A number of years ago, my musician husband was playing an album by psychobilly artist Reverend Horton Heat and a song, “Four Hundred Bucks,” grabbed my attention. In the song, the singer lent—you guessed it—four hundred dollars to a woman he was seeing, and after that she dropped him and wouldn’t pay him back. Listening to the song, I had no doubt that the songwriter wrote the song based on something that had happened to him. Wow, I thought at the time; this guy can make a compelling song about anything.
That realization had a profound effect on me. As any reader of this magazine knows, finding an idea good enough to carry an entire story is hard. “Where do you get your ideas?” is a question authors often are asked because readers find the process so mystical. Of course, writers develop lots of ways to cultivate story ideas: we use writing prompts, or a photograph, a news story. We take a memorable experience from our own life or the lives of others, whether a family member or someone famous.
From the “Four Hundred Bucks” experience, I decided that to become a better storyteller, I would try to find the story in the day-to-day things that happened to me. What I’ve found, though, is that it’s not the incident itself that makes for a good story—though there’s no reason to pass up an unusual location, once-in-a-lifetime encounter, or great mystery that life tosses your way (waste not, want not seems to be a motto writers can live by.)
The key to turning everyday experiences into stories is the ability to find the universal appeal in the situation. What is it about this incident that everyone can relate to? For instance, what makes the Reverend Horton Heat song universal and compelling is not the “what”—the act of lending money to a friend—but the “so what”—the feeling of being taken advantage of. Even though the song is titled “Four Hundred Bucks,” it’s really about his frustration at being used and his inability to get this woman to do right by him, and that’s something we can all relate to.
In The Taker, characters are given the quality of immortality, but through uncommon means. They’re not made into vampires or Greek gods, or any of the other immortal types we’ve come to expect. In this story, immortality is a curse imposed on the wicked that binds them to spend eternity serving an implacable master, and so I was faced with the challenge of making readers think about immortality in a completely different way.
I found the answer from a time when I had a prolonged period of headaches and vertigo. For six months, I was constantly dizzy and had headaches so severe that my skull sometimes felt as though it would break apart.
From the brutal headaches came the ‘presence’ that connects the damned to the man who made them immortal. From the uncontrollable vertigo I had every day, I created sense of despair that comes with being given a sentence that must be endured for eternity, I knew I’d done a good job when my editor at Gallery Books told me you could really feel the protagonist’s pain and hopelessness at being trapped in this hellish version of immortality. It was my “Four Hundred Bucks” moment.