First (and most importantly), time is running out on snagging a free ebook of my short story collection Zombie Blues. The giveaway ends tonight at 11:59pm PDT. So head on over to Amazon and get your copy.
Got it? Okay then. So now onto what I promised in my last post: some insight into how writers get their ideas…or at least how I get mine. In the introduction to Zombie Blues I answer the question: why zombies? Here I’ll answer the question: why these stories?
Back in 2010, the zombie story ideas started popping up so fast (no doubt due to a little TV show called The Walking Dead) that I decided to use NaNoWriMo to help me get them all down.
The first idea I had sprang from a scene I envisioned: a young woman runs down the deserted street of a small town, chased by zombies, and looks for some place to hide. She comes upon the unexpected: a store window ablaze with neon lights and a note on the door that says: “HELP DESPERATELY NEEDED! No pay. Safe Environment. Only humans need apply.” Inside zombies are seated at tables with plates of junk food placed before them by a living human wait staff and old sitcoms play on the TVs mounted to the walls. The scene, dark street versus colorful neon and brightly lit window, stuck in my head and the mix of scary plus weird humor definitely fits into my cup of crazy. I ended up with the first draft of a story called “Zombie Café”, one that’s not in this story collection. (More about that later.)
Z Café, being set at a time when the zombie apocalypse has been on for quite awhile, got me thinking about how the whole thing got started. The first when that popped into mind was Christmas. Or rather, how the Christmas season in retail starts earlier and earlier each year. (This year commercials for Christmas sales have started airing the week before Halloween. Oy vey!) That set the scene for “The Stress of the Season,” the first story in Zombie Blues. I saw in my mind a busy grocery store parking lot, a soon-to-be-zombie bell ringer trying to carol at the donation bucket, and a wary, discredited scientist who had been trying to warn the government about a zombie virus. That got the story rolling for me and gave me an idea for the next one.
For the next tale of pre-zombie takeover, All Gone”, I had in mind a Twilight Zone-like story where the main character finds much more than he bargained for during a pest control job. The setting had to be innocent looking, a contrast with the first hint of creepy, something where I could almost hear Rod Serling off in the corner saying something like, “Portrait of an unsuspecting pest controller, an ordinary Joe who shows up at a typical suburban home where a mom and her two kids lead a quiet life, maybe too quiet. For down in the basement lurks a more than usual pest, one that comes not from the backyard or sewer line, but from a little place called the Twilight Zone.” With that in mind, I was off and writing.
As you can tell, I often get my ideas from a first scene that pops into my head. I see these like the glimpse of a movie that gives me the tone of the story and the setting right from the get go. Usually the main character pops up, too, though sometimes their name eludes me until I get into the actual writing. Sometimes, though, it’s a name that gets me hooked. For example, the story “Even Death” came about because of names and a first line that I couldn’t get out of my head: “Alice Cavanaugh’s husband Horace….” For a long time that was all I had. I didn’t know who these people were or what they had to do with zombies, but I had to figure it out; that line wouldn’t leave me alone. Which ended up being the key to Alice, a wife who won’t let go of her husband even when he turns into a zombie. She’s determined to make him fit into her well-ordered home no matter what’s happening to the world outside.
By this point in NaNoWriMo, I realized that I had a bigger goal than racking up the word count: to create stories that would take the reader through year one of my version of the zombie apocalypse. Whether or not they would stay separate stories or gel into a novel was a question for another time, but for that November I kept writing stories to propel the apocalypse along.
During this time Paris Hilton and Hilton wannabes were trending so I began to wonder what a girl of that ilk would do if she turned into a zombie. That’s where “And Her Little Dog, Too” came from, a story about socialite Mila, her little dog Mr. Bitsy, and her confusion over why she’d not getting the customer service she’s accustomed to at her favorite restaurant. So, yes, current events and trends are sometimes springboards for stories, or at least they provide me with a basis for drawing characters.
The fashionista scene is not mine, so that soon brought me back down to a more familiar place: somewhere out in the suburbs where we buy our makeup on sale and often at the corner drugstore. I had also started wondering about how all the women on The Walking Dead were looking so good in spite of makeup and hair styling not being a priority in the apocalypse. TV land, I know, but still…. Enter Evelyn, or Evie, a girl who refuses to let go of all her standards even when zombies run amok. For me, the last makeup item I’d want to let go would be mascara, but for Evie it’s lipstick. Therefore the story “Lipstick in the Time of Zombies”. This story really started going when I got the title. I could see Evie in the dark, nearly demolished drugstore searching the makeup section, but I didn’t know what the story would be until I asked myself why the lipstick was so important to her. Of course, it was because of her boyfriend. Because this would be a dark love story I riffed on the title Love in the Time of Cholera.
I liked writing about women dealing with the zombie apocalypse, different kinds of women from vastly different backgrounds. So, who next? So far all of the women characters had been brave and resolute, facing the new reality head on. None of your weak kneed, screaming, ingénues here. So what if….Nope. Couldn’t do it. Instead I came up with “Diary of a Professional Screamer” about a pre-apocalypse movie star known for scary flicks who turns into one kickass zombie hunter and still has to battle those who objectify and treat her like a weak kneed, screaming ingénue.
The story “Looking Back” is a character study. One of my favorite aspects about disaster films and shows like The Walking Dead is how vastly different people are thrown together and how they work with each other to survive. In this story R. Ace Timmons, aka Race, a blue collar guy (actually a pest controller mentioned in “All Gone”) and James Aloysius Taylor, Jim, is white collar and wealthy are my odd couple. Both had appeared as minor characters in other stories I’d written and I became intrigued with the question of whether or not they could survive against zombies and the coming winter.
The last story I wrote for the collection (and long after NaNoWriMo) was “Stages of Awakening.” This is a case of the pure what-ifs used to start a story, me wondering what goes through the mind of someone who knows they are going to turn. How do you cope with it? What does it feel like? What thoughts come into your head?
The last story in the book is “Jasper Wills and the Zombie Blues,” the one that gave me the idea for the title of the collection. This one came about because of the main character. One day I imagined an old Chicago blues musician, tattered clothing, holding tight to his guitar case, shambling down Wabash Avenue, talking to himself. I pictured his walk and his half-whispered speech as being so slow and rhythmic that it blended in with the zombie hoard moving around him. I could almost hear his voice. I fell in love with the character and so what could I do but write a story for him? Jasper’s my favorite character in this book. The setting ranks high, too. (After all, I am a Chicago girl born and raised.)
Which brings me to setting as the springboard for story ideas. The more zombie stories I wrote, the more I asked myself why some many of them seemed to want to go together. On analysis, I came up with two factors: location and my quirky choice of weapons (junk food, sit coms, disco music) to ward off the zombies. The first led me to write more stories set in and around where I’ve lived: Chicago and its suburbs. The next led me back to “Zombie Café” and then I came to the idea of weaving most of the stories into a novel of the same title.
By the way, starting tomorrow my novel Zombie Café will be offered on a Kindle countdown. November 1st to November 8th you can pick it up at a special price for as low as $0.99 or £0.99. I hope you take advantage of the sale. And as ever, if you like either of my books, posting a review on Amazon would be very, very nice. Thanks!