Social Distancing in 'The Deleted'

STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES – Possible spoilers

I started ‘The Deleted’ last summer, put it down for a little while, then finished it in February. I say that straight off the bat, because a couple of people if I wrote it with COVID-19 in mind. Not at all. Hadn’t paid it any attention when I typed THE END, and it had yet to reach the UK at that point. And yet, there are some parallels to social distancing, which wasn’t a phrase I (we) knew at the time, so you won’t find it in there…

The main plot of the novel centres around the internet-based computer game of the title. The premise of the game is that you walk through villages and towns, streets and alleyways, and the whole point is to not touch anyone. To not rub shoulders with a passer by. If you knock them at all they become agitated, and if you touch them too much they delete. To do well in the game you keep your distance. Sounds oddly prophetic now.

I guess when I was looking at a fear to exploit in this book, I was thinking of the idea of personal space. When the characters in the game ‘Delete’ then they come for you in real life and invade your space, and possibly worse. Personal space is a big deal at the minute – all two metres of it – and there are some uncomfortable moments in the book where that is violated. More uncomfortable than intended, I guess, given the current climate. There’s not much scarier than the combination of other people and an invisible threat.

Coronavirus aside, there are other points I’d like to mention about ‘The Deleted’ in a ‘story behind the story’ way. The book is from the perspective of mum-of-two, Laura Chance. The behaviour of her estranged husband, Martin, is one of the things she has to deal with. However, for the first month of this story’s existence, and probably for the first five chapters, the gender roles were the other way around! Martin was going to be the character raising two teens. Laura was going to be the wayward parent with all the problems. Martin was going to find some solace at work with a character called Nel…

So why change it? I think it was because as it went on, Martin was basically a version of me, and I wanted to guard against that. Plus, I’d written a couple of female-led stories in ‘A Very Bad Year’ – MOG in particular – that got me thinking about a mother’s bond with her kids. I opted for the swap, the switcheroo. I probably didn’t do justice to being a mum, in the way I might have been able to from a dad perspective, but I still think the novel is richer for having a female protagonist. I think I made the right call.

Another thing. I mentioned a character called Nel a couple of paragraphs ago. She became Sean in the novel. However, at first it was a switch from Nel to Niall. Sean was called Niall all the way through writing, probably until the last two chapters! Then I remembered that one of my main characters in ‘Corner House’, Coop, had the first name of Niall, and I thought that it needed a change. It was then a big ‘Find and Replace’ job – Sean for Niall! All good in the end!

At the moment I can’t think of any other little insights for ‘The Deleted’, but if I do I’ll post them.

For now, stay safe, and stay out of the way of other people – in real life as well as fictitious and sinister computer games…

Hidden Track: Unpicked

THE LAST STORY IN ‘UNLUCKY NUMBERS’ IS CALLED ‘HIDDEN TRACK’. IT WAS THE ONLY WAY TO FINISH THE COLLECTION. HERE’S WHY. (Expect spoilers – read the stories first, will ya!)

Link to ‘Unlucky Numbers’: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0839FLBMP

The story is about a son exploring his father’s loft after the older man has passed away. To a large extent, that son is me. My dad died in 2015, and as always in situations like that, there is a lot of clearing up to do. I volunteered to have a look in the loft.

I have to admit that I wanted to do it, for selfish reasons. I wanted to find the vinyl. I wanted to pore over all those old records and reminisce, and I wanted the chance to do it on my own. Also, cold though this may sound, I wanted to lay claim to them. I had no designs on anything else my dad owned, I wasn’t particularly bothered about proceeds from the house sale. I had no interest in inheritance. Just the old LPs.

They weren’t there. The stack of encyclopaedias was there, and a few other bits and pieces, but not the vinyl. I assumed they had been sold to pay a bill at some point; Dad’s finances weren’t in great shape. I wanted to ask his wife, but that just seemed callous. So I said nothing about it. I flicked through the encyclopaedias, collected over years as partworks, in huge binders. Part of a bygone age, and in the era of the internet, not much use.

Music was the connection I had with my father, and although I could not hold those LPs physically, I could still play the songs. That will remain my link to his memory: the songs of 1970s Genesis in particular.

The story then. It seemed an appropriate way to pay homage to the moment and the man. And to make the missing vinyl real again. The albums mentioned in the story, they were all from the collection, and I did used to study those covers as a child, and draw my own versions.

