myself. After mass, I hurried out to my car and wrote those words down on the back of an envelope. I’d been struggling with a new story concept, and I needed a main character. I wanted her to be both beautiful and terrifying, the kind of person readers could love and hate at the same time. I wanted to do a lot with this character, and I had no clue where to start.

Other character traits would come later: the violet eyes, the blue suit, the cunning smile and profoundly insensitive sense of humor. Eventually, my new character would get a name and become the morally ambiguous Talie Tappler, reporter extraordinaire of the Tomorrow News Network.

My first attempt to draw Talie, dated 2011.

My first attempt to draw Talie, dated 2011.

But it all started with one central image that appeared before me—miracle-like—while I should have been paying attention in church.