Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Torture and Torcher and original fiction!

"Where do you get your ideas" seems to be one of the first questions non-writers like to ask writers about their work. The more time I spend writing, the more it seems to be not quite the right question. The challenge - at least for me - isn't in finding ideas, but in shaping those ideas into something larger.  Ideas in and of themselves are pretty much everywhere. Some examples, from my own work and others of a few sorts of inspirations which speak to me:

MishearingsOverhearings, and Misprints
For those who don't know, I've worked in New York City for quite some years now. One day I saw a beggar holding a cardboard sign, hand-written in black marker the way such things often are, pleading for help as he was a "victim of government torcher." The person, the setting, and pretty much everything else about the situation were soon forgotten. What stuck with me was that misspelling (deliberate? A sign of poor education? Mental illness? Performance art? It's impossible to know). I found the near homonyms "torture" and "torcher" compelling enough to start tinkering and world-building around it. What I ended up with, of course, was "The Torcher's Tale", eventually serialized here.

Taken to a literal extreme, this is a technique used in some sorts of modern poetry. I'm thinking specifically of Bart Silliman, who's published entire volumes of simple transcripts of every word he uttered over the course of a week, traffic reports, and other "found language". My own inspiration doesn't run quite so far to the conceptual as this, but share the greater message in that openness to the world around us can be a source of art..

Here's a short scrap or horror that came to me from someone else's typo: "Willow water" for "shallow water". 

Strip slender branches of bark, soak in pure spring water. Mix lustrous hair, salty tears. 
Two drops fresh blood, three torn pages from your journal. All into the cauldron, slowly 
simmering, leaving air thickly scented; decaying pulp, moist earth, echoes.
I plant a bough entwined with another stolen lock and bloody tooth. Pour hallowed 
willow tonic, whisper prayers to beloved memories.
No matter if it fails to take root. From my dungeon more eyelashes, skin, bones, and 
humours can still be harvested, as will salty flow from eyes that once held devotion.

Images and Games, and Constraints
Sometimes a picture or phrase suggests a story. Those who've spent some time on this blog saw my collection of Nightmare Fuel stories from this past October. The Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers have also been known to share an image prompt from time to time. We've even toyed with the idea of a writing-only meetup in which we all take a prompt and try to make something of it.

I also adore writing games. Challenges to use certain words or concepts in a story, exquisite corpses, or shared "pass the story" exercises are not only great ways to get started on something, but great practice for thinking outside of ones comfort zone. If you again look back through my archives, you can see the blog-hop stories I wrote with various co-contributors. I don't necessarily think that all of these represent my very best work or are completely reflective of my style, but it's healthy as an artist to branch out.

What makes this kind of thing interesting to me is that the sometimes artificial constraint of having to use a certain image or follow some seemingly arbitrary rule makes it easier for me to write than a pure blank slate with no rules. The rules create a framework on which to build everything else.

Taken to an extreme, this kind of thinking can lead to absurdly difficult stunt-writing. One of my favorite professional examples is Christian Bok's "Eunoia". It's a weird sort of narrative poem divided into five chapters, each of which only uses one vowel. In case this isn't difficult enough, he attempted to use as many words as possible and have each chapter include a banquet, an orgy, and a nautical journey. This is the kind of thing in which I'm in awe.

Others' Works
Even if one isn't going to write fan-fiction or use other characters, there's rich inspiration to be found in other literature. Sometimes a story suggests an image; Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison read Robert Bloch's classic story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" (in which Jack is revealed to be a supernatural monster extending his life through murder of innocent victims) and became obsessed with the image of Jack in a sterile and clean far-future. Bloch took this image to write "A Toy for Juliette" which didn't do quite as much with Ellison's vision as it could have. Ellison's "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" took this one step farther and gave us what Ellison saw as the story.

I recall reading a story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction the author and title of which I can't quite recall; it told of an adult who had, as a child, visited a Narnia-like fantasy world and battled some great evil. Now, as an adult, he returned to actually finish killing it. What bothered me was the simple binary of good and evil, and the assumption that the "good" fantasy creature was pure good and the only solution was to slay the "bad" creature. So, I wrote the following, presented here in its entirety for your enjoyment. 

"The Battle for the World as a Succession of Bedtime Stories
by L Czhorat Suskin

We were brave. Being brave means doing something even if it is scary. Like climbing the big ladder on the playground by yourself. That’s brave.

