I told him the background on my short story, "Two Bits." While researching Hocus, I read books and studies on kidnapping and hostage-taking. Almost any book that gave a historical perspective on kidnapping mentioned the story of "Little Charley Ross." If you've been reading this series of posts, you'll remember that story from this post.
The story of the Ross kidnapping is as moving today as it was over 100 years ago. And there are several aspects of it that might intrigue a fiction writer. Any of the following fictional paths might be taken from the starting point of the true crime story:
- The side of the kidnapping we don't know -- the story of what the kidnappers did after they abandoned Charley's brother.
- The story of what became of Charley if he survived.
- The story of a third person who might have either been in on the kidnapping or discovered Charley abandoned, and decided to keep him.
- The story of Mr. Ross, as this parade of fake Charleys is brought before him over the years.
- The story of the men who shot the burglars/presumed kidnappers.
- The story of the judge, whose installment of a burglar alarm had unintended consequences.
- The story of Mrs. Ross, who was away from home when the kidnapping took place.
These are just a few of the possibilities, of course. For me, the story that was most intriguing, though, was the story of Charley's brother.
This was in part because I had been hearing accounts about a more recent case. Some who had worked on it had noticed that the brother of the little girl who had been taken not only suffered tremendous guilt (he was present when she was taken), but was subject to a strange combination of abandonment and over-protectiveness by his parents. The over-protectiveness was understandable. Also understandably, his parents became obsessed with discovering their daughter's whereabouts. All their time and energy went into these efforts — for an extended period of time. The case received a great amount of media attention, and his parents gave endless interviews and coordinated major efforts to find her. He was withdrawn and on the sidelines.
In the Ross case, what would it be like, I wondered, to be the older brother who left his little brother with strangers? To have taken two bits and run happily into a store, oblivious to danger, only to have nearly everything about one's life change after that moment? A series of "what ifs" followed.
So I created a fictional family and subjected them to a few of the events experienced by the Ross family, and wrote "Two Bits." The story I wanted to tell came from that question, "What would it be like to be the brother?" I do not claim to know what happened emotionally or otherwise to the real-life brother, but within this fictional family, I tried to answer it for the fictional brother. And found another story within that one, one of those unexpected discoveries that often come along while writing, as one gets to know the characters.
I told this story of a story to Paul, and asked him if among the many possible stories he could tell, there was a similar question.
"I've always wondered," he said, "what it would have been like to have to been a member of one of those families in New England -- to have been a son who had to watch his mother's grave exhumed, her heart cut out and burned, and then to be told to eat her ashes."
We were off and running from there....