I’ll be starting a new series, for however long I can keep this book. Now write! Science fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, edited by Laurie Lamson is a collection of short essays by quite a number of fellow writers, including Piers Anthony, Ramsey Campbell and writers for The Twilight Zone and Star Trek: the Next Generation. These essays are then followed by exercises, in which one stretches their writing muscles and learns from the best!
Today’s excersise was derived from Steven Saus, and we’ll be following it to the letter here. Feel free to read along.
- Pick a sarting topic. Use a random picture generator, or one already assigned. This will be the “seed” from which to grow our story idea from.
- For this, we’re going to use a picture. This one, specifically —–>
- Pick only ONE element from that image or idea. In this case, we’re going to pick the half-sunken boat.
- Repeat steps one and two for a cross-idea. We’re going to pull up a second picture and put it underneath this one. From this picture, we have chosen the bird’s beak.
- Force the two ideas together. If you have a genre in mind, let that color them as well. Since our idea is a spooky story, we’re going to go with the idea of sinking a boat with a bird’s beak. Now twist the concept. Perhaps the bird’s beak is what resurrects the sunken boat?
- Then, ask yourself, over and over again, like a child, “Why?”. Why would a bird’s beak unsink a boat? Perhaps there is some sort of quest happening? A faery ritual? Or maybe the one unsinking the boat is using a sort of magic? Why do they need to unsink the boat? Perhaps they have to use the boat to get across a deadly lake? Why is the lake deadly? Perhaps it’s filled with flesh eating fish? Or will make them remember things they don’t wish to remember? Let’s go with that.
- Now, the key to making this technique something more than mere window dressing is, according to Saus, is to integrate the image or concept with part of the central problems facing the characters, and is it part of the problems or perhaps part of the solution? Thanks to this, we now have a sort of story idea.
Halfway through a quest given by the Seelie Court, a fae-raised child must cross a lake of memories using only a birds beak and a broken boat. How does the changeling do it? What if they touch the water, and see a memory they had no want to see?
Now, that sounds like an interesting story idea to me. What a wonderful way to come up with these ideas! With this idea, I’m going to now flesh it out, just a bit, into a little short story, for your perusal. Enjoy!
The lake stood stark and desolate, with the light of the Slow World fading on the other side. The pinks and yellows of it dazzled the eye, and contrasted the darkness of the trees and scraggly rocks interposed between them and that golden, warm light. Nothing was more precious than that light, and now, there was that black, shifting mass between him and it. The bird’s beak, still fresh and bloodied, pecked into his palm, despite being dead. His March Lady had ripped it from her favorite bird for him. A gift, she’d said, and if he couldn’t figure out how to use it, he was to take the bird’s place singing for her. A fate worse than death, he feared.
But how? How was he to turn this beak into something that could fix a boat? How was he to raise the boat from the dredge of the waters and go on across them to freedom? Away from the halcyon days of languish underneath willows made of diamonds and next to ponds filled with dreams. Away from his mistress, his March Lady, who had been so kind to him, despite her cruel grasping fingers, and the constant chill her touch left on his skin. Such a chill that he was blue all the time.
He fidgeted, thinking, and his toes brushed the water, and with a flash, he remembered those grasping fingers dragging him from warmth and softness and his screams echoed in his ears and then it was gone as he flinched away from the water. No. No, he could never touch that water again. He could never see that sight again, feel that fear stark and angry. He’d given all that up when his March Lady had asked him to. It must live now, in those wretched waves. Like the broken rowboat. The how returned to him, a question that begged answering.
A laugh slithered through the air, like a snake, perhaps, or an eel, and an idea came to him. He turned to the gathered horrors, taking in their frumpery and finery all mixed in one, the pearls next to the swine, and the nightmare creatures dressed in satin and lace. His March Lady, in all her beautiful glory, stood out like a blue sky amid dark clouds. She was so beautiful he couldn’t see her properly, never had been able to. The laugh hadn’t come from her lips. Not truly.
“Miss…” He spoke, and his words floated like flower petals in the air, and were met with titters and bright, sharp syllables like his name, or any of the names his March Lady had given him. The horror he spoke to, a writhing, broken line, like an eel, was in fact, just what he needed. His mind strayed away from looking at her, but he forced his eyes to stay on the air around which she swayed. “Miss, might I borrow the Eelness of yourself? I will give you the curl of my hair for it, that you might curl instead of eel?”
The girl seemed delighted and took the curl immediately, rounding about like a spiral, while his hair fell limp against his eyes, straight as string. He was quick to combine the eel with the beak. With a flourish he turned to the boat.
“Be a Keel!” He cried, and the boat was. The new keel had no holes in it, had no rot or ridges, but was instead, bright, new and painted red. The fading pinks and yellows of the dying sunlight held hope then, as he hopped into the keel and set sail. The memories beneath him swirled as the keel cut through them, it’s sails full of wind. A keel, after all, was not a keel, unless it was sailing. That was the nature of the thing. He waved goodbye to the horrors on land, and to the March Lady, who seemed sad, in her unknowable beauty.
He did not care. He was heading home. A home he could not remember, but that had felt warm and soft, and safe, was waiting.