Sunday nibble #27: Finding inspiration

A lot of the time, people ask me where I find inspiration for my stories and characters, particularly when I’m writing total fiction. It can come from various places.

For example, for the first novel I serialized here, I document in that post exactly what it was that led me to come up with the idea for the first short story. It was basically some stranger I saw in a slow, late-night line at the drug store near where I live, buying nothing but two 24-packs of TP (long before COVID-19), and it took off from there. I do think I’m going to name the whole thing Taking Hope, though, after the novella that ties all of the short stories together.

Now, I had finished that entire thing before I posted any of it here. Not so with the current serialization, The Rêves (working title), which I’m a bit ahead on, but it’s not finished yet. So that’s more of an experiment, and as I mention in the intro, it really started as three separate threads that I then wove together before following the various branches of the story.

The original germ of the idea came from working in a nearly century-old theater that had originally been a vaudeville house, and then a cinema, before going back to a live theater with two (well, technically three) stages.

Now, when they were kids, both Debbie Reynolds and Marilyn Monroe used to come to see movies there and while Monroe died long before the place made its reconversion in the late 1990s, Reynolds not only performed there, but attended many events, and donated a lot to the place.

Hence, it has the Debbie Reynolds Mainstage and the much smaller Marilyn Monroe forum.

And the staff for the mainstage always insisted the place was haunted — but not by either of them. No, these ghosts were apparently the original theater accountant, Robert, who appeared dressed just like an Arrow Shirt man from the 1920s, and an unidentified woman.

Keep in mind that I don’t believe in ghosts, although several of the staff swore they had seen them, and that patrons had also reported seeing them, describing them independently but in exactly the same way.

I think they may have exaggerated a bit. But there was something about that cavernous main theater late at night with only the aptly named ghost light on stage that could easily cause chills. And believe me, I tried to get the ghosts to show themselves, but they never did.

But the combination of this classic Art Deco building, Reynolds and Monroe being attached to it, and the creepy elegance of the dark cavern at night made me think, “What if Hollywood and environs are just full of the spirits of all those dead stars who can’t get any rest because people are still making a fuss about them above ground?”

Monroe. Bogart. Bacall. Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers — all of them are kept alive in a way, as can be seen at any tourist trap in Hollywood, as well as the many murals around the city.

This was also right about the time the film Coco came out, and of course it was all about dead ancestors being able to return to Earth for one night during the Día de muertos celebrations, but with one catch: It only worked if at least one of the living descendants remembered them.

Now, that idea isn’t unique to the movie. It’s a part of various cultures, and the contrast struck me: We have these dead famous people who are and will be remembered by tens of thousands of people forever, but what about the ones who weren’t famous?

Take those parts, mix them together with my love of the L.A. subway system, and boom, the major premise was born. I mean, wouldn’t an underground train tunnel be the ideal way for these spirits to travel around unseen, considering that many of them are underground or close to it in the first place?

So I started out by writing that lore having no idea what I was going to do with it. The Metro bailed me out on that one, too.

I was coming home from downtown. I don’t remember exactly when, but I was waiting at the Grand Park Station for the train back to North Hollywood when these two guys came down to the platform. They were both probably in their mid-30s, and they were in full-on steampunk regalia, complete with top hats, long coats, goggles, gloves, the works.

I figured that they must have been coming back from some event, which wouldn’t be unusual in downtown L.A., but they fascinated me, both because their outfits were so amazing and clearly created with great attention to detail, but also because they were obviously a couple, although very subtle about it.

I tried to remember whether I’d ever met any gay steampunks, and I couldn’t think of any off of the top of my head. But these two anonymous cosplayers gave me an a-ha moment. Ghosts need hunters, and if this pair didn’t look like they should be hunting ghosts in the subways, who did, right?

They also reminded me a lot of Miguel and Tulio from the animated film The Road to El Dorado, both in looks and personality.

So Joshua and Simon were born, and in the opening of The Rêves I pretty much describe those two exactly as I saw them. It’s a thing that actors and improvisers do, too — spot random people on the street with interesting traits, and borrow them for character work.

I’ll also let you in on a little secret: If you know any writers, they’re using you for material, too. Now, I don’t know how other writers do it, but I usually mix and match. That is, I might pick one friend as a visual reference mainly because it’s a way to anchor a character in my head, and it may be as simple as they match the demographics of the character I’m writing — age, gender, race, etc.

But the personality will come from a completely different place. Sometimes, I’ll borrow it from somebody else. Other times, I’ll make it all up. The nice part about this “Cuisinart composition,” though, is it keeps people from figuring out that I did base a character on them.

They might think, “Hey, that character looks like me,” but then the personality is totally different. Or vice versa. And I can always combine traits of two different people and personality quirks of two or more.

So in this one, for example, Preston is completely made up out of whole cloth. In my mind, he doesn’t look like anyone I know, and he doesn’t act like anyone I know personally. Anabel, on the other hand, is definitely based visually on someone I know but, again, with an utterly created personality. The same is true with Brenda.

The celebs who pop in are, of course, based on real people, but with a catch, which the story will explain and I won’t reveal here, and a passing character known as Holden is most definitely a version of someone I know in real life who is actually still very much alive.

And in case any of my friends are wondering, no. My villains are never based on real people that I know and like. I cast them from imagination, or from real-life villains everyone knows, like particularly toxic politicians and businesspeople.

So, that’s the answer to the question. And, of course, these choices of person and personality are just the starting point. Basically, they’re two little pins that I stick in the page before I tell my characters, “Okay, talk to me.”

I like to think that I’m not really writing the story myself, other than the fun bits in narration, but rather that I’m transcribing what my characters are thinking and feeling moment-to-moment. That keeps the journey very interesting for me because I never know what these little fuckers are going to decide to do, and I have to keep up.

I hope, dear readers, that this approach keeps your interest, too!

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