How do writers come up with story ideas? There are as many answers to that question as there are writers. Some call upon their muse for sparks of imagination while others attribute their creative flow to a rigid work routine. For me, story ideas originate from perpetual curiosity, an open mind and synchronicity. These elements all played a role creative process that lead to my short story, Everything They Are Not.
The first seed of this short story began with a photograph I discovered while scrolling through Pinterest. This couple’s bearing hooked me immediately. The man appears disgruntled and impatient. He’s larger than life and occupying more than his share of space with elbows jutting out and his feet spread. I sensed his pride in the enormity of the fur coat. What might anger him or make feel less secure? The answers showed me the kind of complications he should face in the story. As my writing progressed, I listened to Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights each time I wrote his dialogue. The commanding drive of the music matched his tone.
A good listener will hear the things not said in a conversation. The woman in the photo represented that unspoken piece for me. She is seated and made smaller, more secondary to the man. Does she often take a back seat to him? Her body leans toward him, a usual sign of affection, but her head tilts subtly away. A love tinged with resentments, I thought. The smugness hiding behind her tired Mona Lisa smile made me wonder if she knew something he didn’t. How might she settle a score?
The staging of the photo struck me as curious. Was the woman meant to be in the photograph at all? Or was her inclusion spontaneous? The seating is not at all what you’d expect a lady to be posed on. It appears to be a platform draped with heavy fabric in a manner meant to resemble terrain. A taxidermy exhibit might feel at home there. I had a great deal of fun with that detail!
Here’s the identity and circumstance my imagination churned out for this couple: “A washed-up adventurer and his embittered wife are waiting for the commencement of his book cover photo shoot.”
An idea came to me during a walk. I could work within this scenario to show what love is — by showing what it is not. I returned home and wrote each verse of 1 Corinthians:13 on index cards: love is patient. love is kind, etc. Below each ‘Love is…’ statement, I brainstormed what these characters might do in opposition to the verse.
While I pondering this, I noted that the stage dressing had been arranged in a manner to conceal the explorer’s left leg. A writer will always ply their characters with great adversity to see how they’ll cope. What might be the most bruising thing to a man who considers himself legendary? The loss of his mobility. I researched prosthetic limbs, post World War 2, and discovered that returning veterans often complained about breakage. I’d uncovered yet another challenge to heap upon him.
To escalate the couple’s troubles, more characters needed to be introduced, ones to prick their insecurities and test their loyalties. I introduced a personal secretary to the explorer, a young man who is less adoring of his boss than he appears to be. The character is not based the young Fred Astaire seen in the above photo, but rather inspired by the impressions made on me by the photo. He stares at the camera keenly as if he has an agenda yet there is an naivety about him. I wrote in a female photographer, an attractive intellectual woman strong enough to not fall for the advances of a self-proclaimed legend but not so jaded that she doesn’t believe in love.
Around the time I began the first draft, I revisited Carnage, a Roman Polanski film starring Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, and Christoph Waltz. (I highly recommend it!) The entire movie took place in an apartment and the rapid fire dialogue, stoked by conflict and hidden agendas, shifted my empathy from character to character throughout. Since the story I had begun was set in a post World War Two era when movies often used that same quick paced dialogue, I decided to write with a similar rhythm.
For several weeks each of the photos in this post, and a copious number of notes, were tacked on a cork board covering one wall of my office. You would think that writing a short story take a short amount of time but not so. Every word must snap and perform the work of two or three. It’s an enjoyable challenge that sharpens writing skills, regardless of the literary form we pursue.
Incidentally, the couple in the lead photo is Arctic explorer, Peter Freuchen and his wife, fashion illustrator Dagmar Freuchen-Gale. I read about them after finishing the writing to avoid impacting my vision of the story. The characters in Everything They Are Not, aren’t based on these real life people, but rather inspired by the photograph.