Sunday Nibble #71: Where do you get your ideas?

One of the most common questions I get asked about my fiction is this one: “So, where did you get your idea?”

And it’s really a legitimate question because every piece of fiction is somehow sourced in reality. And the answer is that it really depends on what I was inspired to try and what I eventually did.

In other words… sometimes, I will decide to tell a specific story about an actual person with as much factual detail as possible. And these stories come from a lot of reading and research online and off. But that only happened because I read their story in the first place and thought, “Damn, this is really worth telling.”

This was the case in particular with two of my plays, Petty Treasons and The Heretics of Alexandria. In the case of the former, I ran across the story of Catherine Hayes, the wife of a well-off London Merchant in the early 18th century.

She lived with her husband — and her two teenage lovers, with his consent. He was out of town on business frequently, and figured that the boys could help keep an eye on his money while he was away.

By some accounts, Mr. John Hayes was an abusive husband, often beating Catherine as well as threatening her two lovers, both named Thomas — Wood and Billings.

By the way, in confirming the names, because I don’t have the script in front of me, it turns out that Billings was actually the Hayes’ biological son, adopted out when he was an infant, and this came out in the trial. The things that you miss when you don’t have the internet to research a play!

Either way, John Hayes’ head was found washed up on the bank of the Thames and, in order to identify it, the magistrate had it put on a stick in public so anyone who recognized it could come forward. A neighbor of the Hayes’ soon did, and Catherine and the boys fell immediately under suspicion.

Of course, they had killed him. Well, Billings committed the actual murder, with Wood and Catherine present. But the motive was always Hayes’ abuse of his wife — that, and Billings’ claim that he was an atheist who constantly made blasphemous statements. (Something else I didn’t know when I wrote the play.)

Her story had been written once before, by William Makepeace Thackery in his novel Catherine, but she was not the heroine in his piece, of course. She was the vile harlot who murdered her lord and master, and he did not treat her well.

My take on it was of an abused woman finally freeing herself from her abuser, even if she did it via extreme means. Historically, both Thomases were hanged for murder, but Catherine was burned at the stake for the crime of Petty Treason, hence the title.

The Heretics of Alexandria tells the story of the last few days of the philosopher, mathematician, and teacher Hypatia, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, from the mid-4th to early 5th centuries C.E. She was famously murdered by a Christian mob at the instigation of a local Bishop, Cyril, and they burned down her library, which was what remained from her father’s library, which had been burned a generation earlier.

These are not to be confused with the Great Library of Alexandria, which was burned — most likely accidentally — by Julius Caesar’s troops in the 1st century B.C.E., although the entire thing wasn’t destroyed, just part of the collection. The library presided over by Hypatia and her father was descended from this one.

The historical “what-if” that I tossed into it was that Hypatia had come into possession of a codex containing a controversial version of the so-called “Testimonium Flavianum,” which was the account by Josephus on the life of Jesus that appeared in his history of the Jews.

The TF itself is controversial because it’s clearly shoehorned into the text and implies that Jesus the messiah and a miracle worker and so on. Hypatia’s version is slightly different and actually parallels the Quran, which says that Jesus didn’t die on the cross — it was someone else — and he fled to live out his days elsewhere.

Cyril suspects that she has this document, and sends one of his priests, a former student of Hypatia’s, to get it. It does not end well.

On the other hand, sometimes I will hear about a huge event without a lot of specifics, and build a story around that, creating fictional people who might have been affected. In this case, it wasn’t any single person that inspired me to write. Rather, it was the magnitude of the circumstances a bunch of people faced.

Think Vesuvius or 9/11 or the (American) Civil War, etc.

In fact, think exactly the American Civil War. In this case, a famous local newspaper columnist for the L.A. Times, Jack Smith, wrote an article about the origin of undertakers and the funeral industry, and he had one throwaway line that intrigued me.

I can’t find his original article anywhere, but I paraphrase. It was something like during the Civil War, these newly-minted undertakers would trail military units around in search of business “like so many camp followers.”

