Writing stories can be fun or it can by a ball breaker. Or it can be a little of both. I have made a pretty good living at what Lawrence Block calls “Telling Lies for Fun & Profit.” Writing about my writing is different, but that is what I am supposed to do here, so I’ll give it a try.
I did not set out to be a horror writer. Laid off from my job as aerospace technical writer, I determined to see if I could actually write a story. I bought a stack of what was available at the time in magazines–science fiction and mystery. After reading them all I decided I was better suited to mystery. Luckily for me, there were three magazines at the time printing short mystery stories–Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and Mike Shayne. I gave myself a year to sell something, or I would go back to the real world and get a job. The biggest thrill of my writing life is still selling that first story. I treasure a personal letter from Frederic Dannay, who, along with his cousin Manfred B. Lee, was Ellery Queen.
With a dozen or so short stories in print, I decided it was time to write a novel. My first attempt was a disconnected mess that I wisely never sent to a publisher. I finally achieved a modest success with mainstream paperback novels, which got me an agent. I sent him my first shot at horror, The Howling. His reaction was, “You should have talked to me before you wrote this thing, Gary. Nobody is buying horror.” A week or so later Fawcett bought the book, which led to a couple of sequels, several movies, and a fairly comfortable career in the business of scaring people.
The question writers hear most, next to “When will you pay your bill?” is “Where do you get your ideas?” Some writers roll their eyes at this one. Not I. It’s a legitimate question, and deserves a thoughtful answer. While I try to stay away from the tiresome and-then-I-wrote approach, here are my thoughts on a few of my stories:
Offshore was born as I gazed at oil rigs off the beaches of Southern California and read news stories of the reactions in the coastal cities. Lots of possibilities for conflict and romance and yes, murder. I was satisfied with the resulting book, and thought it would make a fine TV miniseries. Unfortunately, I was the only one who thought so.
Billy Lives. This one clearly reflects the rumor of the time that Paul McCartney of the Beatles was dead. Happily for Paul, the rumor proved to be false. The Beatles were at the top of the rock world then, and I wondered what if a big rock star was on the downgrade with the public and his manager schemed, “What would be the reaction if people thought my guy was dead? Let’s start a rumor and see what happens.” And so they do, with some unexpected results.
Floater. Out-of-body experiences were big at the time. I tried without success to project my astral self into the Playboy Mansion. Failing that, I used the reliable “What If” method to ask, What if you projected your spirit out of your body, then couldn’t get back in? Uncomfortable, to say the least.
Tsunami (shamefully retitled by the publisher, A Rage in Paradise.) Not surprisingly, the idea for this came to me while I was in Hawaii. I was staying on the Kona coast of the Big Island. During my stay there I traveled across the island to the old city of Hilo. Next to Hilo Hattie, the city is most famous for a couple of devastating tsunamis that swept away whole blocks and killed scores of citizens. Driving back to the newer, flashier Kailua Kona, I wondered, what if (there it is again) a tsunami hit this side of the island?
Rot. The rural Wisconsin town, its people and the surrounding country are all familiar to me. Both my parents were Wisconsin born, and the farm in the story is my grandfather’s farm. I hasten to add that the immoral young people who drive the story are wholly imaginary. Well, maybe the California surfer guy is kind of a wish fulfillment.
Quintana Roo. When I lived in California I did considerable traveling around Mexico–back when it was reasonably safe to walk the streets and trails. I discovered there was a whole lot of trackless jungle on the Yucatan peninsula. The book is really more adventure than horror, and I set it back in 1939 for plot purposes. My British publisher had a problem with the title, so he called it Tribe of the Dead. Not a title I would have chosen, but certainly better than A Rage in Paradise.
The Players centers around the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Another wish fulfillment as my own tennis game never rose much above the weekend hacker level. This one was optioned for the movies but, alas, it was never filmed.
Walkers is my shot at the return-of-the-dead concept. If there is some kind of life after death, and I’m certainly not going to deny it, this is not the way you want to come back.
Sometimes the first thing to pop into your head is a title. Such was the case with The Brain Eaters. You could go a number of directions with that one. I hope my choice is sufficiently chilling.
So my answer to, Where do you get your ideas? is: Ideas are easy. They are everywhere. In your desk drawer, outside your window, tickling your memory. Hammering them into a story is hard.