The names. In the story the deceased father is called Jimmy Collins. My dad’s names were Colin James. The grandson is called Hayden. My son: Aidan. Not particularly clever, I know. But a touch that I had to include.

My dad was in a band in his youth, but he was a drummer not a bassist. And he certainly didn’t sing. I don’t know what the band was called, but they were not ‘The Storymen’. As the last tale in the collection, it seemed a fitting name. Twelve stories had preceded this one. It seemed inevitable then that The Storymen’s debut album would also have twelve songs, twelve stories.

Not all the songs get a mention in the story, but those that do might give you a clue to this bit. Each song title relates to its equivalent story in the collection. Perhaps that’s the real Hidden Track, and why this story had to be at the very end. Here they all are, side by side.

UNLUCKY NUMBERS – STEPHEN BARNARDGOOD FORTUNE – THE STORYMEN
A Curiosity of KittensCat Got Your Tongue
Romanian RouletteIn A Spin
TaggedTrue Colours
Far From The TreeBrothers and Sisters
HalcyonLove Drug
Call This NumberCall Me
Tower WhiteHard to See
ThirteenChanges
A Door or A Window?Sweet Love
Fainting By NumbersLet’s Talk About It
MixtapeCircle of Love
The Girl at the Bus StopStill Waiting
Hidden Track 

So, a story that’s a little tribute to my dad, and the closing notes to a collection. Gives it a bit of a concept album feel. As Genesis would say: Los Endos.

Making The Numbers Add Up: 3

UNLUCKY NUMBERS – STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES, PART THREE

Another run through four stories and the ideas behind them. Remember, Spoiler Alert! Read the stories before you venture on…

A DOOR OR A WINDOW?: What do you call the little squares that you open on an advent calendar? This story came from a brainstorming exercise to kickstart ideas to do with numbers. It’s that time of year when we pay specific detail to each day’s number, especially for a chocolate treat. As often with my stories I then think what if? What if the chocolate treat you were expecting behind the door (or window) wasn’t nice at all? It was then just a case of working out how the chocolate could be affected, and why it would escalate the closer we got to Christmas. Hence a ghostly back story. This one also got included in my Christmas collection, ‘Frightful’.

MIXTAPE: This one started life as a bonus piece in ‘A Very Bad Year’ but I pulled it when I realised it had a home in ‘Unlucky Numbers’. After all, the number of girlfriends, the order of the songs and the tattoos – it all adds to the story. Also, in its first version, the story ended when the inspector arrives and is revealed to be Michelle. I wanted to know what happened next, so I had a good think about it and wrote the rest!

FAINTING BY NUMBERS: Another one that was written to a prompt for a forum. It had to start with the first line about the text. Straight away I had the idea that this wouldn’t be a literal warning or threat, but a code for something else. It seemed obvious that it should be a reference to the Jennifer Love Hewitt movie – it was then just a case of why someone needed a coded message that was a horror movie title. The discussion group Fainting By Numbers was born. The numbers reference obviously very important for this collection too. No real surprises for myself (which sometimes happens) as I wrote this one; it turned out pretty much just as I expected.

THE GIRL AT THE BUS STOP: There’s a little bit of me in this one. Not the child murderer bit, but the idea of driving to work and having landmarks that I tried to hit at certain times. On my route to work for one job, there was actually a bus stop, and a girl waiting each morning… that’s where comparisons end! Couple of Easter eggs here: the narrator only speaks out loud to other characters in seven word sentences, and the name of the labs he works at – Felix – actually means lucky.

There is one other story, HIDDEN TRACK. I’m going to do that one in its own little post in a few days time. Special one for me, that little tale…

Making The Numbers Add Up: 2

UNLUCKY NUMBERS – STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES, PART TWO:

Here we have a little bit of insider info on the next four stories in ‘Unlucky Numbers’, having gone over the first four in an earlier post. Just a few thoughts on where the ideas came from and any issues or diversions along the way. I know this isn’t for everybody (a bit like TV shows talking about other TV shows) but it’s here if you want it. Remember, better to read the stories first, just in case there are SPOILERS!