“Camp follower,” of course, is a polite way of saying “prostitute,” and the two images together just set off a spark in me. I sat down and wrote the first scene — an undertaker and his apprentice (not quite enslaved, not quite free) awake on the morning after a cataclysmic battle. The stage is littered with corpses, and the undertaker proceeds to loot the bodies for jewelry, money, valuables, and gold teeth.

Again, this being pre-internet, little did I know that all teeth would be valuable, since they went into making dentures for people. Stealing battlefield teeth was slightly more ethical, I suppose, than the normal practice of just yanking them out of the mouths of the enslaved.

I wrote the first scene as a gleeful, grotesque, and very dark comedy and, because of the time period, was able to elevate the language to spectacular heights. I also based the undertaker character somewhat on my step-grandfather, but in a very affectionate way.

So I had a scene and two characters and had no idea where it was going. So I started scene two, and out of nowhere, a women arrived looking for the body of her dead husband, and the rest is history.

This became Noah Johnson had a Whore… (or sometimes just Noah Johnson in certain markets), and it was not only my first full-length play ever produced, it was produced on a LORT stage, which is basically “Broadway scale theatre that isn’t in Manhattan.”

Yeah, it was an amazing experience and an incredible production. I’ll always have a great affection for the piece, but I consider it retired for various reasons.

And another source is very personal, as in people or family I have known, shit we have dealt with and how we’ve dealt with it, mostly from my point of view, and the outcome, although quite frequently idealized, as in “this is the ending we should have had, not the one we got.”

This one gave me Screamin’ Muskrat Love, which is perhaps my most doomed work. It’s been deep into pre-production and rehearsal twice now, with both attempts scuttled at the last minute, the most recent by COVID-19.

This one was based on an experience I had when my father was nearing the end of his life. He was in his early 80s, and we eventually found out that he’d met this young woman at the grocery store who had wormed her way in. It didn’t take my half-siblings and I long to realize that this was a classic scam — young woman looks for elderly man shopping alone in grocery store, a sure sign that he’s probably a widower.

Young woman swoops in and does a real-life catfish. Goal: Marriage and/or being made sole beneficiary in the will. At the time, it was a notorious Romany thing, and she was definitely from the Roma. This led to the original title of the play, G____ Switch, with the G-word being a very pejorative term for the Romany, although this was back in the day before I was aware of that.

Anyway, that was the basis, but the play itself bears very little resemblance to life beyond that. In my version, the older son of the old man fears that their father is going to give the family home to his dipshit little brother.

The older son hires a woman to come in and seduce the father so she can pull the scam and get the house, which then goes to that son. In order to make it easy for the transfer, he marries her despite being gay. Well, also, part of the deal is that she gets to be on his company health insurance.

The whole thing is a wild, door-slamming farce, complicated when the woman’s mother is released from prison and shows up on their doorstep — at the same time as her former cellmate.

Stylistically, I took my clues from Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde, and the final wrap-up is a blatant homage to The Importance of Being Earnest.

Apparently, the universe hates this play, though. Maybe it’s got some Romany curse on it I don’t know about. If anyone out there is a producer that wants to stage a bang-up, raunchy sex-farce with a cast of seven and (if I say so myself) wickedly funny dialogue, let me know.

But there’s another source, and one that everybody really should tap into , whether they’re a writer, actor, director, artist, social worker, or whatever.

Especially for my prose tales of fiction, which most frequently appear here in The Saturday Morning Post, they are created purely from wandering around in the world, listening to people, and paying attention to the words they spew or things they do.

Sometimes good, or bad, often ugly, but ultimately all human.

Case in point: both the short story/novella collection that I’m going to call either The Rocky Road from Walgreens or Taking Hope, and the novel The Rêves, were inspired by random sightings of people around town.

For the former, it was a guy in line at a drugstore around 11:30 p.m. buying two huge family 24 packs of TP. This was long before the days of COVID, of course.

