I’ve never used a writing prompt, never felt the need for one. I’ve always had the next story (and usually the one after that) gestating in the mental incubator.
So imagine my surprise when, as author Guest of Honor at the 2018 MARcon, I wind up on a panel about writing prompts. A writer named Lorna Woulfe was moderating. She explained how prompts work for her to get the writing juices flowing. It could be the suggestion of a situation, or a kind of person, or even an illustration.
At the annual Borderlands Bootcamp for Writers, the grunts must write a short piece between Friday night and Sunday morning. We assign random prompts – sometimes a first line, sometimes a title, sometimes just a character name. But these have a specific purpose in that they allow us to see what they’ve learned over the weekend.
As for my personal experience with prompts, I had next to nothing to offer the panel. Lorna suggested a flash fiction exercise using illustrations. Among those available was this watercolor by Gary Wedlund (who happened to be on the panel):
I chose it because I was wondering why the smaller child was holding her ears. (Not knowing the title was “Tatum and Her Brother” I wrongly assumed the little one was female.) The possibilities intrigued me. What I came up with in the allotted time will seem familiar to those who’ve read The Last Christmas:
“What do you mean, you can’t hear it?” Ellie said.
Maura couldn’t help but feel her little sister’s distress. She was truly bothered by something. Maura strained her ears but heard only the wind sighing through the branches.
“I don’t know how else to say it: I don’t hear anything. What’s it sound like?”
“Like a scream – a long scream that never stops.” She stuck her fingers in her ears. “I can’t stand it!”
This was strange. Really strange. But not totally surprising. Ellie was the weird sister – the one who believed in Big Foot and UFOs and ghosts, and now she was hearing–
“Make it stop. Please, Maura, you’ve got to make it stop!”
She wanted to help – really, she did. It killed her to see Ellie like this. But how could she stop a sound she couldn’t hear? Only one explanation…
“It’s in your head, Ellie.”
“No, it’s all around. When I put my fingers in my ears it’s less but it’s still there.”
Her face was pale now, and her cheeks… they looked sunken.
“Ellie are you all right?”
“That sound – it’s making me sick. I wanna go home!”
“But we’re supposed to go to town. Mom needs–”
Ellie retched. “I’m gonna be sick!”
“No, don’t!” Maura hated the smell of vomit. It made her want to puke.
Which was what Ellie did right then. Maura had heard the term “projectile vomiting” on TV and that was what Ellie did.
Except she puked blood – bright red blood. A long stream of it.
“Oh, no! Ellie, no!”
And then she dropped to her knees and did it again. So much blood…
Like a chopped tree, she fell onto her side, but never took her fingers out of her ears.
“Make it stop, Maura,” she gasped, her face white as a cloud. “Make it stop!”
And then her eyes went blank and lifeless.
Maura screamed. And screamed. And screamed…
Three hundred-plus words flowed pretty quickly and I was sorry I had to finish up and read aloud what I’d come up with. Then the panel’s slot was done. Time to make room for the next group. I folded up my scribbled sheets and went on to my next panel.
I have a long-standing rule about writing: Never throw anything away. Seemingly useless sentences and passages can come in handy when you least expect it. So on the plane ride home I typed “The Scream” into my laptop’s ideas folder and pretty much forgot about it…or tried to.
That noise only Ellie could hear…I sensed a story hiding in there. I simply had to tease it out. What was the noise? Let’s say a signal of some sort. Okay, but from where? Outside, of course. The ideas started to cascade: Not one signal but many signals – from the Otherness. They started in the spring of 1941 during some odd goings on in a small castle in the Alps of Transylvania. They’re low-frequency electromagnetic impulses that no one should be able to hear, and they change frequencies without rhyme or reason. They must mean something, but those who know aren’t talking.
Okay, the signals are now a part of the Secret History. But what to do with them? Surely someone would be monitoring them. For the sheer hell of it I name the fellow Burbank; he’s old and keeps track from an Art Deco apartment building on Central Park West – sort of like the San Remo but with only one tower. Burbank is ensconced in the tower penthouse which is topped by a huge aerial. And because of this fellow’s name, it seems only fitting that I call the building The Allard.
The Last Christmas was in its early stages. I had parts to be played but still needed characters to fill them. I knew what they’d do, but I didn’t know who they were yet. The private detective started out as an Anasazi named Bernardo and ended up a Mohawk named Tier Hill. But he needed something to fix him in readers’ minds. Hey, what if Hill is one of those rare people like Ellie who can hear the signals? I imagine him on a stakeout across CPW from the Allard when he hears a signal start to howl from behind him in Central Park. And then this girl begins to scream. He checks it out and learns she can hear the signal too and it’s making her sick. I adapt my flash fiction piece to the scene.
That’s how stories are pieced together: through careful planning and crazy-ass serendipity.
The signals play a peripheral role in the novel but have a terrific impact on Tier Hill’s life. And that should have been that.
But the signals wouldn’t let me go. They demanded center stage in a story. So soon after I completed The Last Christmas, I started on a prelude to Nightworld I’m calling Signalz. It covers the last few days before Nightworld and mixes Ellie’s story (you’ll see that Central Park Scene from the other side, plus what preceded it and the horrific weirdness that followed) with Hari from the ICE trilogy and characters from the Secret History, some familiar and some new.
Well, well, well…a flash-fiction exercise with a pictorial prompt led to two novels and I’m not finished yet. So thank you Lorna Woulfe and Gary Wedlund. I owe you.
F. Paul Wilson
The Jersey Shore