Writer’s Workshop Wednesday VI

R LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORY-TELLING:

WAT R WERDS?

Lesson 6.  Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Good morning, class! Good morning! Come on in, take your seats, open your textbooks and let’s, ah…let’s just wait a little while. Go ahead, just…just talk amongst yourselves for a bit.

Hmm? No, I’m fine, I’m just waiting to be sure…you know, that everyone’s here. I, uh, I see an empty chair…

*sigh* Fine, let’s just start.

I know I said at the end of last week’s lesson on the writer’s work ethic that this week’s lesson would be on the pitfalls of writing, but some of the others in my group who are running this series on their blogs weren’t feeling it, so we decided to talk about inspiration and ideas instead. There’s a joke to be made somewhere in that.

Anyhow, I honestly don’t know what to say about inspiration in the general sense. The ideas for my books come from everything, everywhere, at any time. There’s no process. There’s no predicting it. There’s certainly no end in sight. At this very moment, I have half a dozen index cards tacked up to the old Story Board in the office, and the last two books never even made it up on the Board in the first place. There will always be more books in me than I can write.

So I guess what I’ll do instead of spinning the usual yarn about looking in your heart or listening to the river or painting with all the colors of the wind, I’ll just tell you where the ideas for the books I’ve already published came from.

OLIVIA

While Heat was the first book I ever published, I wrote Olivia first, so I feel it’s only right to begin there.

I got the first tickles of the idea that would eventually become Olivia while I was watching a movie (get used to hearing that, because you’re going to hear it a lot). The movie was The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Good movie. I highly recommend it. And I don’t say that just because it’s considered a ‘classic’. I don’t buy into the snobbery that blindly hails ‘classics’ as being superior to remakes just because they came first. The original House on Haunted Hill is widely lauded by reviewers who scorn the remake, but holy shit, that original is a hot mess of boring and the remake is gory, well-cast and just plain awesome. Not exactly intellectual fare, granted, but then neither is the original.

getonwithit

 

Right. I digress. I was watching The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and I had reached the part where the creature snags the pretty lamp of a woman who exists to be abducted and drags her away to his underwater cavern lair. Uh, spoilers, I guess? Anyway, this scene fascinated me and as I grew a little older, I began to wonder just what the heck the Gill-Man was up to with that little incident. He didn’t want to eat her—that was obvious even to a child, as it would have been much easier to drown her, and easier still to munch on the swamp’s other inhabitants rather than the humans who were obviously hunting him and who he was demonstrably avoiding. As a kid, I knew only that he wanted her; as a slightly older kid, I got the first inkling of what he wanted her for; a few years further down the road, I was back to wondering why he wanted her, since even if it was sexual, the girl’s scaleless, pale, finless, hairy body had to be repulsive to him. What had driven him to risk exposing himself to the enemy, risk his very life, to abduct her? That’s not the usual ‘you smell purty’ motive; he was desperate.

For years, the idea would grow and mutate until eventually, I realized I had a whole book in my head. It would begin with the abduction that, in movies, usually marked the climax of the final act. The hero would be the bathing beauty, a true everyman (or everywoman, rather), with no special abilities and no means of combatting the monsters that had taken her. The entire book would be from her point of view; she would start out as a captive and grow to become a kind of supernatural champion for the monsters that had destroyed her former life. And the ending…I had an amazing ending in mind.

There was no real plot beyond Olivia’s own character arc. I wrote without ever once imagining I would ever publish it, or that anyone beyond my immediate family and small circle of friends would ever read it. I was just having fun—building a monster and then slowly stripping away the monstrous elements, introducing a victim and then slowly transforming her into a hero, and best of all, creating a world, with magic and gods and demons and destiny, that did not exist on some other fantasy planet, but right here on Earth, hidden from human eyes. That was where the book really came from. Not from the plot and not really from the characters, but from the world I saw them in.

HEAT

When my sister, Cris, was reading Heat for the first time, she remarked that I had better brace myself for accusations of plagiarism. Rather over-casually, I asked her what on Earth she could possibly mean. She told me the alien hero and villain were physically very similar to the aliens in a terrible movie called I Come In Peace, the plot of which also concerned drugs that could be manufactured from human brains, which she claimed we had seen when we were children.