For the latter, it was two tall, skinny dudes leaving downtown L.A. near midnight, waiting in the Grand Park Metro Station for the train. They were both dressed in very classy steampunk attire, with top hats, long coats, brocaded vests, glass googles, and the like. They vibed as if they were a couple.

Both of those incidents sparked something, and I fired off many words as a result.

So… where do my ideas come from? Ultimately, all of humankind.

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Except…

This is another one of my older posts that keeps getting new traffic over and over,  nd I don’t know why. I thought I’d give it another boost for new readers to discover.

The title of this article comes from an incredibly iconic poster that was created during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Specifically, it was created by printmaker Lorriane Schneider in 1967, and was inspired by her concern that her oldest son would be drafted and die in a war that many Americans considered unnecessary.

However, the Vietnam War is a strange exception and beginning point for a tidal change in American wars. Post-Vietnam, the only benefits wars seem to have given us are more efficient (although not cheaper) ways to kill people, and that sucks. (Incidentally, the Korean War is technically not a war. It also technically never ended.)

But… as weird as it may sound, a lot of the major wars prior to Vietnam actually gave American society weird and unexpected benefits. Yeah, all of that death and killing and violence were terrible, but like dandelions breaking through urban sidewalks to bloom and thrive, sometimes, good stuff does come in the aftermath of nasty wars. Here are five examples.

The American Revolution, 1775-1783

The Benefit: The First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution)

By the beginning of the 18th century, Europe was having big problems because Monarchs and the Church were all tied up together, the state dictated religion, and so on. It came to an extreme with Britain’s Act of Settlement in 1714, which barred any Catholic from ever taking the throne. The end result of this was that the next in line turned out to be the future George I, son of Sophia. Sophia, however, was an Elector of Hanover or, in other words, German. Queen Victoria was a direct descendant of George I, and spoke both English and German. In fact her husband, Prince Albert, was German.

But the net result of all the tsuris over the whole Catholic vs. Protestant thing in Europe, on top of suppression of the press by governments, led to the Founders making sure to enshrine freedom of speech and the wall between church and state in the very first Amendment to the Constitution, before anything else. To be fair, though, England did start to push for freedom of the press and an end to censorship in the 17th century, so that’s probably where the Founders got that idea. But the British monarch was (and still is) the head of the Church of England, so the score is one up, one down.

The War of 1812, 1812-1815

The Benefit: Permanent allegiance between the U.S. and Britain

This was basically the sequel to the American Revolution, and came about because of continued tensions between the two nations. Britain had a habit of capturing American sailors and forcing them into military duty against the French, for example, via what were vernacularly called “press gangs.” They also supported Native Americans in their war against the fairly new country that had been created by invading their land. So again, one up, one down. And the second one, which is the down vote to America, is rather ironic, considering that the Brits were basically now helping out the people whose land had been stolen by… the first English settlers to get there.

And, honestly, if we’re really keeping score, the U.S. has two extra dings against it in this one: We started it by declaring war — even if there were legitimate provocations from Britain — and then we invaded Canada.

But then a funny thing happened. The U.S. won the war. By all rights it shouldn’t have. It was a new country. It really didn’t have the military to do it. It was going up against the dominant world power of the time, and one that would soon become an empire to boot.

The war technically ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, but there was still the Battle of New Orleans to come after that, and it happened because news of the end of the war hadn’t gotten there yet. In that one, the U.S. kicked Britain’s ass so hard that they then basically said, “Remember all the concessions we made in that treaty? Yeah, not. LOL.”

In a lot of ways, the war was really a draw, but it did get the British to remove any military presence from the parts of North America that were not Canada, and opened the door to American expansionism across the continent. It also helped to establish the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, which is to this day the world’s longest undefended border. Finally, it cemented the relationship of the U.S. and Britain as allies and BFFs, which definitely came in handy in the 20th century during a couple of little European dust-ups that I’ll be getting to shortly.