HALCYON: Here was another story written to a forum prompt, but also keeping in mind my quest to have stories that had a ‘numbers’ focus. The prompt was something to do with opening a box, so I decided to stray away from the unexpected gift idea that a number of other writers explored. It made me think what else a box could be used for, and how the same box might be used multiple times. Then I thought of one of those hidden camera TV shows where they tell a kid he mustn’t look in the box but then leave the room. Of course, that wouldn’t give me the creepy, psychological edge I was after, so I relocated it. The ending initially was going to have Carraway shoot Usher, and the purchase done without him, but I had a change of heart. See, I’m a nice guy really…

CALL THIS NUMBER: I’ve often wondered about some of these phone numbers you see, like at accident spots or crime scenes, or even the ‘How Am I Driving?’ numbers on the back of vans; wondered how often they get called and whether it ever leads to anything much. Then, of course, I get to thinking about whether it wasn’t what you expected when you rang… perfect for ‘Unlucky Numbers’. I enjoyed creating Norman – I thought he was quite an interesting character. Unfortunately I always knew the outlook wouldn’t be good for him. What I didn’t know straight away was exactly what was going to happen to him. I’d created the set up but not the punchline. In the end I went with what I did as something that seemed the best fit. I was pleased with Sebastian’s little contribution at the end though.

TOWER WHITE: This is the first story I’ve written inspired by a picture prompt. Here it is:

From this then came the idea of the fog being permanent and that life had to exist purely on the rooftops. Of course, life is likely to be slightly different in the shiny white tower, so that was where my story had to head. It was only in the process of writing it did I decide that the fog wouldn’t go all the way to the bottom. At first, it was going to be the elite still living it up (or down) on the ground, with the lesser classes left above. It was only when I got to that point in writing did it strike me to invert that idea, and I think it makes for a better tale.

THIRTEEN: One of two stories in this collection that I published initially as bonus material in ‘A Very Bad Year’. However, once I started doing this collection, it was obvious – from its title – that this story had to move. The idea? Well, as a writer you’ve always got the personalities of your characters swirling around in your head, particularly if you’re writing a novel. Got me thinking then: what if a writer fell ill and couldn’t distinguish between their personality and one that they had previously created. Then, once I’d decided that this writer would switch to a different character from a different book each day, it was then a case of what could be the worst possible character she could be at the end? What would be the most nightmarish scenario? Obviously, what I wrote is what I came up with. I did toy with the idea of extending it, seeing her in action, but in the end I thought that might be best left to the readers’ imaginations…

There you go: four more. I’ll be back with the last bunch in a few days’ time.

Making The Numbers Add Up: 1

UNLUCKY NUMBERS – STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES, PART ONE:

Just wanted to share some thoughts, as I have done before, about what the thought process was behind the short stories I’ve recently put out. ‘Unlucky Numbers’ contains thirteen tales, some previously published in smaller volumes. I reordered them slightly for the complete collection, to try and create what I thought would be a successful reading order. Here I will explore the origins if the first four in order of the contents. Be mindful that there might be spoilers; DON’T READ if you haven’t already read the stories!

A CURIOSITY OF KITTENS: For all of the stories in this collection I wanted numbers to play a part so that I had a frame to hang them all on. It meant I brainstormed a range of situations where numbers played a part. One of these was page numbers in children’s books, and how sometimes they count up or count down characters or objects as the tale progresses. I then remembered how mind-numbing and repetitive reading these books can be for a parent. On more than one occasion I had skipped pages when reading to my own kids, hoping they weren’t that invested in the narrative! I didn’t go so far as pulling pages out, but not far off! This made me think of a situation where the book might fight back. Once I had that in mind, the rest fell into place. I was just mindful that I didn’t want it to be too similar to ‘The Babadook’; hopefully it didn’t come across this way. Final note: at first they were puppies… I can’t remember when they switched to cats. I guess once I’d decided to bring curiosity into it…

ROMANIAN ROULETTE: Some of these stories kill two birds with one stone, by being written to prompts from writing forums that I sometimes use to inspire and drive me. This particular prompt was a vial of blood. I then thought of that in relation to number, and mulled over how I could create a story that incorporated half a dozen or so vials… that’s when I thought about Russian Roulette and the one in six chance of coming to a sticky end. If it was blood, not bullets, then it seemed obvious that I was dealing with vampires. It was then just about creating a scenario where vampires found themselves in this perilous situation…