I come in peace

I was shocked. Now, I don’t doubt her. I’ve seen a lot of terrible movies and if she says we saw that one, I’m sure we did, but I have no memory of it whatsoever. What was shocking was that, although I apparently wrote I Come In Peace fanfiction (so much so, that I could have changed the spelling on one of those words and kept the title), it was NOT the movie I sure thought I had based my book on.

Heat was born one afternoon while I was watching another movie called K-Pax. For those of you who’ve not seen it, K-Pax was a good movie based on a much better book about a psychiatric patient who claims to be an alien. Through essentially the force of his personality alone, he begins to convince those around him that he just might be telling the truth. Great movie. Better book. Go see/read it at once. And once you do, you will see that my book would seem to have exactly nothing in common with it. Except it does.

It stems from one line, midway through the movie, in which the self-proclaimed alien, discussing his people, mentions that sex for his kind is not pleasant and is in fact, quite painful. That really hooked at me. By the end of the movie, I had begun to conceptualize an alien race in which procreation is at best inconvenient and at worst excruciating, a race in which fertility is stimulated by a seasonal temperature shift. They would come to Earth where, in the grand tradition of Wrong Place, Right Time, they would both go into heat, a condition which, in addition to complicating their respective goals, could actually prove physically damaging if their sexual needs were unmet. From there, my idea evolved to include a societal model in which adoption was the norm and the great debate of nature versus nurture as it impacts a child’s development is entirely unknown. I would give the villain a loving and attentive father; the hero’s own father would be more strict and emotionally sterile.

For the second time, the plot, such as it was, served merely as a vehicle for character arcs and world-building, and you know what they say—once is an accident; twice is a habit.

THE LORDS OF ARCADIA SERIES

This is going to be a tough one. I debated a long time about whether or not to include it, then on how honest I wanted to be. I decided to say it all, so…be warned. It’s not a happy story.

My parents, as I may have mentioned before, opened their home to foster and offer respite care for children with special needs for more than twenty years. I grew up in a household where kids came and went, often without warning, and where most of these were profoundly physically and/or mentally handicapped. We went to physical therapy the way other families go to soccer games. I thought every house came with a wheelchair ramp until I was in my teens. For a while, I genuinely thought the whole world fostered kids and I looked forward to the day when I would have to go live with another family with a mixture of resolve and trepidation.

When I was still very young, my parents took in an infant we’ll call Sunny. Sunny had been born ‘normal’, but meningitis and prolonged fever had left her so severely compromised that her doctors did not think she would live more than a few weeks. When she was finally released from the hospital, her parents were unable to provide her specialized care, so my parents were contacted and she came home with us. She was profoundly medically fragile in those early years; we were constantly being told that she would not live to the end of the year…year after year after year. When she got sick, complications invariably set in and those complications were invariably life-threatening, but when she wasn’t sick, she was fine. Well, you know, not the way most people think of as ‘fine’, but fine for Sunny. She was mentally infantile, with no speech or means of communicating beyond crying when she was hurt or laughing when she was happy.

For twenty-eight years, she laughed.

Us ‘kids’ had been for years taking on more and more of Sunny’s physically demanding care, so it seemed both natural and obvious that, as my parents had become unable to foster her, I should. After jumping through a number of truly obnoxious hoops for the state, I ceased to be Sunny’s sibling and became her guardian at a time when decades of chronic and recurrent health problems began to catch up to her.

It sounds silly to say that I never saw it coming. Sunny had been beating the odds for so long, that I had begun to think of her as immortal. I genuinely worried about what would happen if she outlived me. I really thought that could happen.

It didn’t.

During the last four years of her life, Sunny spent easily half her time in the hospital and I sat beside her, holding her hand to keep her from biting it from pain, writing The Lords of Arcadia and reading as I wrote so she could hear my voice. I know this entry is supposed to be about the little things that inspire a book, and God knows, I could have filled this page with little things. The stone library in Redmond is a real place, the book that Rhiannon and Taryn read of the Sluagh and the Wild Hunt was my grandfather’s book, and the Arkes had roots in stories my mother told of her travels in Peru. The Wizard’s cat, the Great Dragon, and Old Crook all had reasons for being, but that isn’t why I wrote the books.

