Ever author gets asked this eventually.
“Where do your stories come from?”
Every story is different. This is the anatomy of my most recent, “Monkey Makes Five.”
Those who know me probably know that me and puppets…we don’t get along. Really. The first time I saw the amazingly talented author and puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal walking a marionette down the hallway of Norwescon several years ago, I had a bit of a terror response. See, it’s one thing to be prepared to see puppets, but to have one walk down the hallway towards you in a crowded place? Especially with what I know about puppets? Terror.
See, puppets want to kill you.
Or at least that’s what I believed at an early age.
With marionettes, at least they’re as limited as their strings.
But that madness-inducing second cousin of the marionette, the ventriloquist dummy…
I entirely blame the early commercials for the movie Magic (1978), 30 seconds of pants wetting terror consisting of a dummy against a black background reciting a little poem. I’ve included a link to the original trailer for the brave of heart. I remember the exact circumstances of seeing this trailer for the first, and for decades, only time. I was nine, and it triggered something in me, a memory of a very brief Charlie McCarthy movie clip where he and Mortimer Snerd (both dummies), were acting independent of any human operators. I saw that movie clip when I was very young, and it set an expectation that “Oh, so they don’t need people!” Nine years old, sitting on the carpet, I realized “Oh, they don’t need people. And they want to kill you.”
My response was getting rid of all my stuffed animals, bagging them up to put in the basement. I didn’t have any dummies, nor any puppets. But the stuffed animals were collaborators. I couldn’t even trust my beloved Smokey the Bear anymore. And of course my dad saying, “That’s just going to make them angry” probably tacked a few more years onto my phobia. Thanks dad.
Flash forward to me as a relatively well-adjusted adult writing product copy for a charity based dot com. (And by relatively well adjusted I mean that I can sleep with the lights off and don’t panic when left alone in the company of doll-like objects. But I’m not going to sleep with something like that in the room. I’m not crazy, after all!) We received in our offices a product from Guatemala–a bag of zoo animal finger puppets that had my co-workers delighted.
“You know, those are just a gateway puppet,” I told them.
That’s how it starts.
Thus was planted the seed to a story. I had the title over two years ago. I had the ending already in mind at that time. I just wasn’t sure how to get there.
The biggest roadblock for me was that for the story to work, I had to make the central character vulnerable. And that was fairly new territory for me. See, I’ve written a fair degree of horror, and for the most part, my protagonists (even the doomed ones), are basically capable people. I hate bullies, and victimizing someone who is already somewhat of a victim doesn’t sit well with me. Don’t get me wrong. I know there are reasons to do it, and I’ve read several stories where it’s done really well. A character already suffering from life’s setbacks facing one more, deadly challenge, is not new ground. But to my memory, many times they use that disadvantage to their benefit in some way to come out victorious. 1967’s masterful Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn as a bind woman menaced by thugs in her apartment who are looking for a heroin-stuffed doll is a good example. (See it!)
But I couldn’t let her come out victorious. That wouldn’t work in this story. It would kill the impact of the closing image that inspired the entire damn story.
I had to face it. Ultimately I was going to have to do something horrible to an old woman character who was not in prime fighting shape.
There was one angle that made it a little easier to manage, and that was the horror trope of “bad things happen to bad person who has it coming.” That is also well-trod territory, and it’s the way I had to go. Finding the balance was tricky, however and it took me a long time to cowboy up and write. The reader has to have someone to root for. And here I was making the central character flat out mean enough for me to justify what I was going to do to her in the story.
After wrestling with it off an on for two years with numerous false starts, I wrote the full story in two sittings over the past few weeks. Part of it was was finding not only a good ending, but a strong opening hook as well. The other part was realizing that while that mean old lady was the POV character, she wasn’t the central character.
And realizing who, or what, that central character turned out to be…
Guess I’ll go back to sleeping with the lights on.