Recently, I’ve had a rash of publishers asking for explanations of how a story came to be—for Asimov’s Science Fiction, for the forthcoming audio editions of the John Joseph Adams anthologies Wastelands and The Living Dead, so on. I can understand why editors would want such information. As a kid, an aspiring writer, I loved the story notes in the back of the collection—indeed I would read them first. I could surely garner from them the secret of how one got story ideas.
As a writer, however, I have an inordinate amount of trouble in fulfilling this simple request. Stories suggest themselves to me in lots of ways—as titles, as images that strike my imagination for one reason or another, as blazing germs of ideas that appear in my head for no reason I can discern: the proverbial light bulb going off. The problem is, my light bulb doesn’t provide much illumination.
I can only assume—ruling out the ancient Greeks’ explanation for this phenomenon: the muse—that these images, titles, germs of ideas, whatever, rise up out of the soup of my subconscious, the products of endless reading, observation of the world around me, what have you. The problem is, the subconscious doesn’t provide stories; it provides germs, nothing more. Take my story “Death and Suffrage”—a kind of pun on the common phrase “Death and Suffering.” Suffrage, however, means the right to vote. What the hell does that mean: how does it lead to a plot, characters, all the components a story must have? That moment of discovery—that certainty that this is going to be easy—soon runs up against the practicality of building the story itself.
Enter the conscious mind—which does all the hard work. “Death” after some thinking
suggests the common (all too common these days) trope of the zombie, the flesh-eating ghoul returned from the dead. Suffrage, as I’ve said, means the right to vote. Voting zombies, an intrinsically stupid idea! How to make it work? Well, as the saying goes “The dead always vote” in Chicago, and I have a setting. But the idea itself seems too weightless to carry a narrative. Why would zombies want to vote instead of eating human flesh, and what would be the effect of such a phenomenon—on the voters themselves, on the campaigns, on the candidates and their advisors? And suddenly I’m on my way to a story.
What started as a ridiculous idea becomes something a little more tenable. The story went on to publication, it won an International Horror Guild Award, it was picked up and filmed as part of Showtime’s Masters of Horror television show, it’s been reprinted several times, and suddenly I have in hand perhaps my most successful story.
None of which answers the question of where the initial title, that pun (is pun the write word?) on the word “suffering,” comes from.