My world was ending. I built another one and lived there until it was over.

THE SCHOLOMANCE

I’m sure I’ve told this story elsewhere on this site, but what the hey, I’ve picked up a lot of new followers since then. I’ll tell it again.

I have weird dreams. Bear with me, this is going somewhere. I’m a lucid dreamer, which I understand is an ability only about 1% of all people have cultivated. For those who may not know, a lucid dreamer is someone who is aware when they are dreaming and can consciously alter aspects of their dream. As such, I have very few nightmares, because as soon as things start to get hinky, I can literally say “Nertz to this noise,” and either wake up or just erase whatever’s scaring me and go on with the dream. For the most part, however, I choose not to influence my dreams because they are so darn interesting on their own merits that I’d rather sit back and see where they go than consciously direct them.

dream1

They don’t need my help to get weird.

Unusual even for lucid dreamers, I can read and write in my dreams, not just look at gibberish and ‘understand’ what it’s supposed to mean. I also have dreams that tend to be more detailed than those of my friends, as well as dreams that follow complete story lines. How complete, you ask? I’ve had several that included opening and closing credits (one of them, Beyond Butterfly, would have made a great book, if I wrote romances). I also have an unusual amount of recall for my dreams on waking. All of which I tell you so that when I tell you I have had a recurring dream (well, two, but this is the only one I’m going to talk about) that I could not control, you understand how unusual that is for me and why I would deem it remarkable enough to warrant the effort I went through to exorcise myself of it.

There are many versions of The Dream, but they all follow the same general outline and star the same main character. That character is not me, in that I share none of her senses, although the dream’s ‘camera’ stays fixed on her and her alone, so that I see only those same scenes she’s in. The character is never named; it took me forever to settle on the name ‘Mara’ in the book. The character in my dream is not a telepath, although physically, she and Mara are nearly identical: pale hair, white eyes, all angles, unsmiling. The setting of the dream is always different, but similar in mood—a formerly lavish hotel, a sprawling factory complex, a mine, a series of dry sewer-like tunnels beneath a city, an industrial-looking hospital. All are old, dark, decrepit. All are inhabited by two kinds of people: the first and most numerous are just people, albeit dangerous and predatory ones, who mill around in the foreground and serve mainly to distract the main character from what she’s really doing there. The second sort are a handful of monsters. Sometimes they look human, more often, they don’t. They are quieter, watchful. Sometimes they don’t even interact with the main character, but they are always aware of her. They know she is there. They know why she’s there. They want to stop her. And why is she there? Why, she’s there to find Connie.

Let me be clear on something. I don’t know anyone named Connie. To my knowledge, I’ve never known anyone named Connie. But in every version of this dream, it has always been Connie who is lost. She’s never seen, certainly never rescued. The dream begins with Connie lost and ends the same way. The next dream does not follow the previous one, which is to say, they are never connected. It is one dream, one endless search, a thousand different retellings.

Although the dreams were definitely sinister in atmosphere, they were not particularly troubling, so I lived with them for thirty-plus years before latching onto the idea that I might rid myself of them forever if I just freaking found Connie. As soon as I made the conscious decision to write the book, I knew exactly where it would be set.

The Scholomance. The Dark School. That hidden place of magical learning where the Devil claims one of every ten students as his due.

Now a Level 90 Heroic Dungeon!

Now a Level 90 Heroic Dungeon!

I first read of the Scholomance in a book my grandfather left lying around where tiny little hands could get at it. He was a Harvard professor of anthropology and had traveled the world extensively in his thirties and forties, mostly in Africa and Europe; his house was filled with mementos of his journeys, including some highly un-PC artifacts from Ethiopia, and a treasure trove of books. One of these latter was an illustrated, leather-bound monster of a book, the sort you never see outside of the movies, in which myths and legends from around the world had been collected. In this book, I read of sluagh, naga, dragons, sirens, vordulak, adze, Baba Yaga, the Morai, Coyote and Raven, Jenny Greenteeth, Amazake-babaa, the djinn, the Black Book, and (shudder) the Scholomance.