TAGGED: Also written to a writing group prompt. The last sentence of the killer’s verse was the line that needed to be used – the last person I killed was the last person I wanted to kill. It then made me think about who the other victims might be and what line the killer might say – or in this case, spray-paint – about each of them. Once I’d solved that particular puzzle it was then all about how I got that across to the reader. I liked the idea of the pieces being delivered in flashback rather than in true linear fashion, I suppose because they came to me in that way. It meant I could try a slightly different way of unfolding a narrative…

FAR FROM THE TREE: Another one from the brainstorming session about numbers, I noted down the idea of all the generations of a family tree. What could be the story? What would we be counting? My own family – or at least one half of it – is very large. I wish somebody would do me a very helpful family tree! What I could then count very easily, would be the frequency of certain names: John and James in particular. Here the story was born – a name that occurred, just once, in every generation. Of course, it couldn’t be accidental… why was the name important? And what happened when you reached a certain number? I enjoyed writing this one, specifically in preparation, as I designed the full Crenny family tree, complete with relatives and ancestors that didn’t make the cut, all the way back to Harry the Head. It’s nice to get lost in the world of a story once in a while…

SO, that’s the first four. I’ll throw the next batch up here in a couple of days; give more of you good folk a chance to read ahead!

A Very Bad Year – The Story Behind The Stories

PART TWO:

So, in a previous post I had gone through the first six stories in ‘A Very Bad Year’, and just offered a little bit of insight into how the stories came about and what thought processes I went through during their creation. This sort of stuff isn’t for everybody, so please feel free to stop reading! Possible spoilers though – you have been warned.

July: I always had in mind to do a ‘Lads’ Holiday’ story – it was just a case of which month to fit it in. I thought about the idea of hangovers, and someone missing all the daytime because they were stuck in bed. What would their day involve? Would there be any routine? I thought that the only constant might be a maid, doing the same thing each day, same time, same order. That then made me think of the well-worn notion of ghosts who haunt in the same place at a certain time… I put those things together and I had our senorita.

August: I have been a teacher for over twenty years, so the month of August is unique, and welcome! I have though, on a number of occasions, thought about what might happen if a teacher didn’t see a single person between the last day of term and the first day of the next one – literally had no life beyond the school. What would they do? This lingered in the back of my mind for years. Then, in recent times, as a large number of homes have acquired intelligent speakers / devices that you can have conversations with, I thought that our lonely teacher would have a companion after all. But of course, there would have to be consequences…

September: As we’ve all these stories the first thought is often what do we associate with this month? That meant my first thoughts were of a new school year starting and a new pupil in the ranks. But then I’d kind of covered that in Peter’s Day so I didn’t want to repeat an idea. I was also conscious that I hadn’t led with many female characters, so I thought about mums on the first day of school. That’s where the obligatory first day photo came to mind and the fact that in today’s social media world they always get shared. But of course you don’t know who sees it, not really. And a story idea was born. As for the ending, in the first draft the mum was going to stay at home, and helplessly receive updates through her phone. It felt a bit flat. I think it was better to get her there and into the action.

October: I hope you got all the nods to Macbeth? The title, the witches’ names… I had the idea of Mrs Secret, Black and Midnight being dinner ladies about 10 years ago, and worked it into a modern reworking of Macbeth we performed in school. Then, a few years ago, I decided to try it as Secret and Black being well-established witches, but they’re on the hunt for their Midnight to make up the coven. I started a novel, with Melissa Knight being much older, seventeen. I didn’t take it beyond three chapters, but the idea still stuck with me; I was convinced it had legs. It meant I was more than happy to revive it here. Another note: despite being the shortest story, this was probably the longest to write, and I think that was down to the uncomfortable nature of Melissa’s family problems. I hope I got that right. As for Secret, Black and Midnight, now they’ve found each other I think they might make a comeback in the future.

November: Thanksgiving or Bonfire Night? Being English, I had to go with what I know. I remember being a kid around the collection of ‘bommie wood’ and the issues that often involved. Rival groups would come and steal the wood, so it was often a tense time on the estates. I also remember – and nobody else knows this apart from the other two involved – being grabbed by some unruly youths and being held above a camp fire. I feared that they might drop me on it and bring about my end, so did a lot of screaming. Once they’d had their laugh they righted me then let go. I fled and never returned to that part of the estate. That memory was also going to feature somewhere in the story. One more thing: as I was writing I had no idea that the main character would turn out to be a bad guy. It was only when I got to that last sequence and I thought: as a kid he wanted to be up the ranks in the gang. Why would that change as an adult? I adjusted my stance accordingly.

