Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The genesis of a short story

One question I get asked all the time is "Where do you get your ideas?" Usually by people that have read some of my darker stuff, and usually as they glance around uneasily, trying to remain casual while they map out an escape route while trying not to be too obvious about it.

You might think it would be an easy question to answer, but just the opposite is true. Many of the stories I write started out going one way before being hijacked by the characters or the situations, and moving off in an entirely new direction, with me simply scrambling to keep up. Sometimes they start out as snippets of song lyrics, or snatches of overheard conversation, less often they're inspired by news stories or personal experiences.
The one thing they usually have in common is that when I'm done, they rarely resemble what I envisioned when I started.

Every once in a while, though, the genesis of a story is perfectly clear. My story in the latest issue of Needle Magazine, "The Ticket," is a perfect example.

You may or may not know - or care, for that matter - that in my second job (AKA, The One That Pays The Bills) I am employed by the FAA as an air traffic controller. It's a job I've been doing for nearly thirty years, and one which I enjoy, because it keeps my interest while I'm working position, and especially because it affords me a fair amount of time to devote to writing while on my breaks, away from the radar scopes.

About a year-and-a-half ago, one of my coworkers took a few days off suddenly. Why? He was celebrating winning half a million bucks on a lottery scratch ticket! I'm not the most knowledgeable gambler in the world (Buy me a beer if we ever meet up and I'll tell you my Las Vegas slot machine story - I guarantee you can't top it for sheer embarrassment value), but I had no freaking clue you could win that much on a scratch ticket.

I don't play them very often, maybe three or four times a year at the most, and probably the biggest jackpot I've ever scratched off is five bucks. My daughter won $75 on a scratch ticket a couple of years ago and I was blown away by that. So when I heard this guy had won five hundred grand I immediately thought two things:

1 - That lucky bastard, why couldn't it have been me? and,

2 - How can I use this in a story?

Or maybe it was the other way around, I can't really remember. Anyway, out of that serendipitous event, "The Ticket" was born. Beyond the circumstances of the jackpot - a scratch ticket - there's not really any resemblance between the real-life event and the story.

I embellished the jackpot amount in "The Ticket," figuring if a half-million dollar scratch ticket was cool, a million would be even cooler, and in my story the air traffic controller suddenly became a guilt-ridden gangland enforcer who views his unexpected windfall as the perfect opportunity to leave his old life behind and go straight. Unfortunately, his sense of timing sucks, and he scratches the ticket in the presence of his boss, Fat Tony Filichiccia, who decides he deserves a cut, too.

How my lottery winner works out his dilemma is something you'll have to buy Needle to find out. I can tell you my coworker didn't have to go through anything close to what my character does. Unless his wife is particularly greedy.

And that's the genesis of a story.

Strange but true addendum: About a year later, the same coworker won another hundred grand. On, you guessed it, a scratch ticket.

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