I remember those illustrations vividly to this day. Upon my grandfather’s death, that book was the one thing I asked for, but of course, my deeply religious extended family thought it was Satanic or whatever and threw it out. They threw out his Wizard of Id cartoon books for the same reason. I hate to think what they must think of my books. 🙂

I had enormous fun writing The Scholomance. It was one of those rare books that just poured out of me. I don’t think I had an outline at all, just a notebook full of portraits of the various demons, each of whom were inspired by a different cryptid/demon/mythical witch. And while writing it did not cure me of the recurring dream, I certainly can’t call the attempt a failure when it led down such interesting paths.

COTTONWOOD

Anyone who’s read Cottonwood has seen my author’s note telling the story of its creation, so if you’re one of them, please feel free to skip ahead. For everyone else, here’s the story.

I have some health issues. I’m not going to get into it, except to say that while the symptoms can be managed, there is no cure and it is a condition that is, as one doctor memorably put it, “incompatible with life.” I have apparently had this condition since childhood, but it has been undiagnosed until about ten years ago, because I had to get to the falling-down-and-passing-out phase before doctors stopped dismissing my complaints as ‘stress’ or worse, ‘attention-seeking’, and started saying things like, ‘possibility of massive organ failure’ and ‘incompatible with life’.

I mention this solely so that you have some sort of context when I tell you both Cottonwood and The Last Hour of Gann owe their existence to me being literally too sick to get out of bed. There I lay, day after day, watching terrible sci-fi and horror movies for ten and twelve hours at a time in a desperate effort to distract myself from the fact that I felt like I’d been run over by a steam-roller, then folded into a beautiful origami crane, and then stepped on and set on fire. It sucked, is I guess what I’m saying.

So there was this one movie, a Syfy Original Picture. I don’t remember what it was called, but it had Bruce Campbell in it.

Found it! It's called Alien Apocalypse.

Found it! It’s called Alien Apocalypse.

The gist of the story is, a small group of humans land on either an alien world or Earth in the future, but in either case, there are humans who have been enslaved by these CGI insectoids. You’d think the aliens would be easily defeated, seeing as it was really bad CGI, but no. Those human slaves let themselves be completely subjugated by a bunch of pixelated bugs, and as so often happens when I watch movies and not enough blood is getting to my brain, I got to thinking…

I thought there’s really only two kinds of alien-encounter movies anymore: the kind where we land on their planet and promptly begin acting like huge aggressive veiny dicks, yet defeat the hostile and often socially primitive (even if technologically advanced) natives, solely because we’re the humans and humans have the God-given right to colonize any planet we land on, even if we landed by accident, and especially even if it’s already inhabited; and the kind where they come flying clear across the damn galaxy with their advanced technology and their superior intellects and unstoppable military force, targeting Earth for some ridiculously implausible reason, if they even have a reason, but we defeat them anyway because we’re the humans and the human will to endure and survive is indomitable. In short, humans rule, aliens drool.

Lying there in my bed of pain, watching Bruce Campbell win a fistfight with an alien that not only had a chitoid exoskeleton that should have broken his fleshy pink fist, not only that, but who also had a god-damned laser gun, I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m tired of seeing this shit.’ And then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if the aliens were the ones who crashed on Earth by accident and then had to deal with our illogical, Hollywood-fueled paranoia? Like, we’d be all, ‘Aliens!’ and they’d be all, ‘Look, dudes, we just need a minute to recharge our snarflux, and we’re gone.’ And I laughed, because when you don’t have a lot of blood getting to your brain, things are funnier. But I kept thinking about it and somewhere between that movie and the next one—I’m not sure anymore, but I think it might have been Transmorphers. Yes, you read that right. Trans-morphers—I had two ideas for a new book floating around in my head. In one, the aliens would come to Earth and spend most of the book trying to escape from the evil humans’ clutches. In the other, the humans would crash on the alien planet, where they would pit their indomitable human spirit against a hostile environment and discover for themselves just how well that would work in real life. Also, I wanted the aliens in both books to be just super alien. Not giant-clouds-of-pulsing-purple-light alien, but not able to pass as human just by wearing a trenchcoat and a hat either.

