Friday, June 19, 2009

The Haunting of Helen E. H. Madden

Allow me to turn this week's topic completely on its head.

I am neither religious nor a superstitious person, so I do not believe in ghosts, i.e. the restless spirits of the dead. Though I enjoy a good ghost story, and might try to write one on occasion, I cannot convince myself that the dead are anything more than... well, dead. Haunted houses, to me, are nothing more than abandoned empty buildings that are scary more because they might collapse on you than because some spooky dead person is hanging around inside waiting to jump out and go "Boo!" As for Ouija boards, forget 'em. They only deliver messages from the subconscious or practical jokers. And I think people who claim they can speak to the dead either have a screw loose or are out to get your money.

So no, I don't believe in ghosts. But nonetheless, I find I am haunted with rather alarming frequency.

It starts every time I set to work on a story. I have a weekly deadline, so I can't afford to wait for ideas to come to me before I start writing. I have to jump start my brain, kick it into gear, and turn out that story before week's end. My latest gimmick for starting stories is to pull some random words out of a hat. I convinced a lot of people to send me random words or phrases, which I wrote onto small strips of paper and then put in a hat. For the last few weeks, whenever I sit down to start work a story, I pull out three slips from the hat, and then use whatever is on those slips to create a coherent tale. I think some people have tried to deliberately screw me up by sending strange or unusual words that you'd never expect to read in an erotica story. But no matter, it's made for some interesting, creative tales.

Until this week. This week's words were "money," "well, it worked," and "wombat." I drew them out on Sunday and promptly slammed my head into the desk. Wombat? I'm supposed to use the word "wombat" in an erotica story? The first two I could fit into any story with little trouble. But wombat? Impossible! I stared at the slips for half an hour, trying to form some idea for a story, but I came up with nada, zip, bupkis. I dropped the slips of paper on my desk and shook my head. There was no story here. I decided I would pull out new words the next day.

But the word "wombat" was not so easily set aside. It hung with me throughout the day, nibbling at the back of my mind. What was a wombat, exactly? What did one look like? Where did they come from? What did they eat? Were they sexy? Such random questions floated through my brain, pestering me through the night, until I finally cried "Uncle!" early the next morning and hit Wikipedia for some quick research. Wombats, I found out, are stout, sturdy creatures like badgers, but with teeth like rodents. They can chew through just about anything, and their backsides are made of cartilage, making them nigh impervious to attacks from the rear. They dig tunnels and protect their territories with a vengeance. They're surly creatures, to be sure, ones that seemed to have a personality I could relate to. In my mind, the word "wombat" began to take form.

By Tuesday, I had the nigglings of an idea that involved all three of my random slips of paper. The wombat would important, one of the main characters in fact. Before the day was out, the creature had a definite voice and a name - Wildorf, the Merciless. He was grumpy, wore leather armor and was handy at defeating foes twice his size. And he had a problem that he couldn't solve on his own. Enter the Lady Amadira, a high priced courtesan, and Wildorf's friends Nob and Hilde, and a shady character named Duke Vermeer, all of whom lived in the far away land of the Three Kingdoms.

Once discovered and named, this cast of characters bedeviled me without mercy. I lay awake all of Tuesday night, listening to them whisper in my head, feeding me tantalizing bits of dialog and plot. By Wednesday morning, I was possessed. I got up before the sun and headed straight to the office. Wildorf and company demanded to be written.

What happened to me? How had I gone from an impossibility to a story I felt compelled to write? I was haunted, plain and simple. You see, before a story becomes a story, it's the ghost of an idea. Not a ghost in the sense of something that's already died and needs to be put to rest, but something yet to be that's waiting, demanding, to be born. When I have a story in my head, it's like my brain has become pregnant. My noggin swells to stupendous proportions as the story grows, until I can't hold it inside anymore. And then I'm forced to become both midwife and mother, coaxing and pushing and struggling to get the story out of me and onto on the screen of my computer. It may come out messy and covered in blood. It may need to be cleaned and swaddled and nursed and loved into final form. But once it's been given birth to, it's a story, no doubt about it.

While it remains inside me, though, it's a ghost, and it will haunt me without mercy until I heed its cries.


  1. Wombat!!

    Phew, that's a good one for sure. Years ago, three writer friends and I did something similar to your pick 3 words and write a story idea. Each of would write down three words. We'd pass those words to our writer friends and then create a story from said words. I remember being stopped by 'marble' for a while. LOL

    The ghost of a story. Yes, that's exactly what happens. Great post, Helen.


  2. Jude,

    Thank you! I'm putting the wombat ghost "to rest" today, finishing up edits on the current draft of the story. This one has just driven me nuts to get it all out on the computer.

    I like the idea of writers passing words to each other for story prompts. That would make things even more challenging, I think, considering the vocabulary I know many writers have ;)

  3. Helen,

    I just remember one poor fellow got ballet slippers, canoe and something else. It was a hoot.


  4. Helen!

    There's this book by Ray Bradbury called "Zen and the Art of Writing" where he describes using your method. He thinks of a word "The Lake" and waits for an idea.

    I'm curious, why do you have to write a story on demand every week? Is it a contract?


  5. Great post, Helen,

    I love the image of your brain being pregnant. I know exactly what you mean. If I don't get the chance to sit down and write the story that's swelling in my mind, though, it will often miscarriage.

    Alas, I've had quite a few stillborn stories. I've learned through experience that when you are haunted by a story, you have to surrender to the ghost.


  6. Thank you guys! I was out celebrating my anniversary last night, so am just getting the latest comments this morning.

    Jude, I have discovered that if I get words like "ballet slippers" and "canoe," I'm actually a lot better off. The odder the words, the better the stories. I'm now working on one with "albatross" in it. Should be interesting!

    Lisabet. I know exactly what you mean. You've either got to attend to those ghosts when they come, or lose them entirely. I try to at least jot down notes on things as I go, so as not to lose ideas. I have come back to some things many months later, and still been able to pull out a story.

    Garce, I write a story a week for my podcast. Every week, I record a story in MP3 format and upload it to the web. It airs first on, then drops into my RSS feed on Friday for open distribution. I write a month in advance, record and produce a week in advance, so I've always got stories going. In nearly two years, I've written almost 100 stories for the podcast. It's been very... motivating for getting workk done.

    Thank you all for the comments!

  7. A story a week is a lot, but it sounds like you have a great system down! Enjoyable post, Helen, sorry it took so long for mt to comment.

    Life, sheesh!

  8. Jenna, are you kidding me? I've been struggling the past month to get online and make comments! So you aren't late at all, compared to me.

    I do have a system, and it works pretty well. The end results have been good. This October marks the two year point, and I'll have a ton of stories to show for it.

    Thanks for commenting!