Embarrassment, failure, shame, and other strong emotions stemming from a specific event can fuel powerful writing. There is a reason why people suggest that new writers start with what they know. With the recent stories in the news about the shooting in Santa Barbara and the ensuing Twitter trend of sharing to #YesAllWomen, I decided to open up about the inspiration behind All the Pretty Bones. My story prominently features a stalker and looks into the mind of both the aggressor and the victim. How could I possibly attempt to understand how either party would feel? Unfortunately, it wasn't difficult.
For an entire school year I lived in fear. Despite the terror that kept me from maintaining a healthy weight or participating in activities outside of my own home, I fought. I did not want him to win. I filed restraining orders. I got a lawyer who insisted I stay at the school (despite the fact that she had pictures of him issued to the security guards at her firm - just in case he came after her). I documented everything he said to me along with dates, times, and signatures of anyone who would admit to witnessing it. Cell phone cameras didn't exist back then, but I did what I could to illustrate violations. I tried to collect statements from teachers and classmates.
The most heart breaking aspect of the experience was how I was treated. My friends avoiding me I could understand. The lawyer's stance was ridiculous. His girlfriend confronting me because he insisted on calling her by my name was insane. But the worst of it was how I was treated by the people in charge. As a child, you are taught to trust that people of authority will do the right thing. The principal refused to move him to a different school. The police rolled their eyes and made fun of me when they issued the restraining order or responded to a violation. People assumed I was a scrawny kid with a need for attention - that I was doing something wrong or making it up.
I was lucky. After stubbornly attending class and reporting violations, the principal was forced to move my stalker to another high school. Not because I was convincing. He split his dad's head open during an argument and the police were sure to alert the principal that he had been arrested. It took an act of violence for everyone to finally grasp how simple it would have been to target me instead. Unfortunately, the move to a new school didn't stop him. Death threats made frequent appearances in my two remaining friends' lockers until even they gave up. I fled the school and was eventually forgotten. Like I said, I was lucky.
Two years later, I was volunteering through my new high school at a community housing unit, planting flowers to make the place a little more cheery. One of the officers who had issued my restraining order recognized me and walked up to me. I didn't remember him until he explained how he knew me and then he shocked the hell out of me. He apologized. He wanted me to know how sorry he was for his behavior. He assumed I was just a bratty teenager blowing things out of proportion, but because I was visibly shaking, he decided to read the detailed report I submitted with the request. He said I had every right to do what I did and that he was wrong. He hoped things turned out well for me and was happy to hear that my stalker had left me alone for two years. He said he had learned to take things more seriously.
I wasn't able to say much in return. I think I thanked him. I remember crying that night, but it wasn't because I was upset or angry. I was relieved.
My stalker provided me with inspiration for a book and fuel for character development, but the policeman gave me hope that there are some people in charge who will do the right thing.
The National Center for Victims of Crime: Stalking Resource Center
I'm not sure how other writers get their inspiration, but my best ideas jump out at the oddest times. Sure, I've had some decent scenes pop into my head while I was listing out concepts on paper or bouncing them off my husband, but the really good stories come out of no where. A conversation at work, an annoyance with a product, or daydreaming about the person in front of me at the coffee shop could each be a potential source.
Where I have failed to find a story has surprised me more than the sudden flashes of insight. I have not had success using my own fears as a basis for a story. I am typically much better off imagining a creepy character and building a story or focusing on a strange element. My fears are boring and, dare I say, normal. I wouldn't enjoy writing an epic battle about a woman conquering a tiny spider with a shoe. It just doesn't speak to me.
Strange thoughts pop into my head, but the real trick is getting it to sing on paper. I know an idea has really taken root and turned into something successful when someone I know reads it and looks at me like they are seeing me for the first time. That look usually says, "Who are you and what made you this way?" When writing horror, the words, "But, you look so normal," are actually a good thing.
Where do you get your inspiration?
At each writing conference, there is always at least one "Aha!" moment that makes the expense or travel well worth the effort. This conference was no exception, and I am very pleased that my husband and I made the trek to Wenatchee.
The authors and subject matter experts chosen to present at the conference did a fantastic job. Friday evening, Jess Walter was the keynote speaker. I was immediately captivated by his wit, but I appreciated his honesty as an author. A lot of writers shy away from baldly stating how difficult it is to write a story that is marketable, let alone captivating to a broad audience of readers. Jess Walter managed to do that magnificently with Beautiful Ruins, but it took him 15 years. Part of me sat there thinking, "Thank God," while the other part thought, "Oh s@#$." While it's a bit of a relief to hear that everyone can struggle (and this is a man who produced best sellers in the interim), it made me realize that it's time to put a couple of my concepts in a drawer for safe keeping and walk away for a while. Maybe a year. Maybe eight. As my grandmother would say, straining is a great way to get hemorrhoids - might as well not force it.
The honesty continued with Larry Brooks. He had some fantastic guidance around fiction writing. I wasn't able to stay for his presentation on Sunday, and I was extremely sad after sitting in his classes on Saturday. I was so impressed that I purchased one of his books, Story Engineering, and plan on devouring it, taking notes, and immediately applying the logic to a few of my active projects. His no nonsense approach could be heavy handed for some, but I personally value a straight shooter. Critique is an integral part of improving my craft: it's the only way to know what's broken.
Write On The River also offered the opportunity to meet with an editor and an agent. I originally signed up a couple months ago thinking, "We'll see." I decided to go through with pitching on Monday and threw myself into researching what is expected of the author. This research opened up a world I wasn't expecting and wish I had the foresight to delve into sooner. But more on that later.
My only critique is of the brown bag on Social Media. While the gentlemen presenting had some really valid points around branding and Social Media, I wish they had emphasized the importance of establishing an online presence and brand prior to submitting for publication.
My key takeaways from Write On The River:
It really was river adjacent! And yes, I do normally sparkle in sunlight.
Freelance writer and Dark urban fantasy author featuring vampires with bite.