The Evolution of an Idea: Murph’s Law

People often ask writers where they get their ideas. There are a lot of answers to that question. I think everyone does it a bit differently. A month ago, I published the story “Murph’s Law” on this site. You can find it here. A couple of readers wrote me and asked where it came from.

On May 28th, 2013, I awoke with an opening line in my head. “When I pissed on Bobby Smith’s grave, I didn’t mean anything by it.” I logged in to Evernote on my phone and recorded it. For those of you who don’t know Evernote, it is a program that allows you to take notes, voice recordings, or pictures and access them from either your phone or your computer. It’s a wonderful program that I don’t use as much as I should.

A good opening line is a baited hook for a pantser (someone who writes without any plan). I liked it, but I didn’t know what it could catch. I toyed with a couple ideas, including the vengeful spirit of Bobby Smith who wasn’t keen about getting pissed on. I tried a version of the “Resurrection Mary” story. I wrote a few opening paragraphs. It didn’t do enough for me.

I’ve read Dracula three times in the last year for two different classes. The story got me thinking about this crazy Van Helsing guy who goes cutting the heads off of corpses in the graveyard and how easily he gets Lucy’s would be lovers to go along with her decapitation. Here, Arthur, hammer the stake through your fiancee’s heart like a good boy. LIKE A MAN! Stoker liked to reaffirm his characters’ masculinity.

I started thinking about stumbling across a lunatic vampire slayer in a graveyard. The graveyard connection made me think of my opening line. In need of a story for the week, I sat down and decided to see where it would go. I decided to ditch the name Bobby Smith. I didn’t like it. There was nothing wrong with it, but it lacked the familiarity I wanted. I had a “Murph” and a “Chuckles” in my high school class. They were nothing like the characters, but I liked the familiarity of the nicknames. All the stuff about Murph getting his nickname came out of nowhere. I typed it out before I even thought about it, and it became a theme for the story.

That’s part of the fun of writing. If you relax, your brain will make connections that you didn’t know were there. A piece of a story you read once, a random goofy thought, or maybe nostalgia for the place you grew up–God knows what dark, cobwebbed corners of your mind produce this stuff, but it is all there. Writing is cleaning out the metaphorical closet. Every character is a part of you, even if they are the parts that you would never publically claim. If I were a romantic, I might compare it to throwing bones, as if it were some act of divination. Instead, I’ve always thought of my brain as a big cup of Yahtzee dice. I toss it all out and hope it’s something I can use. If it gives me a peanut butter sandwich, a werewolf, and a Carnival cruise liner, I might come back with a werewolf eating peanut butter aboard a crippled cruise ship on the first night of the full moon, dreading what will happen if they don’t get rescued in time. Pardon me while I log in to Evernote.

The cemetery is set in the town of Fairfax, Iowa, which is a geographical mash-up. There is a Fairfax just west of Cedar Rapids, but it isn’t my Fairfax. I didn’t know it existed. Fairfax is my name for a made up town that is a combination of the rural towns I grew up around, a “fair facsimile” of the area. The real Fairfax is about the size of my imagined town, but I’m sure it doesn’t have anywhere near the problems. Fairfax shows up in several of my stories, an unfinished novel, and a screenplay. It’s my Castle Rock. It’s whatever I need it to be. Oddly, I just looked, and if you walked “as the crow flies” from the local bar to the cemetery on the edge of the real Fairfax, you would cross a cornfield.

The other question I’ve been asked: “Is Van just crazy?” My thought was that it doesn’t really matter. Murph did what he did and will have to live with it either way, just like he has to live with Chuckles’s death. Of course, I know the answer, but it is mine alone.  Is Van crazy? Was the girl a vampire? Are they even mutually exclusive options? Where you and I fall on that debate has more to do with us than it does with Van. Either way, he’s got a stake through the heart. At the end of the day, that is really all that matters.

 

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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