The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Old Main - An Author's Commentary

First of all: Old Main - A Story In Time is the name of my latest attempt at telling a story. This blog post is more or less a "Behind The Scenes" look at the story - the making of the novel, so to speak.

So - What is this all about, then?

Way back when I was an undergrad at UW-Whitewater, I was slightly infatuated with a building that I had never set foot in. Old Main was the name of the building that was, for over a 100 years that the school existed, the building of the Normal School/State Teacher's College/Wisconsin State University at Whitewater.

Years before I had even entertained thoughts about attending Whitewater, that building was burned to the ground by arsonists. There was obviously more to it, of course - the Vietnam war was still going on, and racial tensions were high, especially on the campus.

The first building I ever remember entering when I first visited Whitewater was Hyer Hall. Hyer was the last remaining wing of Old Main - the newest of the many sections of the building, and the only one to survive the fire, since it had fire doors that kept the inferno from spreading. Over the years I spent on campus, I always saw it as this building that looked out of place, compared to the rest of the relatively empty hillside.

One time, as I was hiking back from a class at Hyer, I had a "what if" thought - what if the fire at Old Main had been set accidentally? By someone who was actually trying to stop the building from burning down? And thus the concept for Old Main was born.

Wait - you graduated from Whitewater back in 1989! How long have you been working on this thing, anyways?
Years. The file for the story is actually older than most of my computer systems. I had a few problems with the story as time went by:

What were some of your original ideas?
 The original story was that a Whitewater student from years in the future - I vacillated between 10 to 20 years into the future - somehow ended up in Old Main the night the building burnt down. In an attempt to stop the building from burning, he ended up causing the fire.

That morphed into an idea where a student got caught up in a plan by his roommate to stop the fire, but in the process of traveling back through time, they inadvertently caused the fire. That was where the story stood for the longest time. My issue, as you can guess, is the opening/closing of a time loop. I'd gotten to where the roommate had managed to convince the student to help him, and in so doing they got split up, which resulted in missed communications, a chase, and then getting trapped in the wrong time period. And, unfortunately, Old Main was still gone. Basically, everything up to where they found themselves in the parking lot with a dead car, a dead time machine, and nothing to show for it.

There were some more things I'd added to the story as time went on, of course - I actually went into a lot more detail about the chase through Old Main, and how the two protagonists had run through the halls of the building, trying to stop the fire by dousing some futuristic flame retardant on the gasoline that had supposedly fueled the fire.

The idea of putting the time machine in a VW Beetle just made sense to me. The car wouldn't surprise many people if they saw it driving around in the 70 year span before Terry "purchased" it. A Delorean just wouldn't look right in the middle of Whitewater in February of 1970.

Oh, and the name of the school went through a few changes from my first draft to present. I did foresee the possibility that the school would drop the UW name at some point, but the why part didn't come about until... Well, let's just say the incidents of the last couple of years here in the state played a part.

How did the character of Cassie come about?
You'd have to ask Thomas Overbeck about that one. I just borrowed her for the story.

Originally, I only had Cassie and Agent Scott confronting Terry about his time use, but not figuring into the final story. There was a scene where I had Jamie using the time machine to avoid being "zapped" by Agent Scott - and landing on the roof of an old apartment building where their residence hall was located.

There was some Marty McFly-like sneaking around in the background, like in BTTF2, but I never got the story to the point where I could end it. So the story just sat there, with the basic dates and locations as the framework, but nothing more to it.

So how did you finally manage to complete the story?
This is where Mr. Overbeck's story came into play. Earlier this year (2012), he related in the back story about Cassie's time machine that she had experienced issues with the battery of the machine getting drained after only one or two uses. This helped a bit with some of the fleshing out of the story, but not enough that I could come to some sort of a conclusion.

Cassie had done a couple of "rescues" of people in the past - and she had the ace up her sleeve in knowing that she would live to a ripe old age. However, I still hadn't figured out how I could "wrap things up" using her, or Agent Scott, or anything else.

And then, it finally came to me: the time machine itself. The window that the machine projects always appears to be "burning" or "glowing" when it's activated. And it was that aspect of the machine that gave me the idea for the "fight the big bad" scene.

I figured that, since Cassie had been dealing with the FBI and Agent Scott for some time, at some point she had been given lessons on self-defense. Cassie, being a relatively smart cookie, probably figured out she could disable an attacker by using the time machine's "edges" against him or her - and incapacitating the person by then summarily zapping them with her neuralyzer. (By the way - most online dictionaries, especially the ones used by Firefox and MS Word, don't like the word "neuralyzer". Just an observation.)

With that scene in place, the rest of the story just fell in line.

What about some of the loose ends in the story, like that girl who was detained in the "prologue"?
I admit that there were some parts that I wanted to explore, like that girl. I initially had a thought that she was the barista (before they even had that term, of course) at the coffee shop where the pair went. I just decided as I was writing the story that I didn't want to make the story any longer than it already was.

I also didn't explore the possibility of someone (other than Gortovsky) mistaking Terry for his grandfather - especially not his grandmother, who he likely met on the Whitewater campus. I wasn't looking to turn this into BTTF.

I couldn't do as much description about the inside of Old Main, of course, since I had never actually entered the building. However, going from the photos from the UWW archives, I pieced together how things were put together, and where the lab was located, and all that.

There was one thought on my mind as I wrote the ending, though - the loss of Old Main was actually the impetus towards the construction of most of the classroom buildings and facilities of what Whitewater is today.

For example, Winther, Carlson and the COTA were built in direct response to the loss of classroom space at Old Main. If Old Main had survived in any form, it's possible that any of those buildings - or even all of them - would never have been built. I did speculate a bit about this in the story; the old North Wing was in disrepair, and would have probably been replaced within a few years, anyways.

The description of what happened to the Central Wing after the fire actually made the most sense. If the fire was essentially prevented from destroying the structure of the building, it was conceivable that it could be drastically renovated - if someone would have come forward with a donation to do so. That's where the "anonymous donor" came in - I figured that Cassie would come up with the money to renovate the building, and then Terry's grandfather could pay for renovations later on, akin to what actually happened to Hyer Hall in the 1990's.
What about the actual fire?
For most of my life, I honestly believed that the fire was just set by some random protesters, and the condition of the buildings (and the limited resources of the various fire departments that responded to the blaze) caused the destruction. However, in my research into the actual fire, I'm pretty certain that the fire was set by someone that was not from Whitewater. In fact, the assertion that Terry made in the story as to who the suspects were? I actually believe that statement to be false.

I'm not going to accuse anyone after the fact, but I believe that the group behind the bombing of Sterling Hall in Madison may have had a hand in the fire at Whitewater. The idea that the blaze might have been motivated by some sort of Army presence on the then-Wisconsin State University campus was intriguing, but I really didn't have any sort of proof of this.

I am still somewhat surprised that the demolition of the three wings of the Old Main were carried out so quickly, and without any discussion or attempts to salvage any of the buildings. I strongly suspect that insurance and state regulations may have played into it. Essentially, before they could work on building replacements to the buildings, they had to tear the old one down.

Oh, and the observatory that was mentioned briefly at the end of the story? It was originally built right in the middle of where the old North Wing was located. The idea that it could have been still built, further up on the hill, made it easier to explain that little had changed on the Whitewater campus, even with Old Main's central wing still standing.