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.

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!