Every writer I know has their own store of favorite quotes or words of wisdom. Here’s one of mine.
“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”
I first encountered those words in an illustrated anthology of verse whose title I can no longer remember. Books seem to sprout like mushrooms anywhere my family congregates, and by the time I was ten my parents were doing regular annual culls of the collection, so the book itself is probably long gone. But one phrase from that one book stuck in my mind, and it’s been rattling around there ever since.
John Greenleaf Whittier knew what he was talking about when he wrote it, of course, but it started me wondering. I write dark stories sometimes, but I like happy endings, and I prefer not to contemplate the saddest anything. So if “it might have been” are the saddest words, what are the happiest? What’s the best possible thing you could write or say?
In my opinion, the answer is simple. “What if?”
“What if” is the basis of all stories. Urban fantasy loves it: what if magic was real? What if the dead could walk? Romance takes it in a different direction (what if these two people met? What if there was something keeping them apart? Holy &%$#, what if a Highlander traveled in time?) but it’s still the same question. And history too—what if Anne Boleyn hadn’t been executed? What if Spartacus had won? To ask yourself “what if?” is to imagine a world beyond the one that you currently inhabit. It’s the place where storytelling begins. And with stories, there’s nothing you can’t do.
I recently took my first tentative steps into the world of romance fiction because I had a “what if” or two to answer. What if an ancient Egyptian knew his mummy was in a museum case? What if magic and art were the same thing? What if you really could live four thousand years, and what would it do to you? I had a lot of fun answering those questions, and I learned a lot too. I picked up information and read books that I would never have touched if I hadn’t started asking that question. And if I’ve done my job correctly, maybe people will pick up a nugget or two of information from my work as well.
“I love you” is a good phrase. One of the best. But for my money, “what if?” are the two most beautiful words in the English language. They’re always the start of something extraordinary.
Catherine Butzen is the author of Thief of Midnight (http://starkhousepress.com/butzen.php) and, coming in 2015 from Samhain, The God Collector. She lives and works in Cedar Rapids, IA, and can be found online at A Murder of Prose (catherinebutzen.wordpress.com).