How do you get your ideas for stories?
I have a long-winded answer to this common question. To answer, we have to hop into our DeLorean and travel back to the late 90s. Like much of cable programming at the time a “science fiction news” show was in heavy repeat on one of the channels. Unlike my favorite protagonist, I lack an eidetic memory. I cannot recall the name of the show. That memory file is corrupt in my brainbox.
But what I do remember is this: Harlan Ellison seated in a bookstore window typing out (on a typewriter—how retro!) a complete story for the world to see. As he finished each page, it was posted for the public to read. Chris Carter, the creator of The X-files, supplied a line to launch the story idea that Ellison typed. Carter’s suggestion:
The 102-year-old pregnant corpse.
It wasn’t until years later when I went digging on the internet, that I discovered that Ellison made a habit of doing this—writing entire stories in book shop windows like some high wire act while the public watched and read the “fresh” results. Usually it was with some tidbit of inspiration supplied by another party—a story prompt. Ellison was trying to make the point that writing isn’t a mystic act of alchemy. It’s a job that people do just like anyone else. He was going for transparency. (The “pregnant corpse” prompt ended up as the story Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.)
I appreciate Mr. Ellison’s goal with this undoubtedly brave endeavor. (You wouldn’t catch me typing away in a bookshop window. ADD makes public spaces into nests of distraction. Picture noticing everything at once—noise, color, movement, smells—all without the ability to filter it out. You’d wonder if I had to go potty. I’m in and out of the chair every seven minutes, bouncing my knees, fiddling with things that don’t require fiddling… a generally unfocused mess.)
The thing that has stayed with me through the years is that story prompt Carter provided. What about the corpse? How did it end up being a corpse? Who found it? My brain conjured up an image of a human mummy, coated in cobwebs and reduced to a desiccated husk tucked away like a bad dream in the corner of a drafty attic. Considering it was Carter that supplied it, maybe it was a pregnant space alien or a human (not necessarily female) carrying an alien offspring. Creepy cool, right?
Until I’d encountered this information about Ellison and his story prompt writing escapades, I’d just assumed story ideas came fully formed to “real writers”. After all, they were professionals. My brain has a funny way of creating stories. I naturally assumed it wasn’t the “right” way. Ideas that occur to me for stories start as a visual scene in my head. It’s a snippet of a longer “film” that leads me to ask more questions. It tends to spread from there.
When I developed Allies and Enemies: Fallen, I had a vision of a battle weary female soldier in muck-covered, blood-soaked fatigues lingering in the hallway of a space ship. She’d just been through hell and had to carry a body on that journey. Other crewmembers give her a wide berth—not out of fear—but out of awestruck reverence given to heroes. Inwardly she doesn’t feel like a hero; she’s dealing with a horrendous loss and it feels like her world has been upended. How did she get there? Who did she lose? Who is she waiting for in that corridor?
The phrase that started this: I am no hero.
To quote a line from Lawrence of Arabia (which is borrowed in Prometheus), “Big things have small beginnings.” Story prompts can be your small beginnings. They’re not perfectly formed, nor do they represent an entity in and of itself. Without a place to nest or take root, they’re lifeless. You add that spark to bring the idea further along and create your “Big Thing”.