When readers ask where I get my story ideas, I feel compelled to tell them the truth (mostly). So I cringe inwardly and repeat the dreadful cliche: “Sometimes, from my dreams.”
I generally think of myself as an upbeat, even flippant, person. But I do suffer from time to time with vivid nightmares. And sometimes they spill over into real life.
Here’s one example. When my husband and I first got married, we loved exploring independent films. He brought home the zombie movie 28 Days Later. I looked askance.
“I don’t watch horror movies,” I told him. “They give me bad dreams.”
But he was so enthusiastic about the low-budget creativity and innovative shots, and so forth, that I went along to be a good sport. It was very well made, I’ll say that. If you’ve never seen it, a key story point is that you can identify the zombies at a distance because they don’t move their arms normally when they walk (or run – they’re quite terrifyingly fast.) Their arms just flop down by their sides, deadweight.
I didn’t sleep well for days, and several nights later I had a full-on, cold-sweat, paralyzing nightmare about the movie. I fought to consciousness (more or less), and lay there panting in that awful state when you’re trying to convince yourself that it was just a dream, and it’s safe to go back to sleep, but your lizard-brain is still quivering and you don’t dare move.
Now, my husband has some circulatory problems in his shoulders left over from an old work injury. (Can you see where this is going?) Occasionally his whole arm will fall asleep when he lies down. So there I am, drenched in sweat, trying to white-knuckle my way back to sleep. He turns over in bed and flings his dead arm right across me.
Friend, I absolutely levitated off that bed, screaming my head off. I thank the Good Lord every day that I didn’t have a gun or any sharp implements in the bedroom, because I would be a widow right now.
My husband watches scary movies by himself now.
After I’d finished writing Mister Mottley Gets His Man and was going through all the busy-work of publication, I stewed on some general ideas for the next book. I just couldn’t quite find the emotional hook that would get my creative juices flowing.
Then one night, for no apparent reason, I had one of those chest-thudding, hyperventilating nightmares. My husband was very glad that instead of a violent screaming fit, I turned it into the central scene of my next book:
In the quiet of his reverie, Mottley stayed long enough to become aware of his own breathing. For a moment, the little hairs prickling his collar reminded him of his last missed haircut.
His body shot a screaming bolt of adrenaline through his heart to waken his sluggish mind. For there in the fog, someone else was breathing, too. Someone close enough that he could hear a slight whine in the nose, as of an incipient drip from the chill, damp air. Someone outside the soft perimeter of light. Someone behind him.
He uncoiled from the ground, spinning to plant his back against the parapet wall.
“Who’s there?” he barked. “I can hear you.”
A scrape of movement against stone. The breathing quickened. Coming closer? Going away?
He stood ready, right leg well forward and his hands up. His pose brought his hands in range of the light, and he saw – and smelled – the victim’s blood, and more, smeared on his fingers like jam.