"You're a writer? Okay, tell me a story."
Yeah -- my eyes just rolled too. I've gotten this my whole life. I've heard it from friends and teachers. I got it from relatives who expected me to entertain their bored children. I even got it once from a computer tech support guy when I was waiting for the server at my Waldenbooks to reboot.
What the heck? Come on. I've never said, "You're an accountant? Okay, do my taxes" or "You're a dancer? Go on, let's see a jig."
Eventually, I learned to keep some pat stories on hand, shoved in a special mental folder I saved for just those occasions. There's a love story about my Thea Maritza who ran from the Turks as they ethnically cleansed
'Cause it's just not that easy for me.
I was born a genius and an actress. I grew up on stage. I've done my share of improv (and your share, and his share, and a bit of that lady's over there). I was surrounded by seriously hyperintelligent geeks in all my classes and was expected to hold my own with a biting wit and a wealth of trivial knowledge. You want a perfect comeback, a great conversationalist, or a frustrating debate partner? I'm your girl.
But I just can't tell stories at the drop of a hat. I can tell you about my sister's latest catastrophe or the funny thing that happened to me on the way to work…but if it's fiction you want I need something. I need a seed from which to grow the flax -- otherwise it's like trying to weave a tapestry out of dandelion fluff on a windy day.
It doesn't have to be big, either. Heck, sometimes it only takes two words.
"Blood and Water" started from such a seed: I was in
Brandi was flipping through it when she suddenly got a strange look on her face.
What's a 'vampire mermaid'?" she asked.
I took the book from her curiously. Sure enough there they were, just two words, two random thoughts at two completely different times that I just happened to scribble on the same page in close proximity. But it was a good question. What was a vampire mermaid? How would that work?
This is where "what you know" comes in. As writers, once inspired, we proceed to ask ourselves this barrage of myriad questions. We then answer those questions based on what we know. If you happen to know a lot of trivial junk, you can come up with some pretty interesting scenarios.
My brain clicked into overdrive, following the logic. A mermaid lives in the ocean: check. Vampires need blood: check. Why would a mermaid need blood? What's under the ocean that needs blood? I mentally went back to college, my short-lived days of being a marine chemist with dreams of open waters and deep-sea submersibles.
I had been obsessed with the hydrothermal vents, in the deepest ocean where the tectonic plates meet and form fissures. Nobody ever thought there would be anything living that far down…and oh, how wrong they were. In 1979 the infamous
Oh, yes…these folks don't need sunlight, but they do need blood.
With that problem solved, I went back to the mermaid part. Now, I'm not claiming to be the Fairy Tale Queen of the Universe, but I know my way around a bit of Grimm and Andersen (and Zipes and Bettelheim). When I was ten, my grandmother gifted me with a humongous volume of unexpurgated fairy tales -- thank goodness my mother never got her hands on it. Sleeping Beauty's name was "Briar Rose," Rapunzel got knocked up, and Cinderella's sisters cut off pieces of their feet to squeeze into that glass slipper. I read "The Little Match Girl" and "The Little Mermaid" and cried like my heart was breaking.
And then I'd read them again.
If the only version of "The Little Mermaid" you know is Disney, then you are seriously missing out. It's a beautiful tale. But I'll warn you right now: the sea witch cuts out the mermaid's tongue. The prince marries the wrong woman. The mermaid eventually drowns herself in her desolation, becoming foam on the waves. And every girl remembers how excruciatingly painful the mermaid's transformation, so darkly was it painted.
Pain, darkness, love story: check.
The rest of the questions were just details. How does a being who has lived beneath the waves her whole life describe a candle when she has never seen fire? What does splitting her tail feel like if she's never been cut by a knife? What is walking to a woman who has never experience land? How would she be able to spot a predator? How would she learn all these things…quickly?
And -- most importantly -- who would rescue her from the middle of nowhere post-transformation?
Well, that part was easy. Write what I know.
"Blood and Water" is now available in issue 9 of IGMS.