How “Tanked” Evolved by Laurel McHargue
“Laurel McHargue, how do you come up with such bizarre story ideas?” This is a question I’m frequently asked, along with, “And what were you on when you wrote that?”
Truth be told, unless you consider crisp Colorado mountain air a drug, I’ve never been on anything when crazy ideas pop into my head! For instance, the vision of an orb floating above a friend’s head came from nowhere one day, inspiring my story “Orbs,” and my Waterwight trilogy emerged from a dream I shared with another author friend, Carol Bellhouse, who insisted I must write a story about it.
Since I was a child I’ve dreamt in Technicolor, and I’ve never been shy about sharing my sleep world—often to the chagrin of whomever is the target of my sharing. My dreams are quite full of detail. They’re gifts, I believe, and once I started Chapter One of Book I of Waterwight, they continued to provide new characters and situations over the course of several years as my trilogy evolved.
A multi-colored jaguar? Sure! Having to leap from a frightful precipice? Why not! A oneeyed wizard named George, the ham man? Most definitely! I found ways to work many dream sequences into my fantasy world. But dream worlds aren’t the only places with fertile soil for sprouting stories. I also get inspiration from places and people I meet in that crisp Colorado mountain air.
My character Old Man Massive, for instance, had been there all along, just waiting for my walking buddy to point him out to me—a real rocky profile of a bearded old man jutting out from Mt. Massive. And the dragonfly that hitched a ride on my paddleboard that one day. And the boy who told me his superpower would be to “build things.”
My list of story ideas and characters is longer than that fish I once (almost) caught. When I hear others complain about “writer’s block,” I go a little berserk because, well, come on! Whether your eyes are open or, often in my case, closed, there are “things” to be felt and heard and imagined. After moderating author panels at the past couple of Denver Comic Cons, one topic that is always animated is “Finding Creative Inspiration in the Mundane.” Hey, if Stephen King can create blockbusters from rabid dogs and possessed cars, no thing, nothing is off-limits for its potential to inspire a story.
For those whose muses remain asleep, however, I would highly recommend doing something I’ve tried for over a year now—and no, not a drug! I’ve started entering short fiction competitions, and many of my stories have been inspired by the prompts required by the contest. “Tanked” is just one example. There are countless contests out there on the interwebs, and some I particularly enjoy come from nycmidnight.com because they provide feedback from several readers, including what they like in your submission and what they believe could use improvement. Also, their fee is reasonable. “
Tanked” was a flash fiction piece, and at midnight on Day 1 of the competition (10 p.m. Colorado time), I was given a genre, a location, and an item that needed to be featured in the story. I had 36 hours to complete a ghost story in an aquarium with a champagne bottle (in the story, not to be consumed while writing). Wow. 2/21/20 Never in my wildest imagination—and I have a pretty wild imagination—would I have come up with this combination of things to write about, and that’s the point. I had to do it. I paid for it. It was a challenge. And so I set my brain to work on it overnight with full confidence that in the morning I’d have idea, even a vague idea, about a storyline. Laurel McHargue
In my blog post titled The Genesis of “Orbs” I talk about the necessity of decision-making when creating fiction, and I’ve applied that same process to all of my stories. Make a decision and go with it. Decisions I had to make for “Tanked” include: • Who is the main character? • Where is the Aquarium? (Since I’m originally from Boston, I thought it would be fun to throw in some Boston dialect). • Is there a backstory? • Who/what/where is the ghost? • How does a bottle of Champaign play in the story? • What obstacle(s) must the main character overcome? • In what P.O.V. should I write? • How will it end?
My original title for this story was “Wet Dreams.” How to title a story is another decision to be made, and after sleeping on this one for another day, I realized that “Tanked” was far more appropriate—and had the added benefit of being a double entendre. I do enjoy word play. I’m the kind of writer who works best with a deadline, a relatively short deadline, so these contests stoke my muse.
If this type of pressure doesn’t excite your muse, however, you can still challenge yourself with myriad prompts available for free on the web, or start a story with your favorite song lyric, or create your own bizarre combination of “things” by filling one bucket with unique nouns, one with adjectives, one with locations, one with character types, one with genres (you get the idea) and choose from each. Sleep on your smorgasbord and see what your sluggish muse might do with the items. Wake up and set your own deadline for completing what will surely become a very . . . unique . . . story!
I hope you enjoy reading “Tanked” and the other stories in Whispers of the Past, and I hope you might consider my other work! Follow me on my website at https://leadvillelaurel.com/ and subscribe to my podcast Alligator Preserves, which now will include stories from my upcoming book Dark Ebb: Grim Tales. Do you have a dark/mysterious/surreal/creepy short story to share? Contact me! And if you’re up for an adventure, find me at this year’s Denver Starfest (May 1-3) and Denver Pop Culture Con (July 3-5).
A paranormal anthology with nine stories from six authors, including the winning story in the 2019 WordCrafter Paranormal Short Fiction Contest, A Peaceful Life I’ve Never Known, by Jeff Bowles.
Award-winning author Laurel McHargue, a West Point grad, was raised near Boston and somehow found her way to the breathtaking elevation of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains–where she lives and laughs and publishes and podcasts. She writes about life, real and imagined, and hosts the podcast ‘Alligator Preserves.’ Contact her for interviews, book signings, and speaking engagements, but probably not for babysitting.
Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/Laurel-McHargue/e/B00INB9OO6