Looking at you, R. Lee...oh.

Looking at you, R. Lee…oh.

My first thought was to make the aliens in what would eventually become The Last Hour of Gann insectoids in homage to that Bruce Campbell movie and make the Cottonwood aliens giant, hulking lizardlike creatures. I changed my mind at the last minute, for reasons that now escape me, and wrote Cottonwood, complete with bug-like aliens, in a feverish two weeks. I mean it. I had a super-high fever. I typed it up over the next two months. Then I put it away, as is my wont, so that it could rest for a few months before my final edits and publication. And in the course of that final resting period, what should happen, but the movie District Nine came out.

*sigh* But that’s a post for another day.

THE LAST HOUR OF GANN

As I say, I had conceived LHoG as a kind of sister-story to Cottonwood. In Cottonwood, the aliens came to Earth; in LHoG, the humans would go to the alien world. I had no other real concept at the time, in part because I was focused on Cottonwood and in larger part because I was, heh, sort of kind of dying and didn’t have the wherewithal to think any further than that. So I wrote all the way through Cottonwood with no title for the next book, no characters, no nothing except a vague idea that the aliens would be lizards, and I only had that much as a kind of blowback from the creative process that went into Cottonwood.

So when I was done with Cottonwood and feeling a little more with it and ready to start LHoG, I went at it with practically a blank page, and as so often happens with me, I got my first inspiration from a dream. Or rather, two dreams.

The first concerned a small group of people, including one Amber Bierce and her little sister, Nicci, as well as a proto-Scott named (I think) Cameron, who pass through a magical portal and emerge on an alien planet. They soon encounter one of the natives—a lizardlike alien named Dumaka (I call Meoraq’s race in The Last Hour of Gann the dumaqs in homage) who leads them across the hostile land to a place where legend has it, other ‘alien wanderers’ reside. I didn’t think there was much of a story in that at the time, but I never forgot the characters or the way the group’s small society began to crumble. In the dream, Amber was just one face in the background, notable mostly for her relationship with her manipulative, perpetually crying little sister. The hero was a guy named Fergus, who may or may not appear in a later book. I liked him.

The finer points of what eventually became the world of Gann I culled from another dream, in which an alien world was inhabited by three races–the humans, who dwelled within the walls of great, round cities and did the industrial work; the Crawl, mutants or monsters or something vaguely humanish, swaddled in rags, who scuttled around outside the walls, ostensibly working fields and tending livestock, but possibly cannibalistic and really creepy; and the Haakoni, wolfish men (and women, maybe, although I never saw any) who are the only ones on the whole planet who are allowed to carry weapons and who can kill with impunity, who can demand anything they want of anyone they meet, and who act as conduits for the living gods of that world. That dream didn’t go anywhere either, but I loved the world and especially the cities, which were exactly as described in The Last Hour of Gann.

LAND OF THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD

I have already mentioned a few of the inspirations for LotBD, so if you are inclined to read about them, you may do so at your leisure. To avoid lengthy rehashing, I will simply say here that the book itself was created because I was ordered to produce a novella for the Freebie table at a romance writing convention, and I cannot write novellas, so my attempt to write a 40 page piece of romantic fluff rampaged out of control like a horde of zombies and turned into another (I think) 300 page book about the zombie apocalypse. And romance! I will also say that Azrael was inspired by equal parts Mary Shelley’s conception of the character of Frankenstein’s monster, and also by Shakespeare’s conception of Richard III. To wit, I wanted an eloquent, intelligent, truly monstrous monster who acted a dual role of hero and villain, and could be convincing as both.

Opposing and completing him, I had Lan, who was inspired more by what I didn’t want her to be than what I did—I didn’t want a damsel in distress or a kickass zombie-slayer, neither a ravishing beauty nor a hardcore survivor. Her personality had to be equal to Azrael’s own, a force to be reckoned with, able to look the Devil in the eye and see a man.