Anyway, like I was saying,  the world on the other side was strange and different, but we were brave. Even when it was hard to be. We were brave. We went through the hedgerow, to the world beyond, and fought the Reaper. It was big and scary, but the Guardian told us it needed to be beaten. We did, because we were brave.

No, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t scared. Being brave means doing what you need to do anyway. Even when you are scared.

Sarah and Billy and I were brave enough to cross over beyond the hedgerow, to fight the Reaper and to save the world.


I don’t remember the first time we met the Guardian, but I remember the first time he told us about the Reaper. On this side of the Hedgerow he looked like a dog. A beautiful dog. Like a golden retriever or something. He told us it would be scary, that the Reaper was dangerous. But we followed him.

Because we were brave.

On the other side, the guardian was bigger, like a wolf. A beautiful wolf. He walked like a man, but hunched over, like he wasn’t used to it. The way a dog would walk if you taught it to. Or one of those poor bears some circuses have.

What’s the other side like? It’s different. Like I told you, there were yellowish, licorice-smelling trees. Orange-red sand, the color of ripe tomatoes. Dusty, winding woodland paths between those weird trees. Sometimes we’d find these sorry bundles of sticks and string with little bundles of dried up food under them. This was the first lesson from the Guardian.

“This is an offering shrine of the Reaper’s people. Through these shrines they can let evil seep into the land.”

I frowned. “Why don’t you just get rid of them?”

The Guardian hung its head. “there are rules between his people and mine. Old rules I can’t break. His people were once very strong.”

No, I don’t know who made the rules. But aren’t there rules in all of the old stories? Remember the one about the girl visiting the dark half of the world who promised not to eat anything? And she had the six seeds and that’s why we get winter? It was probably like that. That’s a great point. Not knowing all the rules was probably why it was so scary.

So anyway, there were these little pointy, spiky bundles of sticks the Guardian called shrines. Billy ran at one of them and, without stopping, planted his foot next to it and kicked like he was shooting a soccer ball. The sticks were dry enough that they exploded into shards and splinters which he gleefully stomped. I was impressed.

“That was awesome. Let me do the next one!” I yelled.

“You gotta spot it first,” Billy answered. This gave us a great game for the rest of the trip. Whoever spotted one would yell “shrinekick!” and we'd race to see who could boot it first. We knew they were evil things by the long, angry scratches they’d give our legs if we didn’t aim our kick just right.

Sara never joined us and never spotted one.

Billy and I were brave, but Sarah was smart. She’s the one who found the Reaper’s one weakness disguised in a riddle, buried in a book called the White Grimoire. Grimoire is another word for an old, fancy book of magic.

He took us across the hedgerow, the way he always did. One side Mrs. Hiller’s lawn, and on the other a different world. Weird yellow trees, orange grass, and a purple sky. An artist would say that it clashes. Like when Mommy doesn’t like how you pick your clothes.

Anyway, there were buildings in the world beyond the hedgerow. Old buildings. Remember the pictures I showed you of our trip to Greece? They were buildings like that. We asked the Guardian about them.

“These are from before the Reaper. Long ago we built things like this, tall and graceful and lovely and adorned. Then came the battles. Now there’s time only to build simple, sturdy buildings. One day, after we kill the Reaper and all its progeny, we’ll again build grandly.”

Yeah, it was sad that they didn’t make fancy buildings anymore. That might have been part of what we were fighting for. To make the Guardian’s people safe enough to build fancy buildings again so we could see them.

He urged us on, but Sarah was staring at the ruined building. “Wait. If this was a computer game or a story or something there’d be something important in the building. It wouldn’t be there otherwise.”

I pointed out, very reasonably, that it was not a computer game or a story. Sarah just shrugged. We all played lots of games,but she was always the best at them. The one who told the rest of us to move the rug in the living room to find the hidden trapdoor, or tell the cyclops the name of an ancient Greek hero to scare it away. I guess that part came from reading stories.

“So what? If we don’t learn anything from them, then playing all those games is a just a waste of time anyway. I don’t want them to be a waste of time.  Let’s look inside.”

The Guardian didn’t seem to like it, but we went inside. The room smelled like a basement, all wet earth and mildew and forgotten memories. Sarah and Billy started hunting through broken stone shelves and decaying wood while the Guardian stood at the doorway, half-outside with a sometimes backward glance at us. “It is dangerous to stay here. The Reaper sometimes comes to these old, fallen places. We should go.”

