Monday, January 25, 2010

A Stone's Throw Away

Once upon a time, in 1990 to be exact, a boy of 19, took his love of soap operas to another level. He created one himself. That boy was me. That story was called "Glass Houses." (copyright)

I grew up without television. This was due to the church we attended. According to the pastor, television was a sin. We watched television at other people's houses though. Anytime we would visit my grandparents, for instance, we watched television. Specifically I remember "The Young and the Restless" on Grandmother's lunch hour. "Falcon Crest" and "Dallas" also come to mind. I don't know if that meant that my parents didn't find it a sin or they were just going with the flow. None of this really matters. It's all just back story. My parents eventually left that congregation and became members of another. Both were Baptist by denomination. The latter, however, had no problem with television. So in 1985 our living room got a new piece of furniture. A large television. We also got a VCR and subscribed to cable. It was a life changing moment. One of the first things I remember was my mom recording "Search for Tomorrow," "Days Of Our Lives," "Another World," and "Santa Barbara." I loved them. Soap operas. They were so taboo. Sex in the afternoon. I don't know how to explain the excitement I found tuning in each day to see how a storyline played out. Sometimes heartbreaking. Sometimes explosive. Always creative.

I went through periods where each of them was my favorite. I saw the cancellation of "Search for Tomorrow" give way to the creation of "Generations." That one was the first soap opera I got to start watching from the beginning and the first soap opera to have a Black family as a core family. For a while I only recorded "Generations" and "Santa Barbara." That gave way to "The Young and the Restless" and "Santa Barbara." Ask anyone who really knows me and they'll tell you that "Santa Barbara" was always my favorite. I was so sad the day it went off the air. I asked my sister to record the final week for me. I set the VCR at my parents' house to record the Monday episode. She forgot Tuesday and Wednesday. With a reminder from me via angry phone call, she recorded Thursday and Friday. I still have the VCR tape in a box in my apartment. Is that a treasure? Who knows.

I got so involved in the characters. I knew they weren't real, but I loved the escape and entertainment they provided. I loved the opening credits. I loved the theme music. The theme music for some of the shows, especially the prime time soap operas, are still very recognizable. It only takes the opening chords of "Dallas," "Dynasty," "Dark Shadows," "Days of our Lives," "Twin Peaks," or "The Young and the Restless," to name a few, and you instantly know what show is on. I loved that. Still do. I think it's very important that a theme song and opening montage of images set the tone for the piece. It's instant branding. The minute the "Dynasty" or "Falcon Crest" themes start, you know it's a grand, wealthy playing field. The swirling of the red wine in the crystal wine glasses dissolving into images of character and scenery on "Falcon Crest" is glorious.

So you get the picture. I love soap operas. In 1990, home from my first year of college, I sat in the living room of my friend Shanda's house and started the initial planning of my own soap opera. I wanted in set in a real place. I started looking at different States and Cities within those States with interesting names and locations. I narrowed my search down to a few and wrote to their respective Chambers of Commerce for information. The state I chose was Delaware. I wanted the setting to have history. Delaware was one of the thirteen colonies and is considered the first state. How much more history can you get? I ended up originally choosing Fenwick Island, Delaware, located in Sussex County, as the setting. Doesn't that name positively scream soap opera town? It had a lighthouse and was part of a beach resort area. The problem was it was too small. Population 357. As the years progressed, and I thought about it more, I wanted something bigger. More of a city than a town.

I started listing names. Interesting (read: soap opera) names. First and last names that were unlike the everyday, average names of real people. I tried to create names. I had lists of names. Choosing names first may sound like a backwards way of starting, but I needed to find names that I liked in order to connect them to a family so that I could then choose the type of people who made up my core families. Taking a page from "Generations," I wanted a core White family and a core Black family as well as other members of the community. I have the original pages, written in pencil, of character descriptions and possible names. I have pages of script printed on a Dot Matrix printer. I have my original logo and tag line for the show:

The Britian's, The Sullenger's: A struggle for power and acceptance.

Seems like all those years of watching the power hungry, greedy, wealthy had infiltrated my psyche and they were the one's I knew how to create. The one's I knew would be interesting.