The American Civil War, 1861-1865

The Benefit: Mass-manufactured bar soap

Now in comparison to the first two, this one may seem trivial and silly, but it actually does have ramifications that go far beyond the original product itself. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of bar soap now or go for the liquid kind (my preference), because both were really born out of the same need and process.

Once upon a time, soap-making was one of the many onerous tasks that the women of the house were expected to do, along with cleaning, cooking, sewing, canning, laundry, ironing, taking care of the menfolk (husbands and sons, or fathers and brothers), and generally being the literal embodiment of the term “drudge.” But soap-making was so arduous a task in terms of difficulty and general nastiness that it was something generally done only once or twice a year, basically making enough to last six or twelve months.

To make soap involved combining rendered fat and lye. (Remember Fight Club?) The fat came easy, since people at the time slaughtered their own animals for food, so they just ripped it off of the cow or pig or whatever meat they’d eaten. The lye came from leeching water through ashes from a fire made from hardwood, believe it or not, and since wood was pretty much all they had to make fires for cooking, ashes were abundant. Yes, I know, it’s really counter-intuitive that something so caustic could be made that way, but there you go. The secret is in the potassium content of the wood. Fun fact: the terms hard- and softwood have nothing to do with the actual wood itself, but rather with how the trees reproduce. (And I’ll let your brain make the joke so I don’t have to.)

So soap was a household necessity, but difficult to make. Now, while William Procter and James Gamble started to manufacture soap in 1838, it was still a luxury product at the time. It wasn’t until a lot of men went to war in 1861 that women had to run homesteads and farms on top of all of their other duties, and so suddenly manufactured soap started to come into demand. Especially helpful was Procter and Gamble providing soap to the Union Army, so that soldiers got used to it and wanted it once they came home.

Obviously, easier access to soap helped with hygiene but, more importantly, the industry advertised like hell, and from about the 1850s onward, selling soap was big business. There’s a reason that we call certain TV shows “soap operas,” after all, and that’s because those were the companies that sponsored the shows.

World War I, 1914-1918 (U.S. involvement, 1917-1918)

The Benefit: Woman’s suffrage and the right to vote

It’s probably common knowledge — or maybe not — that two big things that happened because of World War I were an abundance of prosthetic limbs and advances in reconstructive and plastic surgery. However, neither of these were really invented because of this conflict, which “only” led to improved surgical techniques or better replacement limbs.

The real advance is sort of an echo of the rise of soap via the Civil War, in the sense that the former conflict freed women from one nasty restriction: Having no say in government. And, as usually happens when the boys march off to do something stupid, the women have to take up the reins at home, and sometimes this gets noticed. It certainly did in the case of WW I, and suffragettes wisely exploited the connection between women and the homefront war effort. Less than two years after the conflict officially ended, women were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Hey! Only 144 years too late. Woohoo!

World War II, 1939-1945 (U.S. involvement, 1941-1945)

The Benefit: The rise of the American middle class

As World War II was starting to move to an end, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was passed into law. It was designed to assist returning service members via things like creating the VA hospital system, providing subsidized mortgages, assisting with educational expenses, and providing unemployment. It was also a direct reaction to the less-than-fantastic reception returning veterans of World War I had received.

In fact, one of FDR’s goals in creating what is commonly known as the G.I. Bill was to expand the middle class, and it succeeded. Suddenly, home ownership was within reach of people who hadn’t been able to obtain it before and, as a result, new housing construction exploded and, with it, the emergence of suburbs all across the country. With education, these veterans found better jobs and higher incomes, and that money went right back into the economy to buy things like cars, TVs, and all the other accoutrements of suburban living. They also started having children — it’s not called the Baby Boom for nothing — and those children benefited with higher education themselves. The rates of people getting at least a Bachelor’s Degree began a steady climb in the 1960s, right when this generation was starting to graduate high school. At the same time, the percentage of people who hadn’t even graduated from high school plunged.