POOL

I realize this may be a sore point, considering my announcement that I won’t be publishing Pool, but this blog post isn’t about publication, it’s about inspiration. So in that spirit, the idea for Pool came to me the day I was watching a pretty bad subterranean monster movie with my sister (I told you this would be a recurring theme). And no, it was neither The Cave nor The Descent; it was something on the Syfy Channel. That should give you an idea of the quality of the plot. Anyway, when the brainy yet incredibly cute girl in the tight shirt killed a monster with a pickaxe, my sister said, “Poor guy.”

It made me think of something I admit I’ve thought before…that the humans broke in and started killing, often completely unprovoked, and the monsters were entirely justified in responding with perhaps a tad more hostility than the situation demanded. Things escalated. Mistakes were made. But no one ever sees it from the monster’s point of view.

It's a common misunderstanding.

It happens more often than you’d think.

So I started sketching. And once I’d drawn Pool, I realized I knew his whole story. The humans were harder to find. Ironically, the best friends–Hayley and Kyson–came before the heroine. The boyfriend came even later (I’m pretty sure he’s the same guy as Taryn’s boyfriend from Lords of Arcadia).

When I was researching Pool, I went to a number of caves (the kind you walk through; I am not a spelunker) and some mining museums. I was hugely inspired by nature’s amazing diversity in these underground places. It made it very easy to slip into Pool’s head and think in the very different way he thinks. He is, at heart, a peaceful man. When he isn’t, you know, biting the throats out of people as a means of impressing a girl.

EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT

On the surface, I suppose this one is obvious. I was inspired by Scott Cawthon’s game, Five Nights at Freddy’s. More than that, I was inspired by the tremendous detail he put into the backstory of that game, a backstory which he scattered around the scenery like so many gingerbread crumbs in a dark forest, never to directly address them. The horror of that game is not found in the admittedly creepy design of the animatronics or rundown look of the restaurant, and it’s not in the jumpscares (although I have to admit, the first time Foxy jumped the curtain and ran down the hall at me, I legit let out a yell and physically jumped back, actually falling off my bed—the first and only time in my entire horror game-movie-book-devouring life I have ever done that). The real horror is in that dark space between what Scott shows you and the little he tells you. It’s in guessing just what in the hell happened at that restaurant.

I was at the time still writing LotBD and I was in a pretty dark place, there at the end of the book. Anyone who’s read it will probably be able to guess why. Anyway, I needed a mental break now and then, so I would think about FNAF and try to suss out the timeline and backstory of the restaurant. One night, just for shits and giggles, I sat down and started writing the bulk of what would become the second part of Everything Is All Right—a long expositional conversation between Mike Schmidt, the security guard from the game, and my as-yet-unnamed character.

I wrote more than eighty pages in a single night.

Putting it aside so I could finish LotBD was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, harder than writing LotBD’s ending, harder even than reading it. Once I did finish LotBD, I sat down with Pool and started working on it again, but it wasn’t long before I realized…well, you all know what I realized. No need to rub lemon juice in that wound. The point is, I found myself looking at the old Story Board and trying to figure out which of the stories tacked up there on index cards was shouting the loudest, but although they were all talking, the thing I heard the clearest was the Toreador March.

After a short, clarifying chat with my sister, Cris, I decided to go ahead and write Everything Is All Right. And wow, am I having fun with this dark, unspeakably brutal book.

Everything Is Alright Part 1 (1)

Updates every Saturday!

Well, it looks like I’ve come to the end of it. This has been a long post, so hey, gold star to you if you made it all the way to the end! I’ll see you next Wednesday for a hopefully shorter lesson on the pitfalls of writing, for real this time. Maybe.

Class dismissed.

*sigh* I miss Caroline.

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4 responses to “Writer’s Workshop Wednesday VI

  1. This is on a completely different note: Do you have any of your books currently in paperback besides Land of the Beautiful Dead? I already purchased that one, and know you mentioned you were working on LHOG, and would love to have that as well as other of your works in the physical 🙂

    • No, not yet. I have someone who is handling that for me, and Life is complicated for them right now, so putting my books on Createspace is not (nor should it be) a priority for them. When things calm down, and they get back on it, I’ll be sure to post here and let everyone know.

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