Over the years I would pull my binder of information out of the drawer and revisit my creation. Each time I did this it would lead to changes and revisions. A tightening of family ties and relationships. The older I got, the more I realized that the most powerful story lines on any show dealt with family. I also knew that I needed to have people on the canvas of my soap opera town who were not related to the main families so that the story lines could branch out beyond the core. I'm smart enough to know that all the family intrigue in the world isn't going to keep one interested if there's no romance. I started watching soaps in the age of the super couple. Cruz and Eden, Bo and Hope. Hell, those couples had their own songs. It was an amazing time to be a soap fan in the 80's.

By the late 90's, "Glass Houses" had gotten more defined. The core families changed. The Brittan's (yes the spelling is different), the McAllistar's, the Sullenger's, and the Thomas' became the core. Two white families, a latino family, and a black family. The setting became the fictional town Milhaven. I kept it in Sussex County and located it on Delaware Bay. I decided that if I created the town then I could have more creative license to do with it as I pleased. Growing up in Bardwell, KY, we had a movie theatre on front street that always intrigued me. It was closed long before I was old enough to attend, but it's marquee was still there. It was called the Milwain. I decided, at some point, to have a wealthy man with the last name Milwain be the founder of the town. It was his haven. Thus the name of the town, Milhaven. It sounded just as natural as Pine Valley or Bay City or Somerset to me. The roots of my town were beginning to take hold in my brain. The small town's history was coming to me. How the area was discovered. Where the train was that brought Mr. Milwain there. Where Mr. Milwain built his large mansion overlooking the town. I was informed, of course, by things I read or saw in regards to soap operas. The Milwain Estate is very much like Collinwood, looming on the cliff overlooking Collinsport in "Dark Shadows" except in this case, it's the big mansion on the hill that can be seen from everywhere in town. It's not on a cliff and it's not haunted. It's intriguing. What kind of secrets and history does that place hold?

I further defined the family connections. Who was related. How did the core families know each other. How did they know the other people in Milhaven. Did everyone have to know each other? No. So who didn't know each other. The businesses were created. Who worked where, and for whom, was established. All of the basic information was in place. I knew who was married, divorced, having an affair, had had an affair. I knew who was single, who was gay, who was dating, who had dated, who didn't get along. I knew who was psycho and who had illegitimate children. I knew so much about these people that you would have thought they were real to hear me talk about them.

The next thing I did was to create the first story lines that would usher the show into the public's consciousness. I have an appreciation for the storytelling style of William J. Bell, creator of "The Young and the Restless." That man knew how to weave a story that affected few but connected many. Amazing, riveting, gotta-tune-in-every-day story lines. That is what I wanted. My first story lines included a flashback to college friends, now adults in their 50's, and the murder that did or didn't take place and how the outcome affects them all. A discovered lynching of one family's ancestor by a member of the town's founding family. Illegitimate children discovered. Gay relationships discovered. Affairs discovered. The opening of a fabulous, grand, old hotel, with secrets of it's own, started it all. I felt the best way to introduce everyone would be to have a party. Why not. So the hotel's renovation was complete and there was a party for the grand opening. Everyone is there. Everyone is introduced. At least two story lines kick off due to events at the party. And we're off. Everyone has secrets. "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

The tag line changed also:

Set in Milhaven, DE, on Delaware Bay, GLASS HOUSES is the story of the Brittan's, the McAllistar's, the Sullenger's, and the Thomas'. Their lives. Their differences. Family is everything.

The next step for me was to know where everything was located in Milhaven. I knew the address of every house and business, but I needed to know where those addresses fell on the city map. So, I started looking at Google maps for images that struck me as interesting. I ended up choosing portions of Dover and Milford, DE, and Bardwell, KY. I cut and pasted, by hand, until I ended up with the layout of Milhaven, DE. I then named every road, avenue, interstate, and highway. I drew boxes to represent the location of each structure used as a residence or business. I then started looking for physical images that represented the homes of the core families that I had in my mind. Thanks to Google I found perfect representations of my imagination. Milhaven was now a living, breathing city, with inhabitants working, sleeping, deceiving, and generally living very exciting, non-ordinary lives.

So, I've been sitting on this idea for twenty years now. As many of you who read my blog can deduce, it's fear based. As long as I didn't show it to anyone, no one could tell me it was bad. Of course, that also meant that no one could tell me it was good either. Or how to improve it. I just let it marinate in my head where it was always fabulous.