I hung stood between. I wanted to help search, but I trusted the Guardian. He knew this world better than we did. I was just about to tell my friends that we should leave when Sarah shouted in triumph.

She’d found the book. Later, we’d work together to solve the riddle.


We came back again and again to the world beyond the hedgerow. The twisted yellow trees with their faint licorice smell seemed almost normal after a while, as did the purple sky. We'd followed hints and riddles in the White Grimoire for months, seeking out the crystal shard, the golden hammer, hidden paths to the parts of the world where the Reaper lived. Billy and I always found the treasures, weapons and secrets, and were always home before supper.

As long as kids are home in time for supper, everything is fine. We were having a grand adventure. We were saving the world.

Yes, it’s still important to to be home for dinner. You can’t save the world on an empty stomach!

Anyway, the Guardian helped us trap the last Reaper in a squalid hut, smelling of week-old eggs and alien dirt. It was an ugly thing, all tentacles and slime and joints that bent the wrong way. It was ugly as the Guardian was beautiful.

It was cornered and weak and we had the weapons and the answers to the riddles. We’d been brave and strong and smart.

We knew how to rid the world of it.



The story of the world beyond the hedgerow? No, last night wasn’t the end. Yes, the Reaper was beaten, and we never saw the Guardian again. Sarah went back once more, without me and without Billy. We didn’t see her until later. Her clothes were torn, her skin and hair caked with old dust. Dirt-stained fingernails clutched a book. Not shining and magnificent like the White Grimoire. This was a plain book, a dirty battered chewed up thing smelling of mildew and neglect. The half-torn cover revealed handwritten pages.

Her eyelids were red and swollen and her voice hoarse. “I can’t go back again. I think the guardian saw me.”

We looked at her and at the book, not sure how to answer. Billy finally asked what it was.

“The Reaper’s diary. I’ve been reading it all day. He... well, here’s a part near the end. Listen.”

She read. “The magic of the way-shrines holds, but not for long. The dogmen found someone from across the barrier to start breaking them. If many more fall, there will be no protection, no sanctuary. The rest of the dogmen will come, finish looting the ruins of the topless towers, and fill the world with ugly, squat bunkers.

I fear not for myself; old magics still protect me from the dogmen. I fear for our world, but I will be brave and smart and wise and fight on. For the future.”

Sarah looked up from the book. “I think.. we might have done the wrong thing.”

We tried to go back again and see. See what? What we’d really done, I guess. And maybe what we could do to fix it. If it needed fixing.

It didn’t matter. The hedgerow, when we got back to it, just lead us to the neighbor’s backyard. Whatever door we’d snuck through to the other world was sealed forever.

We never really talked about it again, but I think we all learned something about ourselves.

We were brave. We were strong. We were smart.

We were not wise.


  1. I love this post! It's true - where the ideas come from isn't really so much the question as how they are shaped. I will be "scenes" in my head. Those are the best ones for me. A scene so real I have to see what it's about. Once, I got a story idea from a book I read once. Like you described, it wasn't fan fiction at all. In fact, it was inspired by the book Vanity Fair. But the idea was nowhere near what the original book was about (about a woman seeking revenge on a friend cheating with her husband). But a thread of plot in Vanity Fair inspired it (and actually, I think a prompt may have started me off). Ideas are everywhere! The art is in how we sculpt them. :)

    1. Thanks Nicole.

      One interesting thing (which is probably another post in its own right) is that often when I have a story inspired by one clear scene in my head I write it... and that one scene ends up dropping out of it. In my head there's still the negative space where the inspiration once was, but it's no longer a literal presence.

      That reminds me of Mike Goldberg's sardines here: : http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/why-i-am-not-a-painter/

  2. I forgot about the first part of your post after reading the second until Nicole's post. I got caught up in the tone of the narrator and the truth of the story.

    Inspiration is easy, as you said. I once read a writer (I cannot remember who) say that inspiration is everywhere, real writers can find 500 ideas a day, easily.

    As you say, though, it's the shaping of them that is the real challenge, and the fun bit. There's nothing like finding all the secrets. I've found in my current round of revisions that many of the answers I'm trying to find already have threads woven through the rest of the story I've already written. It's a puzzle, and a fun one - mostly. ;)