The top marginal tax rates of all time in the U.S. happened in 1944 and 1945, when they were at 94%. They remained high — at least 91% — throughout the 1950s. Oddly, despite the top rate in the 1940s being higher, the median and average top tax rates in the 1950s were higher — about 86% for both in the 40s and 91% for both in the 50s. The economy was booming, and in addition to paying for the war, those taxes provided a lot of things for U.S. Citizens.

Even as his own party wanted to dismantle a lot of FDR’s New Deal policies, President Eisenhower forged ahead with what he called “Modern Republicanism.” He signed legislation and started programs that did things like provide government assistance to people who were unemployed, whether simply for lack of work or due to age or illness. Other programs raised the minimum wage, increased the scope of Social Security, and founded the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In a lot of ways, it was like the G.I. Bill had been extended to everyone.

Sunday Nibble #46: An oddly appropriate number.

Yet again, I’m writing this post a week ahead of time, but at a point when I know from the internet that January 17, as in today, is supposed to be a day when… something happens; basically, the next salvo in the Coup de Twat(s) attempted on January 6.

With any luck, this time, saner heads will take it seriously, and there will be a massive response from the military and National Guard. Who knows — the previous president may not even be in power by this point, in which case Number 46 will serve the shortest term in history, making William Henry Harrison’s month look like FDR in comparison.

And Joe Biden will be #47. Although, realistically, he probably will be #46, because while I have no doubt that the House has impeached, the Senate will not convict, and the VP and Cabinet — no matter how much Pence feels personally betrayed by the soon-to-be-ex POTUS — is not going to invoke the 25th Amendment.

This is the one that allows the VP and a majority of the Cabinet to declare to Congress in writing that the President is unfit for duty, and places the VP in power. It was originally a response to JFK’s assassination, though, and so the originally intended definition of “Unfit” was “Dead.”

The only other times it’s been invoked were medical — i.e. after Ronald Reagan was shot and in no condition to lead, and at several points when a president has had to go under anesthesia for a medical procedure, like a colonoscopy.

It has yet to be invoked under a “The president is batshit insane” condition, but it yet might have been.

There is also the possibility that the 14th Amendment gets used. This is one of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Amendments designed to deal with the whole mess after the fact and, among other things, it allows Congress to ban any elected official who supports any insurrection or rebellion against the United States from ever holding any elected office again.

In other words, Congress could chose to invoke this Amendment to eject and permaban all of the Senators and Congress Reps who supported the January 6 domestic terrorists directly, as well as all of them who voted to object to the Electoral vote counting — although it’s a harder sell on the latter.

Imagine the effect of that one, though, if both things happen. That would be a handful of Senators and a hundred-odd Republican Reps kicked out and banned.

Here’s the thing, though. While the U.S. played hardball against the rebels at first — as they should have — a close election the next cycle screwed it all up, because the decision of who won did fall to Congress, and the compromise in order so appease the seditionists and get the votes for the candidate preferred by the Union was to back off on the 14th Amendment penalties.

Well, that, and not enforce that “All men are created equal” stuff so much in the South.

End result? A continuation of the systemic racism, Jim Crow Laws, white supremacy, and all the other bullshit that is the direct cause of what’s going on right now.

We could have fixed this if our leaders at that time had the balls to just say, “No,” and to punish the insurrectionist Confederates to the full extent of the law and remove all of them from civic participation forever, disenfranchise them like the felons they were, ban their flags and symbols, try them all for war crimes, and elevate the people they tried to oppress to positions of power in every single statehouse of the Confederacy.

Or, you know — do what Germany did to the Nazis. Prosecute, convict, execute, and erase.

But we totally fell down on that job, and we are living with the consequences more than 145 years after that little shit-show.

I’m really just hoping that events between then and now, and especially what may or may not happen today, do not make the Insurrection of January 6 look like a Sunday School Picnic.

However, I am not totally hopeful that this upcoming week is going to be even worse, and the most violent and divisive week in U.S. history of all time. Strap in, kids.

Or as Margo Channing said in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”