• Thomas Gaffney

Walks and Ideas and Dead People

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

It started last summer cause of the pandemic. Working from home and getting fat (fatter), I decided to take walks through the cemetery across the street from our apartment. The walks stopped in the winter but just started back up again. During one of my most recent walks, I got an idea for a short story. Remember where this idea came from, I told myself. You're going to need to write an introduction to it in the collection.

As I work on each of the short stories for FEARS, SCARES, & OTHER NIGHTMARES, I started something new (for me). I write a small intro for each story about WHERE the story came from. Was it for school? Did I submit it for publication anywhere? Was it bought? Published? And the biggest question—where did the story ideas come from? And that got me thinking about my first collection and how I missed the boat by not including intros to the stories. Especially now that I'm not 100% certain I even remember where the story ideas came from. But I'll try my best.

The Stories of Stranger Things Have Happened:

*Spoilers abound!*

Fraxinus: This was the second story I wrote in this collection. It came from the first unofficial meeting of the Plymouth Meeting Barnes & Noble Writer's Group™. If I remember right, Vicki came up with the writing prompt that was "write a story, write a poem, sketch a picture, paint a painting, or carve a miniature of a tree." That was it. You had free reign to do whatever you wanted, or write whatever you wanted, as long as it was about a tree. I said, well trees are innocuous so why don't I write a story about an evil tree? So I sat down and wrote Fraxinus (from the Genus of ash trees). It was not the story I wanted to write. I started, and it just took on a life of its own.

FEEEEENIX: This was the first story I wrote. I was having the most terrible time finishing any novel I started, so I switched gears and decided to try my hand at short stories in the hopes of completing something. You never know what kind of writer you are/can be until you finish one complete story. This was my first one. I was sitting in a science building at St. Joe's in Philly while my wife was finishing up a lab experiment on a Saturday afternoon. It was raining outside. All I could think about was the scene in The Amazing Spider-Man (with Andrew Garfield) where the rain is falling on all the black umbrellas at Denis Leary's funeral when Gwen Stacy looks skyward for any signs of Spidey. In my head, I had the mental image of a man at a funeral holding a black umbrella. But it's 95 degrees out and sunny, and the man is wondering why all the movies and TV shows have lied to him. That segues into a rant about lies children are told by parents, and the story of the legendary Phoenix in modern times was born. This one is very personal as my dad (still alive as is my mom) was a firefighter. And the narrator and his wife are modeled off me and my wife. Probably my second favorite story.

Napkin: Another of the Plymouth Meeting Barnes & Noble Writer's Group™ prompts. I think this one was suggested by Candice? She found it on a list of writing prompts from a magazine or from Google. The prompt was "someone hands you a napkin (or drops it on your table) and it says: Get Out Now. While You Still Can. What do you do?" Since I already had a first-person POV in FEEEEENIX, and I can only do so many, I took the prompt and made it about some guy at an Applebee's. My main thought behind it was, "this happens a lot in spy movies, and it usually saves someone's life. What if the guy gets the note and follows it, but it leads to him getting killed—not saved." The magic/eerieness behind it is because I don't know if I can write a good spy story.

Ghost: This was a prompt from Writer's Digest. I think it was to retell a ghost story where the living haunt the ghost. I felt doing that directly would've been copying too much, so I changed it to the ghost hearing a ghost story and THEN making the events of the story happen, as opposed to the other way around. In retrospect, I'm surprised when I hear people like this one because I find it to be underwhelming.

Eight Days A Week: Another of the Plymouth Meeting Barnes & Noble Writer's Group™ prompts from Vicki. The prompt was along the lines of "write about the days of the week as if they each had a personality." I decided to go one step further and make them actual people. The first idea I had was to make MonDay a bitch, cause everyone hates MonDays. The second was to have them "die" at—literally—the end of each Day. NullDay going around and wiping them out came near the end.

Celebrity!: This had always been sitting in my "possibly story idea" pile. Based on the adage (or old wives' tale) that celebrities always die in threes. There was a rash of celebrity deaths around the time I had originally concocted the story idea and I think there were two groups of three deaths back-to-back. That got me thinking that if I ever became famous and there were two celebrity deaths, I would hide until the third celebrity kicked the bucket. I was never sure if I wanted to make it a short story or a novel, but I needed more short stories for this collection, and I never knew if there was enough material for a novel. To be honest, I could go back and turn this into a novella.

The Day Harold Sanford Got Cancer: I think there was a story about Cancer or perhaps a potential cure in the news. Plus I had a doctor's appointment around the same time and I was terrified he would tell me I had Cancer (he didn't). So this story began with a man sitting in a doctor's office and getting the bad news. From there, I began to question "well, you don't just catch Cancer like you catch a cold and can pinpoint exactly when you get it. It happens well before the doctor tells you." And that turned into my first backward story.

Missing: This came from two women I worked with at Starbucks. Audrey would look through the Missed Connections section of Craigslist and see if anyone posted about a missed connection in the Starbucks where we worked. I thought "what if a lonely guy thinks a Missed Connection is about him so he answers it? And what if it puts his life in danger?" Then when the Succubus (TBH, I don't really know if the character is a Succubus. I intentionally left it vague) is about to kill him—I stopped and said "this might be too predictable." So I flipped the story at the last minute and made the lonely guy a demon.

Fraxinus Americana: The White Ash Tree, or the American Ash Tree. When I finished Fraxinus, I took one look and said, "This is NOT the story I set out to tell about a tree." So, I tossed that aside and started over. THIS is the story I intended to tell about an evil tree. THIS also happens to be my favorite story of this collection. I was both surprised and saddened when it didn't get as much love from readers as I had for it. When I finished this one, and had the Plymouth Meeting Barnes & Noble Writer's Group™ read it, I mentioned that this was the second tree story I wrote. The women wanted to read the first one, even though I had shelved it, and they liked it (I think more than this version). So that's how Fraxinus got added to my collection when my original intention was to write this story.

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