I watched the movie “The Witch” on Netflix last week as part of my Halloween horror flick viewing. I had seen it a couple of years ago when it came out on DVD, but we were having trouble with the contrast on the TV back then and parts of the film, which is rather darkly shot to begin with, were just shadows moving across the screen, and it was difficult at times to understand the context of the dialog.
Okay, now I get it. Thomasin was talking to a goat. Somehow that is significantly more frightening than just the disembodied voice of Satan. And the goat following her as she walks naked though the forest toward the caterwauling of the coven is even creepier.
Sometimes the details make all the difference.
I am frequently asked during my book readings and signings where I get my ideas. The truth is, I don’t really know. They just... happen. I am completely unable to draw, and think the talent to take what one sees and convey it into a two dimensional representation is nothing short of miraculous. But when I ask artists how they do it, I always get the same answer... I don’t know, I just draw.
I get ideas in one of two ways. The first, and most common, is what I call “rearrangement.” Rearrangement is taking a basic idea found in some other work and asking myself, “how would I have written that?” My unpublished short story “Blue Ruin” is an example. It takes place in the same universe as "The Walking Dead," but posits the question; how would survivors living on the coast with easy access to the relative safety of the seas handle a zombie apocalypse. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when the "Fear The Walking Dead" spinoff tackled the same question. I disagreed with their sea-going storyline - I still believe a boat is the safest place to be - but I get why finding a safe place and continuing a horror story are two different goals.
The short story “Uncle Augie’s Blind” from my latest book, Ben and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance, was similarly inspired by an obscure Stephen King story, “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” I read in Yankee Magazine when I was in college. The plots are completely different, but the setup and style of storytelling is similar.
I call the other way I get ideas the Eureka! Moment. In this scenario, something new, and often nonsensical, comes to me out of nowhere. I was hiking in the mountains yesterday, for instance, and the phrase, “ring me up for souse” popped into my head. Now, I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard that anywhere else, and I’m equally sure it’s of no practical value, except as the punchline of a joke or maybe the topic of a blog post, but there you have it. These Eureka! Moments are usually not fully realized concepts, but often just a title or a name. The title of the book I am currently working on, Craven Fork, came to me that way, as did the name of the main character, Owen Sinclair. The rest of the characters and the plot just sort of “unfolded” as I thought more about them.
Circling back to "The Witch," I have always liked the scenario of a colonial family scratching a living from of a plot of ground on the fringes of a great and mysterious forest, but I’ve never discovered the story or the voice to tell it. Maybe someday.