by Heather Hein —
Warm weather has arrived in Colorado and things are waking up! This is the time when people come out of hibernation, when new experiences begin to happen all around us. Good, bad, weird—everywhere story ideas are just waiting to be put down on paper. Whenever a situation presents itself in my everyday life, I ask, “How did this happen? Why? What will happen next?” That’s a story’s opening image. That’s a catalyst. And everything flows from there.
A shoe on the side of the road? There’s probably still a foot inside it, removed with a sharp implement, and now the unsuspecting victim has been spirited away to a dark basement somewhere to be tortured. A kid in the grocery store screaming? Obviously, they were abducted, and those aren’t real people dragging them through the store—they’re alien look-alikes who slaughtered the kid’s parents and are now wearing their skins.
And that lady cruising at the Wal-Mart parking lot in a Smarte Carte, drinking wine out of a Pringles can? (One of my personal heroes.) She probably has a fungus in her brain, eating away at her executive functioning capabilities. That’s the only reasonable explanation I can think of.
These are story seeds. I have a whole file on my computer with little nuggets of observation and extrapolations I’ve strung together from the weird things that happen all around me–perfect for short stories. Sometimes it’s just a vague idea, sometimes it’s more. I jot everything down that I can and save it for later.
When I’m writing a novel, I plan and plan. And plan some more. Alternately, my best short stories are inspired by a single image or circumstance, and I often have no idea how the story will end until I get there. But all stories must have some semblance of structure, even if it’s just beginning, middle, and end. That may seem like a rudimentary idea, but it’s more involved than that.
In a short story, you don’t have much time to hook the reader, introduce your characters and develop them, create a plot, provide some action, reach a climax, and then give your reader some kind of resolution. (Whew, I’m already exhausted!) Every word counts, especially if your goal is to submit your finely crafted prose for publication. This is where story seeds can be helpful.
Whether you scan the open calls for submission and then write a story to match or fill moments of writer’s block with short story writing, having a little bank of ideas—seeds, if you will—can save you time and fire up your imagination.
Case in point:
A friend of mine had moved into a house and needed to shut off the main water valve. After searching around, she found it…in a creepy hole in the backyard. She posted about it on Facebook, and it went something like this:
Somewhere in this enticing pit is the water main… we think!? Which needs to be off to fix my kitchen pipes. Oh, but it’s full of Black Widows.
Obviously, I could not resist and (with her permission) my short story, “This Enticing Pit,” will be published in an anthology from Eerie River Press in June. I pulled haunting images from my childhood of the basement sump pump as further inspiration and added a dash of the red room from The Amityville Horror, to create the perfect horror story scenario with a basic three-act structure: beginning, middle, end.
So, when people ask me where my ideas come from, I tell them everywhere! Everywhere, a serial killer is lurking, someone’s been abducted, a monster lies in wait in a sewer, a loved one will turn into a raging lunatic due to chemical exposure as their DNA degrades into a lower form of reptile. (Feel free to use any of these images as a seed for your own story!) Perhaps I’ve seen too many movies, read too many books, or watched too much true crime. I admit, that is possible.
But I prefer to think that I have a rich imagination and a mild mistrust of society. One need only watch the news to learn that there’s no end to the depravity which our species is capable of. Horror provides a safe space to explore these ideas and, in the end, makes the world bearable.
The truth, as they say, is out there. It’s our job to go find it.