Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Inspiration, Ideas, and First Drafts

People are always interested in where writers get ideas from. Pretty much every story I have written starts with an image or sense of place and a glimmerings of a character interacting with that place. In fact, I consider setting to be a character. That is certainly the case with "The House of Many Doors," "The Wings of Winter," and "Heal Thyself." In each of these three stories, characters, choices, and plot events are inextricably tied to the settings and worlds they inhabit.

I often find inspiration in photographs and paintings. It's probably because I have next to no talent in visual art. (Really--ask my husband--I take the world's worst photographs.)

This morning, I went to my usual tuesday writing group at the Watertown Library and saw an exhibition of photographs, by photographer John Borchard. His work compares mist and light in Ireland to mist and light at the Quabbin Reservoir in Western Massachusetts.

I have been fascinated by the stories of the flooding of the Swift River Valley in the 1930s. It would make a great backdrop to an urban fantasy story. John Borchard's haunting photographs reminded me of that, and in our 30 minute freewrite time, I played with finding a character to go with the setting.

I'd like to share my (very raw) first draft sketch. If I do pursue this story and the character of Miriam, I would have to do a significant amount of research. I don't know the landscape around the reservoir, don't know if it's realistic for her to live near it and teach in Amherst, among other things. So don't be looking for any geographical accuracy in what follows. This is, at best, a proof of concept sketch, and a way of letting the plot bunny settle in the background of my thoughts as I work on other projects. Typos and awkward grammar are as is from the freewrite exercise.


Miriam shivered as the fog closed in around her, obscuring, then revealing the resoirvoir that opened like a large unblinking eye. Ever since she moved here and heard the story of the town drowned for thirsty and wealthy of Boston and Beacon Hill a century ago, she'd been drawn to the quabbin. It seemed to be in a perpetual state of gloom, even on the sunniest of days, so unlike the landscape of Arizona and California where she'd lived, gone to school, and worked. But the tenure track job at Cal tech had evaporated along with the grant money for her research and when the job at UMass Amherst opened up, it seemed like the answer to all her problems.

Including Kevin.

Her cell phone chirped, breaking the silence of her morning walk. She briefly considered throwing it into the reservoir, but figured the ghosts of the town wouldn't appreciate it. Kevin's number flashed on the caller id. She was tempted to shunt him to voice mail, but that was sometimes worse. Knowing his voice was waiting for her was a trap and a distraction. Sighing, she picked up the call.


"Hey, baby," he said. His voice was California sunshine itself, and she could almost hear his perfect tan, white teeth, and expensive sun glasses. "How's it going?"

He was up early. Probably on his way to the gym to work on his vanity. Mirriam sighed. Kevin had been her thesis advisor four years ago and had practically bullied the comp sci departement head into hiring her after graduation. For that, he expected her gratitude. And she had been grateful. It didn't hurt that he was smart as hell, sexy, and well connected in the field. He opened a lot of doors for Miriam. Including the one to her bedroom.

"So far so good." He'd been dead set against her move here.

"The dean at UC Davis has been drooling over your CV."

Miriam's hand clamped down on the phone. "I already have a job."

"It'll be perfect. I've even got a grant for. . ."

"How's your wife, Kev?"

That stopped him cold. The wind shifted and the mist blew away from the water. The world disappeared into white static and her phone squacked, dropping the call. He would think she'd hung up on him.

That was probably not a bad thing.

Mirriam shrugged and tucked the phone back in her pocket. In the distance, a church bell rang. A shiver that was only partly from the cold, wet air, traveled down her spine. The nearest town was a drive away. The only church for miles around was the one beneath the water and that bell hadn't rang for more than a hundred years.

She didn't believe in ghosts, Or anything she couldn't write an algorhythm for. But her ears heard the nicker of horses and the clink of metal on metal. She closed her eyes. The car was in the lot on the other side of the path. If she backtracked, even in the fog she couldn't miss it.

Turning around, Mirriam started walking back. She jammed her foot on a tree root and stumbled, her hands automatically reaching to break her fall. Instead of rough pavement beneath her palms, she sank into soft dirt and packed leaves and pine needles. A child laughed in the distance.

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