Genesis of If a Butterfly – Part 1

Originally posted on Michael Runs the Gamut on November 26, 2013

[Comments from 2021 are in italics, enclosed in square brackets, like this one.]

The Very Beginning

If a Butterfly was the first novel I finished. ** I started it in November of 2003, and didn’t finish it until October of 2012. This doesn’t mean I worked on it every day for nearly nine years. Other projects were conceived and brought to term during that time. Some lived and some died, but the next series of posts is going to be about the process of shaping this one novel, start to finish.

[**It’s clearly not completely finished or I would have published it a decade ago. As of January 2021, I believe it is close enough that there will be print and ebook copies of it available before this summer. We’ll see. Hold me to that.]

Around August or September, 2003, I was sitting in an airport in Houston, waiting on a flight to somewhere. Atlanta, I think. I was trying to think of a plot idea for NaNoWriMo that year, when a fly briefly slipped into and out of my peripheral vision. I was reminded of the Edward Lorenz quote, If a butterfly flaps its wings in X location, will there be rain somewhere else? I worded it that way because it’s rarely quoted accurately. I open the novel with Lorenz’ actual quote, which was the title of a talk he gave at MIT in 1972, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Predictability:
Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”

Lorenz was studying weather patterns, trying to figure out why weather was so hard to predict, and realized why mid-20th century prediction models weren’t accurate. They were trying to predict chaotic systems in a linear way. His work led to the development of the chaos theory, the butterfly effect, and the Lorenz attractor.

Interestingly, the Lorenz attractor, given the right coordinates, can take the shape of a butterfly. Image, public domain from Wikipedia Commons.

Okay, back in the airport. A fly has just buzzed past me. As I followed its flight path, I wondered if it would be possible to write a novel that followed the actions of a butterfly flapping its wings, setting off a chain reaction of events that led to an extreme weather event somewhere else in the world. Incidentally, the Lorenz quote was about randomness. He wasn’t actually suggesting that tiny creatures could generate that kind of power, or have that much influence on weather events.

I think I first envisioned it as a screenplay, because I made a few notes about the idea, and they took the form of a dialogue with two men talking about chaos. In between their lines, a butterfly would lift off from a flower, lightly brushing against one man’s hair. We would see a flake of dandruff fall and drop onto his shoulder. As he stands up, the dandruff is carried with him for a few steps until it’s dislodged in the breeze, but it lands on the man’s puppy, causing it to sneeze, etc. The rest of the film would be cause and effect, heading toward the final storm for the next ninety minutes.

I gave up on that idea almost before I was through making the notes. It seemed impossible to do in a way that would also be interesting (although it could be visually arresting). I thought about it while I waited for my flight.

I knew a little about Monarch butterfly migrations already, and kept trying different scenarios to see if anything would surface that was usable. I also remembered reading a book about a disparate group of people, scattered all over the country, and they all had something in common, but they didn’t know it (or know each other). The book might possibly have been Strangers, by Dean Koontz, but I don’t remember for sure. I wondered if I could devise a plot that would be peopled by a number of different characters that could be brought together by a single butterfly. That was the initial impulse.

Next up, how I started making decisions about the characters in the story.

Where do your ideas come from? How do you develop them?

Michael

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