If you write fiction, chances are you’ve been asked where your ideas come from on more than one occasion. There isn’t always a clear answer. There are a lot of methods to coming up with a story idea, but my favorite way to get an idea is the one I don’t have any control over.
The spark. A little itch at the back of my brain, a kind of flickering light. A lot of the time this happens when I’m washing dishes at the kitchen sink (this is the only reason I am okay with not have a dishwasher), when I drive home to visit family, or when I’m out on my own wandering around town.
But I think my most recent story goes back to the kaftan. I’ve wanted one ever since I heard Christina Hendricks talk about how she lives in them.
I talked to my mom about this and she thought it was a little early for me to start wearing muumuus. Well, my first kaftan arrived this week and I can’t wait to start lounging around the house in it. Seems like a great look for a working-from-home writer/editor/social media extraordinaire.
From there I moved to heat. I knew I wanted my story to be thick with heat and humidity, so thick it felt like drowning, and it made sense that the worst of the heat would be upstairs. Just my luck that upstairs is the bedroom and that leaves us with a woman needing desperately to exit the bedroom she shares with her husband to get out into the cooler, refreshing air downstairs.
The thrum of the cicadas’ song swelled to a high pitched screech and Lorna couldn’t take it any longer. The balcony had offered some relief from the heat, but now the breeze was dying down. She stepped back into her bedroom. It was warmer inside, the air thick and grasping, clutching at her kaftan like a hundred sweaty hands. She gathered her skirt and padded across the wood floor, seeking the door and some escape from the stifling heat of her bedroom.
Here’s where things get a little more complicated and where I may have failed. That’s okay. It was only about a second draft and there’s always a little room to work on something. (You can read the full story here if you’d like.)
I don’t know if it was because I was bingeing House of Cards in the days leading up to this story’s deadline (had to be ready for season 3!), but I felt like I had the ghost of Ambrose Bierce sitting on my shoulder. Okay, I should probably explain that connection. The House of Cards intro features images from all over Washington, D.C. and while I’m not sure if Logan Circle is actually pictured there, several houses in the montage do look like homes found in Logan Circle. Logan Circle is where Ambrose Bierce lived in D.C. The only time I visited the nation’s capital and was able to see some of the city, that was one of the places I had to see. Anyway, I’ve gone around my elbow to get to my thumb, but sometimes that’s how this business is. I think “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” may have been looming somewhere in my subconscious. Now, if you didn’t read that story in high school, I feel a little bit bad because I’m about to spoil it for you.
My character begins to descend the stairs and she is reminded of her mother telling her how dangerous these long kaftans and bare feet could be. The topic last week for the competition was “gambler’s fallacy” and that’s where it happens in this story. The character believes that if she hasn’t fallen yet, she never will.
Here’s the part I think I failed to convey as a writer. I decided, early on, before I ever began writing the piece, that the last two-thirds of the story would all occur in my character’s head after she’s tripped and fallen and lies bleeding on the cold marble floor. She’s dying. I wanted to make a call back to the thrum of the cicadas’ song from the first line of the story. You know how there is an ebb and flow to their cry. I wanted the pitch to change throughout the story. There’s a sort of lull to the scene when she’s upstairs, sleepy drunk on heat. The scene downstairs is frenzied and bouncing, like cicadas tend to be (you sure don’t want to get one of those things stuck in your hair). I also wanted her to go from drowning in the stagnant hot air of her bedroom, to the feeling of another sort of drowning. Dragged under in cold water, getting colder by the moment. She is losing blood.
The final scene finds her where she has been all along, from the moment she took that first step down the staircase.
She wanted to tell him he couldn’t take her upstairs and lock her up in that hot room. It was suffocating. The words caught in her throat and she leaned against the cold stone. She closed her eyes and when she opened them the world was on its side. She couldn’t remember drinking that much, but how much had she had to drink before she had come downstairs? A glass, maybe two. One on the balcony. That’s where she had left the glass. By now there was probably a fly swirling in it, drowning, drunk on its first taste and dying. It would be numb though. She took some solace in knowing that it would die without any idea what was happening. Better than being smacked upside the head with a rolled up newspaper and smashed into bits.
She was numb now and the marble was cool on her cheek.
There’s work to be done because, as far as I know from the comments I received on the piece, no one picked up on the fact that she was lying there all along. Ambrose Bierce, I am not. But it’s okay, that’s just part of the work. Now I need to workshop this with some writers and figure out how to get it exactly where I want it.
I wrote another thing this week for the competition. We’re down to SIX people. My story is about a small town sheriff and it’s connected to a few others I’ve written, but it’s not necessary to read those to enjoy this one. You can find the rest of the contestants’ entries here and I encourage you to read them. They’re all talented writers and we’ve been at this a full year now. Read and vote, but please note that this week is a “community only” vote, so you will have to join the community to cast a ballot.