December: There are lots of Christmas stories so this one took a long time to come up with, but once I had the idea it flew. It ended up twice as long as I expected; it was going to end with Declan being unwrapped as the last present. But then I thought that if this is going to be the last story in the collection I wanted a little more optimism for the reader to be left with. So I decided he would get out. That led to the false ending in the middle and the question of what would you do if you were writing this story? Other things worth a mention: DECk the halls with boughs of HOLLY. Names sorted.

And that’s that. Hope that offered a little bit of insight, or at least a couple of minutes of distraction. Thoughts always welcome.

A Very Bad Year – The Story Behind The Stories

PART ONE:

I wasn’t going to be so presumptuous as to assume that readers might like in their download a bit of information about how each story in ‘A Very Bad Year’ came to be. I know that many famous short story writers often include notes about the inspiration behind their tales, often containing spoilers. I didn’t want to put myself in the same bracket as say, Stephen King, so I thought better of it.

But then I thought that some readers might be interested, perhaps just a little bit, so I decided I’d stick something here. Nothing huge; just a few lines on each. I’ll just do January to June for now.

So if you haven’t read the first half of ‘A Very Bad Year’ please leave this post until you have. Here be spoilers.

January: This was always going to be about the losing weight idea, and the final notion of her shedding quite a lot of weight – in other words her husband. The blackouts were always going to feature, but the inclusion of Mae the wooden figurine from Thailand came by accident. I just worked it in, not realising what a part it was going to play. As the story grew, I saw the potential for a more supernatural element, and Mae started to take over. Makes you wonder who is actually in control…

February: The couple at the restaurant – Scott and Jenny – are essentially my wife and I. Whenever we go to a restaurant, she has to sit with the best view of the room so she can people watch. I just started to think about what a person might see over their spouse’s shoulder in this situation, something that they didn’t know how to deal with. Again, didn’t start it knowing that ghosts would find a way in, but as Jenny started to describe the other folk in the restaurant, a part of me wanted those innocents to come back at the end…

March: I decided early on that Easter would be April and not March for this anthology, so it was then a case of thinking what inspiration I could take from month three. St Patrick’s Day seemed the obvious setting, so I dug around until I was reminded about him driving snakes out of Ireland. So then I thought, what if he collected all the snakes? And what if the snakes were people? I liked the idea of writing a story where the potential villain is actually the hero at the end. Which is a good thing, because Jake is an arsehole…

April: Speaking of arseholes: Warren Slade. (First name inspired by Easter bunnies, by the way.) This story came to me more or less fully-formed, once I decided to use an Easter egg hunt. It was then just a case of going through the stages, allowing the stakes to get higher. What did evolve as I was writing it was the notion of pieces coming back – the foil wrappers, the bones – which added a different dimension. And I liked the idea of Barrow having the know-how at the end, waiting for Slade to resurface. Balance…

May: My version of playing the record backwards to hear the hidden message from the devil. Started out as a simple enough story of teens, driven by peer pressure, messing with things they should leave well alone. I didn’t know as I was writing that there would be history between the Conrads and the Kennedys; all that evolved as I went along. The surnames by the way, chosen because they are common in that area of England – according to the internet – as are all the others in the story. Not sure how common actual Jack of the Greens are…

June: A bit of a cheat this one, as I had most of it already written as a chapter of a potential novel. It obviously needed a bit of work to give it a short story structure, and I had to work in all the June references to make it fit the brief. Did you get them all? In the original it was set on Valentine’s Day so I changed that to Summer Solstice. The Gemini Programme became an obvious name change. But I also played with the character names a little. In mythology, the Gemini twins are Castor and Pollux. That’s why I had Cassie and Tori Pollock. Sneaky. Oh, and by the way, it’s an intentional play on words to have a wrap sheet, not a spelling mistake. I read a review that thought otherwise…

Just a few thoughts then. Hope that offers a little bit of insight. I’ll post about the others in the near future.

Stephen