Anatomy of Inspiration
Writers of fiction are often asked "where" they find their ideas, as if they might be lost coins awaiting discovery in the grass. Alas, sources of inspiration are as varied as the stories themselves. But, when we stumble on a promising concept, it is as exciting as finding a stray $100 bill blowing across the lawn.
I'm often surprised where my ideas germinate. A few of my stories —"Inside Monastic Walls" and "Zombies Don't Suntan", for example—were the results of awakening from disturbing dreams and dealing with the images seared into my brain. Half asleep, lying in the dark, my mind still limber from REM doodling, the ideas flew easily.
Most of my stories sprout in the light of day. Unlike my dream gifts, a conscious effort is required. Not only do I need to come across that creative gold piece, but I need to let go, to be open to the possibilities. Too often, my mind space is taking up with the day's trivialities: the dwindling food on the refrigerator shelves, dirty laundry overflowing the hamper, doctor appointments, the to-do list for piecemeal work. You know the drill. Unfortunately, not conducive for giving the imagination full rein. I have to unleash it and let it wander about, or my writing will be stilted, the effort obvious.
"Body or Soul," the follow-up to "Inside Monastic Walls," was an awake effort. Fortunately, I already had a protagonist from the first story. Now, I had to continue him on his path and envision the characters he might meet in his world, their interactions, and how his problem might be resolved. I repeatedly asked myself, "What if?" Then I researched leather tanning, Greek Orthodoxy, goat milking, exorcism, etc. to fill in the details of life in a rural Greek village in the 1920s.
Seven White Wolves took its inspiration from a Grimm's fairy tale and bits of internet research. Even my own writing has opened the door to companion stories, such as those that follow the vein of "Blue Bear & Snow Toad," a story about two animals resisting hibernation to experience the sights and sounds of winter. Three more stories cover the other seasons.
"Inside Monastic Walls" was published in The Crimson Pact, an anthology. When the editor accepted the story, he requested a "behind the scenes" essay on the inspiration and writing process, to be included as an extra feature in the ebook version. Here's the write-up, detailing how that story came to be, once I woke from my nightmare:
Metéora. A dream must have planted its image. I woke, thinking about the tall, monolithic mountains topped with monasteries, which my husband and I visited when in Greece. The breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage site is hard to forget.
A quick glance at the clock told me it was too early to rise, so I stayed in bed, reluctant to leave its warmth and hoping I might fade back to sleep. Instead, my mind raced, and the image became the setting for a story played out in my head…wondering what it would be like to live a monastic life, to be one of the black-cassocked priests with their dome hats, commonly seen throughout the Eastern Orthodox country.
And what if—turning that on its head—one of the priests were possessed? It’s a theme that fascinates me. I’d recently written a novella on a variation of zombies, and there are some overlaps: once nice, reasonable folks suddenly want to eat their family and friends or stab them in the heart. At the center of zombie or demon possession stories, that sudden personality change, that new capacity to hurt even those closest, is what I find most horrific. And, it doesn't take a stretch of imagination to envision someone changing. For example, look at Alzheimer’s victims. As with my grandmother, the disease ravaged her mind, her personality replaced by an alien’s. Or, less radically, most of us can recall having been hurt by what we perceived as disloyal behavior by lovers and friends. At least with zombies and demons, they have a good excuse.
So, the idea, now a story, evolved from there.
I toyed with twisting the story more. After all, possessed priests weren't too original. What about injecting a child or teen who had been raised in the close community of monks? I like children characters; they bring a fresh perspective and, because adults tend to exclude them from conversations, children often have a limited understanding of the machinations around them.
However, that still bored me. How about demonic possession of an animal? I had such a critter at home: an unfriendly rabbit who rears up and bites. We nicknamed it “Bitchy Bunny” until it was discovered that she was actually a he when taken to be spayed. You can imagine the new moniker; it also starts with a “B”. So, taking my cues from BB, a donkey came on the scene. I’m only surprised donkey didn't kick Phideas in the head.
Except that might have killed him, and the demons had bigger plans for the young protagonist. That’s where the story really gets tangled. Somehow the boy is impregnated/implanted with a demonic life. In line with his religious upbringing, the virginal boy then misinterprets the conception, drawing parallels between him and the Madonna.
With that final twist, I practically leapt out of bed, eager to capture the story on paper before it dissipated with the early morning light.
After I finished the first draft, I remembered seeing a call for submissions on Paul Genesse’s website, something about flash fiction. I admit I didn’t know what that meant and had ignored it before, but I assumed “flash” meant brief, and here I had a story not yet fleshed out to short story length. I also recalled Paul was working on a Greek-based story too. Anyhow, turned out that day was the deadline for submissions. Ack. Happily, the planets aligned. A thousand words was manageable, and I polished and sent “Inside Monastic Walls” off.
Then talk about “flash” yet again: Paul contacted me within two days with notice of acceptance. I thought my head would spin, but, fortunately, I’m not possessed.