Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a guest post by Deborah Sheldon.
About the author
Deborah Sheldon is a professional writer from Melbourne, Australia. Her short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines, journals and anthologies. Her latest releases include the horror novel, Devil Dragon, the crime-noir novellas, Dark Waters and Ronnie and Rita, and the horror collection, Perfect Little Stitches and other stories, all of which are with traditional publishers. The title story of her horror collection, ‘Perfect Little Stitches’, was nominated for an Australian Shadows Award. Other writing credits include television scripts, stage plays, magazine articles, non-fiction books (published by Reed Books and Random House), and award-winning medical writing.
Visit Deb at http://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com.
Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories:
GUEST POST: From Idea to Story by Deborah Sheldon
Writers are commonly asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’, and I’m no exception. But ideas are everywhere. You can write a story based on literally anything. Just pick a subject. ‘Vampire’, ‘divorce’ or ‘puppies’ are equally valid subjects upon which to base a story. But I think what people really want to know is: ‘How do writers develop an idea into a story?’ Well, there are many ways to skin a cat, and here’s how I do it.
In my opinion, there’s no such thing as a good or bad idea; it boils down to the execution. My horror collection, Perfect Little Stitches and other stories (IFWG Publishing Australia), is about monsters. A few are real, most are supernatural. I started each story – except for my novelette, which I’ll come to later – by browsing through a list of paranormal creatures and simply picking one.
My story, ‘What the Sea Wants’, first published by SQ Mag, came about because I chose ‘mermaid’ as my subject.
Modern Western culture likes to declaw myths and fairytales to make the stories palatable and child-friendly. (For example, Hans Christian Andersen’s, ‘The Little Mermaid’, is quite a dark tale, far removed from the Disney version.) I dug into the history of mermaids and found that sailors from many different countries not only believed in mermaids, but thought them to be harbingers of doom. That piqued my interest. I decided to set my mermaid story on a nineteenth century English ship, her crew fishing for cod and herring in the North Sea. Further research – what the sailors wore and ate, how they worked, the kinds of nets they used – helped to flesh out the setting. Next, I had to develop my mermaid idea into a story with a beginning, middle and end.
There are apparently two types of writer: the plotter who works out all the details before starting the first draft, and the (seat of the) pantser or discovery writer who figures out everything as they go along. I sit somewhere in the middle of that continuum. As a combination plotter-and-pantser, I guess you could call me a ‘plantster’. I outline, yes, but my outlines are usually just a few lines. The rest, I make up as I write.
For short pieces, I generally need three plot-points: the inciting incident, the point of no return, and the climax. If I’m writing a longer piece, such as a novella or novel, I’ll brainstorm with my husband. He’s not a writer, but as a fan of action films, his suggestions always include momentum. That’s what every story needs.
Some stories I write straight after outlining. Others need a few days or weeks to incubate. This allows my subconscious to figure out plot-points, visualise scenes and characters, and make thematic connections. When I find myself writing lines in my head while I’m showering, prepping dinner or trying to sleep, I know it’s time to hit the keyboard.
My horror novel, Devil Dragon (Severed Press), was supposed to be a short story for my collection. Originally, I wanted to write about an Australian monster, but sharks and crocodiles didn’t interest me. The ancient Megafauna age had giant beasts, including a colossal lizard reminiscent of the Komodo dragon called the Varanus priscus or Megalania. During my research, I discovered that some people believe that it still roams the Australian Outback. A cryptid story? Oh yes, please! But the more I researched, the bigger the story became. After a few weeks of wrestling to contain it, I finally relented and allowed Devil Dragon to be the novel-sized story it always wanted to be. My outline was therefore much more substantial: about 20 plot-points to keep my writing on track and propel the story towards the climax. The plot of Devil Dragon was inspired by research, brainstorming, and constant daydreaming. (My writing involves a lot of vacant staring into space and/or muttering to myself. Hubby and son are used to my foibles.)
However, the inspiration for one story in my collection didn’t come from a list of paranormal creatures. For my novelette, ‘The Again-Walkers’, the inspiration was a dream so frightening that it kept me awake for the rest of the night. I knew this dream would make a riveting climax to a story. But what could be the story? How would I develop this kernel of an idea into a plot? Serendipity helped me out. While researching zombies for another project, I discovered that different cultures have different versions throughout the ages. Ultimately, I combined my dream elements with my interest in ninth-century Danish mythology and superstition. (My husband has Danish ancestry. Writing a story is often a case of wheels within wheels.)
My final ingredient in developing an idea into a story is whatever my mood happens to be at the time. I use my own emotions to infuse my main character. Am I depressed? Then so is my protagonist. Melancholy or nostalgic? Angry as hell? Optimistic? Ditto, ditto, ditto for my protagonists. I find this technique makes my characters feel more genuine. Sometimes I use memories instead.
So that’s how I do it.
And now, my cat is skinned.