Pretty much anything can inspire a new story. A person. A place. An image. An overheard conversation. Even a memory.
With a big push planned in short fiction this year, I’m pulling inspiration from anywhere I can find it. And memories are proving to be a surprisingly fruitful source.
What’s great about our real-life experiences is that they’re open to an important question:
Think of any memorable experience from your life. Then ask yourself “what if” you had done something differently or made another choice.
Would things be better? Worse? How would you want it to turn out if you could re-live things? What’s the worst case scenario that might have happened?
You have a nearly endless supply of story ideas there for the taking.
What I’d like to do now is share a couple of examples from my own life. I’m not using these memories as inspiration for any particular stories yet, though I probably will down the line. But they’re vivid memories, from a heroic moment to one of the most uncomfortable days of my life — exactly the kind of memories you can pull from and mold into something new.
Good Girl Gone Bad
My youngest brother, TJ, did something incredibly sweet when he was in elementary school. He was asked to write about his hero. And that hero was me. (This is where I feel the need to say “aww” and pinch his little cheeks.)
The reason TJ considered me his hero was the fact that I “saved his life,” as he used to put it, when a tall dresser fell on him. I have no idea how it happened (though he was a bit of a monkey, so I’d guess he tried to climb it or something stupid). I heard him cry out, rushed to him, and was thankfully able to lift the dresser off him and get him out. I was no older than ten at the time.
Now, before I get into the “what if?” question, I have one more similar incident to share. This time I saved both my brothers (and myself):
We were at a small store along the main stretch in the town we lived in at the time. My mom ran into the store quickly while we waited in the car (which wasn’t uncommon then). The problem? The parking lot was on a steep decline towards the busy road.
All of a sudden, the car started rolling backwards with the three of us in it. I was in the back seat with one brother. I don’t have any idea how I knew what to do, but once I realized what was happening I leapt to the front of the car and engaged the emergency brake. I still remember looking out that front windshield as I lunged forward, seeing my mom running towards us from the store in a panic.
Now I like to joke with that youngest brother that because I saved his life not once, but twice, I reserve the right to take it if I ever want to (we really do love each other, I swear).
How are memories like this potential story inspiration, especially for a horror story? Go back to that question of “what if?”
In the second example, it’s easy to imagine a worst case scenario — kids roll into traffic; kids die. (I try not to remind myself of that very real possibility that day.) That would be horrific enough. But what if the car didn’t roll because of the hill? What if there was a supernatural force at work? It just so happens the parking lot is right next to a huge cemetery, so a ghost story would make a lot of sense here.
What about the first example? I don’t know about you, but very little creeps me out more than evil children. So, playing the “what if” game, what if I hadn’t been a good little girl willing to save her brother? What if I’d gotten sick of having two little bratty brothers taking all the attention and I decided to eliminate the competition instead?
Now those are just the most obvious story ideas that come to mind when I remember those incidents. Can you come up with others? Run with them.
Monsters and Men
The next memory I’m going to share with you has to do with a haunted attraction. I adore these things around Halloween. And I probably live in the best place in the world for them — SE Pennsylvania where we are literally surrounded by these fright factories (Jason’s Woods, The Bates Motel, Eastern State Penitentiary, Pennhurst, Field of Screams, Shocktoberfest; even the big amusement park gets in on the spooky fun every year).
I’m ashamed to admit I still haven’t been to all of them because I don’t have anyone to go with anymore (friends are too scared — silly people). In fact, I haven’t been to any since 2009 when I went to Jason’s Woods on what was hands-down the worst “date” of my life. And that’s a huge shame because you’d think these would be awesome date material, no? Maybe that’s just me.
Now to keep things in perspective, as far as I was concerned, this wasn’t a date. The guy felt otherwise, despite being told I was only interested in being friends.
So anyway, Jason’s Woods was split into three events — an indoor walk-through haunted house, a haunted hayride, and the walk-through haunted woods.
We started in the haunted house. The guy I was there with would not stop trying to hold my hand. He felt like he had to lead me through or some nonsense. I wouldn’t take his hand, so he kept trying to grab my arm, and later my coat sleeve which he latched onto pretty insistently.
At one point in the dark room (the only thing that scares me in these places usually — OK, that and clowns), one of the costumed guys grabbed me. That’s not usually allowed at these places, so that was weird. But all I was thinking was how badly I wanted that person to pull me back to wherever they’d just popped out from so I could get the hell out of there. I was so fed up with this guy, and we’d barely started.
There’s an opportunity for story #1. What if I did get snatched (or leave willingly)? What if I’d been in a particularly murderous mood and found a way to leave his body among the gory scenes like it was part of the attraction? Tempting!
Step forward to the haunted hayride. Creepy guy still wouldn’t get a clue. We’re sitting along the edge of the wagon and he tries to put his arm around me. I inched forward, pulling away from him. He tried again. I inched forward again. Before too long, I was in the middle of the damn wagon, and this guy still wouldn’t lay off. People were staring. I’ve never felt such a strong pitying gaze in my life. I think everyone there except for this guy realized that I did not want to be there. And that’s part of why it was so uncomfortable. People watched, knowing something wasn’t quite right, and no one said a word. People suck.
Nothing jumps to mind story-wise related to this part of the night, but maybe you can come up with something. I’m going to continue to try to block it out. For me, it just added to the tension of an incredibly uncomfortable night.
Finally we had the outdoor walk-through in the woods. We almost skipped it because it started raining while we were on the hayride (and I wanted to get the hell out of there). But he insisted, and for some reason I agreed (in his defense, he wasn’t trying to be a perv or something; he just had no social sense whatsoever, so I was at least making an attempt to be nice to him — my mistake perhaps).
He was doing the same thing in the woods that he tried to do in the haunted house. He kept trying to grab my hand. When I wouldn’t give it to him, he’d hold onto my arm, or my sleeve, or put his hand on my shoulder.
As we were walking along, there was a small hill in front of us and the ground was entirely mud-covered. I warned him to hold onto the trees while climbing. But of course he thought he knew better. Next thing I know, there he went, sliding down the hill getting himself completely covered in mud (which didn’t amuse me as I’d driven us there in my car because I was the one who knew where the place was).
Here’s the best part. A big burly guy in a werewolf costume came over to check on me — not to check on the guy who just slid down the hill, but to check on me because it was that obvious something was wrong. Now when a werewolf who’s supposed to be terrorizing you breaks character to make sure you’re OK because the other creepy guy in the woods won’t stop grabbing you, that’s a night you remember.
This wasn’t even the end of the night. But I’ll spare you the part of the story about the pouring rain and fortune teller that came next. Instead, let’s go back to our “what ifs.”
What if that werewolf hadn’t been a guy in a costume? Would he have attacked the gal who’d already been punished enough that night, or would he go after the easy prey slipping down the hill? What if that slip was really a push, and he tumbled headfirst into a tree? (What can I say? This night seems to bring out my murderess alter ego.) What if it wasn’t just some innocent guy grabbing me, but something more abusive, and I had to plot an escape through the woods on that cold rainy night? There’s plenty of room to take this horrific “date” and turn it into something more genre-appropriate.
Now what about you? Can you think of other horror story ideas from these examples? How about your own memories? Is there a particular one that plays well into the “what if” game? If so, feel free to tell me about it in the comments. Or, if you prefer, tell me where most of your inspiration comes from when you’re looking for story ideas.