If you write fiction—maybe if you write nonfiction, too—you’ve probably been asked the question before: Where did you get that idea? Some answers come to mind.
A doctor examined my head, and the idea popped out with his scalpel.
Gremlins hacked into my computer to leave a story outline.
While sitting innocently on a park bench, Boris and Natasha slunk by and I overheard their whispers.
Space aliens beamed it into my head.
For me, it’s none of the above. Although with space aliens, one can never be sure, especially if they do it while you sleep.
I’m going to tell the unvarnished truth about some story ideas. No, let me take that back: I’m going to varnish the truth, because that’s what editing is all about. So here’s the varnished truth about two of my story ideas.
I’m about to enter a short story contest; the deadline is the first of May. The rules allow submission of up to three stories. I’d already drafted one and set myself to pondering what to write for the next. Way too many nonspecific ideas occurred to me. I woke up the next morning with an opening line of dialog in my head.
“Injunction isn’t even a word.”
It’s nonsense. Of course injunction is a word. But in addition to the line, I had pictured the character of the speaker: an old librarian, no less. Through the rules of the contest, I had at least the foundations of a setting, and I had already been thinking about the time frame. The contest asked for horror/comedy, and this story definitely sat on the comedy side while peeking into otherworldly horror. I was well on my way to a story.
I had to make the line make sense in context. The dialog that followed that opening—involving the old librarian and a young reporter—illustrated both personalities and set a tone that recurred throughout their interview. The opinionated old lady was somewhat out of touch with some aspects of our world, but she definitely knew a lot more about horrors of the world she lived in than she was willing to relate to the reporter.
The opening line not only put the reporter into a confused state, but it does the same to the reader. I hope so, anyway. I’ll find out in the summer if the judges like the idea.
My first published novel, Merlin’s Knot, opens with an old man who looks like a wino—Merlin of King Arthur fame—accosting a man coming out of a building in Houston.
“I am Merlin. You must help me.”
The idea originated many years ago at a meeting of a Houston writers group. The speaker that month led a session on openings. After her talk, we each took a blank sheet of paper and crafted an opening scene. I stared at the blank page for a few minutes, and then a slightly different version of that line appeared on the page.
Suddenly, the famous Merlin had appeared in contemporary Houston, and after a few pages we learn that he came looking for King Arthur. With a premise like that, the story almost wrote itself.
I jest, of course.
However, the idea was strong enough to raise novel-length questions. How did Merlin get to the here and now? Is Arthur in Houston, and if so, how did he get here? Why does Merlin insist that this particular Houstonian must be the one to help him? Of course, other complications ensue, but the framework was all there in the opening scene.
Incidentally, one of the themes in the novel is the clash between fate and free will. Merlin’s insistent demand, “You must help me,” heralds one instance of that conflict. Others become important later.
The idea for the sequel arose slowly as I finished Merlin’s Knot. That book, Merlin’s Weft, starts a few minutes before the end of the first book. I will release it later this year.
Merlin’s Knot is now available for pre-order on Amazon. The release date is May 5.