Now with "Guiding Light" and the soon to "As The World Turns" joining "Search for Tomorrow," "Generations," "Santa Barbara," "Another World," "Port Charles," "Sunset Beach," and "Passions" in soap opera heaven, it seems very unlikely that anyone would launch a new soap opera. The genre's audience is deteriorating by the minute. Many of the soap opera generation's loyal watchers are dying. The younger generation doesn't care. All of this information made me wonder how to keep my creation alive. Let's face it, I have pages of information about these people I've created. I know their birthdays, their anniversaries, when their parents died. I know how they met each other. I know how they feel about their lives in the moment before you meet them.

The evolution of "Glass Houses" has now landed in the book arena. My thought was to write a series of novels. One where each family was the central focus and the reader could see how the other families and Milhaven inhabitants wove in and out of their lives. This would allow for the use of the major story lines that I created for the television version of this soap opera. Problem is, I didn't really want to write for the television version of "Glass Houses." I wanted to be the creator, story line consultant, and executive producer. I wanted to turn my characters over to writers who could see my vision and write for them accordingly. So how does that translate to me writing for these characters in book form? I don't know. I can say that I've started. I've written a small portion about the Brittan's and a small portion, already published here, about the Sullenger's. There is also a portion about Mr. Milwain discovering the undeveloped area of Delaware that would become Milhaven.

It seems time for me to shit or get off the pot. I need to do something with this idea. Maybe the confidence that continues to grow as I write this blog and get feedback from readers will posses me to actually write the story that's been in my head for twenty years.

I am now going to publish an excerpt from the story. This is narrated by Toren Brittan. He's a character based on me. Readers of this blog will probably recognize aspects of my life in this excerpt. Here it is world.

Chapter 1

Boredom seeped in like a cold draft seeping under the comforter disturbing the warmth created by my body. I don’t know what changed. It could be that it’s January and I don’t like the cold, but my desire to do more than climb out of bed and brew a cup of coffee in the French press is non-existent. I enjoy my work and my life. I enjoy being social, but lately all I want to do is spend time with the television or a good book. The company of fictional people is more desirable than that of my friends or family. I enjoy the quiet of the morning, a cup of coffee and yesterday’s episode of BRIGHT HORIZONS.

BRIGHT HORIZONS is a fabulous soap opera that my grandmother, Joyce, has been watching for 30 years. I’ve been watching it for 10 myself. It’s something the two of us share apart from the rest of the family or the family business. We actually call each other and discuss the goings on in Central City USA. It’s the one “bright’ spot in my currently unmotivated life.

The solitude that I crave is easy to achieve. My family lives in a very large mansion built during the gilded age by my great-great-grandfather. I have my own suite of rooms. Peace, quiet and privacy is something everyone if my family craves. At least the privacy. The mansion is now home to my grandmother, my mother, Cailyn, my sister, Tealle, and me. I’m Toren and we’re the Brittan's of Milhaven, Delaware.

There are three other people aside from my immediate family and our employees who spend quite a lot of time at our home. Most people in our family think of us as the sibling-cousins. There are five of us, me, my sister, and our cousins Garyn, Devin, and Kaden McAllistar. Garyn and Kaden are the children of my mother’s cousin Margaret Crafton McAllistar. Devin is the daughter of Margaret’s deceased sister, Nancy. Nancy died early in Devin’s life and Margaret and her husband Gary adopted Devin. She’s almost like Kaden’s fraternal twin in that they are the same age born a mere three months apart.

We spend so much time eating, drinking, fighting, and laughing that we should buy a house and live together. We are constantly speed dialing and conferencing each other in for good news, bad news, milestones, and setbacks. To the outsider we seem like a normal group of siblings, but to our families we tend to cause eye rolls and head shakes.

The above excerpt isn't much. In fact, the previously published excerpt is better in my opinion. What it does though, in brief, is tell us how Toren is feeling and which relationships are most important to him. It also gives the reader an idea of how long the family has lived in Milhaven and a sense of their wealth.

I will continue to live with these characters. They are mine. What I need to do is introduce them to the world so that other people can discover the secrets that I already know.