It’s a question writers often laugh about: “Where do you get your ideas from?” But I guess some people aren’t wired the way we are and they’re genuinely interested in how we come up with our stories. Given this, I thought I’d share how I developed my latest novel The Time of the Stripes, from concept to completion.
**NOTE: There are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead for this book. So if you haven’t read it as yet and don’t want any surprises ruined, you’d best look away now.**
It’s funny, sometimes, how story ideas come to you. Looking back, both Aurora: Darwin and The Time of the Stripes came to me quite suddenly and unexpected. Something quite simple triggered an idea in my brain and the story ballooned from there. Where Aurora: Darwin was triggered by seeing Will Smith in I Am Legend (and Captain Harris was born), The Time of the Stripes was triggered by a conversation with a work colleague.
You see, one day while at work I decided to pop down to the shop to buy a chocolate bar and I asked my colleagues if anyone wanted anything. One girl did, but I had to be careful about what I bought because she had a nut allergy. We had a brief conversation about it, then I left. As I walked to the shop I thought about her allergy and how tough it must be to have to be so careful about what she ate, and how lucky I was that I could eat anything I wanted. Then I started thinking about other people I knew who had medical conditions that required them to be equally vigilant. The walk to the shop only took 5 minutes each way, and that is all it took for the original kernel of thought behind The Time of the Stripes to germinate in my mind. As soon as I got back to work I started scribbling notes.
As I had walked along, thinking about what it must be like to have such a medical condition, the vision of a young woman appeared in my mind, a woman who faced the double threat: that of a potentially life-threatening illness along with an external situation that also threatened her life. This became the first incarnation of Abbie Randell, my heroine.
So I had a heroine with an illness who was in a dire situation. I needed to fill in the gaps, so I could bring her story to life. I gave Abbie an illness that I was familiar with. Asthma. My father has had asthma all his life, although it’s never been life threatening. He always had Ventolin spray on hand, and my brother did too. As a child I had asthma, and I have strong memories of being in hospital with an oxygen mask over my face, but thankfully I grew out of it.
Next I had to decide what situation to put my asthmatic heroine in, that she needed to survive. Around the time this idea came to me, I had seen news stories on the Ferguson riots, and it called to mind plenty of other footage of riots I’d seen, particularly the LA riots. Watching these riots on TV, I sympathised with the people involved who (rightfully) felt let down by ‘the system’ and who felt fearful for their lives moving forward. But it also crushed me to see how things could burn out of control resulting in other innocent people getting hurt unnecessarily.
So in order to tell this story of my heroine, caught up in a situation like this, I had to look at what could possibly set my small fictional town of Victoryville on this course to implosion. It had to be something big. Being a sci-fi writer, I envisaged a visit from an alien ship that makes a percentage of the population disappear. Of those left in the town, some have been branded by the aliens with red stripes. Nothing strikes fear and tension into the hearts of people like uncertainty – especially when it’s other-worldly. Add to that having the town cut off from the rest of the world (for fear of a contagion), and then segregated within according to those with and without the stripes . . . Loneliness, fear, helplessness and panic can only ensue.
When people feel alone, helplessness takes over. But when there are others in the same boat, people will band together, feeling safety in numbers. And in banding together, confidence grows, and so to can their cumulative power. But every group needs to be led my someone. Every revolution, every protest, needs a leader, and that leader needs to have a way with words to engage the people. Enter the character of Magnus Bracks – a union leader who is well-versed in giving rousing speeches.
So what could cause this man to be so angry as to lead the mob and be the catalyst of this implosion? In my day job I work for a project management company that deals with construction and land development. Health and Safety is a priority for our industry and of those we deal with. We are always hearing about construction accidents and are often left shaking our heads at how these accidents could have occurred. For example, there was a construction worker who was working at height and despite wearing a harness, hadn’t bothered to actually connect it to his support. Needless to say he fell several meters to the concrete floor below. He survived, but he sustained serious injuries that would’ve seen him stay in hospital for some time. So who was at fault? The worker for not following safety rules and attaching his harness? Or the company he worked for, for not stopping him and enforcing it?
This, I used as the basis for Magnus Bracks being in a wheelchair. It was also what drove his conflict with the Mayor. Magnus was paralyzed in an accident while working for the Mayor’s construction company. What exactly happened that day, we never find out. All we know is that Magnus was found at fault, had tried to sue the Mayor, and he’d lost. So there you have a man, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, while the able-bodied man he feels is responsible, goes unpunished. Every character needs a backstory and motivation (however the iceberg effect comes into play – all the detail doesn’t need to weave its way into the story, but you can hint at it), and this backstory is what drives Magnus to become such a pivotal character in the story.
*For the record – my father is wheelchair-bound and has been for two years now. He has Lewy Body Dementia and suffers from brain ataxia, which means his balance is shot and he often leans right over to one side. He is therefore strapped into a wheelchair every single day, and it is that wheelchair that I push around every Sunday when I visit him.**
So, Magnus has everything I need for him to be the driver of conflict. He has the backstory and the motivation, he has a way with words due to his chosen career as union leader, and to top things off I gave him myriad illnesses which make him the perfect leader of the Striped Zone. He’s the sickest (and therefore the safest from the aliens), and hence a figurehead who understands ‘his people’. He happily stirs trouble in a bid for vengeance against the Mayor whom he (rightly) feels aggrieved by. He’s a man who has lost sight of the bigger picture and is totally focused on destroying the Mayor – at all costs. But while he’s so focused on that, the rest of the people in the zone and slowly getting further out of hand, and out of his control.
I have a town isolated from the outside world. Inside it’s segregated into the Clean Zone and Striped Zone, which is revealed by Dr Lysart Pellan with the help of reporter Richard Keene, to be those with genetic defects and those with illnesses. The Mayor is the face of the Clean Zone, and Magnus becomes the face of the Striped Zone. And while people fear the return of the aliens – wondering why they’ve categorised the townspeople and what they’ll do next, a wild west situation begins to evolve. The Striped Ones naturally begin to fear that something bad is going to happen to them, at the hands of the Clean Skins and the Outsiders. They feel that the world has turned on them, that they are being kept isolated for the aliens to destroy. Their defences automatically go up and many begin to see the situation as an ‘Us’ against ‘Them’, or ‘Kill’ or ‘Be Killed’ scenario.
And we all know that fear and ignorance, self-preservation and extenuating circumstances, can make people do things they ordinarily wouldn’t.
But in order for the town of Victoryville to implode I need more than just the conflict between the Mayor and Magnus, more than the fear of whether the aliens will return, and more than the fear of what the outside world will do to them. I need more forces at work to really squeeze the town. So to that, I fuel the fire by having a group of young angry men souped up on narcotics – the testosterone levels are high, the paranoia even higher, and the lack of sleep isn’t helping them think straight. I also have an NRA gun nut with a chip on his shoulder and an itchy trigger finger egging them on. And then I need an incident that tips the balance and sets the line of dominoes falling toward implosion. Enter Kaitlyn, the young Clean Skin mother kicked out into the Striped Zone with her Striped baby. Amid the chaos and protests of the angry crowd, a young Striped man is accidentally shot by the soldiers at the gate.
Heated emotions, rising tensions, and an accident that can’t be undone. It sets the town on a dangerous path.
The killing of the young Striped man is all the evidence some on the Striped side need to begin spiralling out of control. With tensions high, mistrust in the air between the zones and with the outside world, fear of the alien ship returning, young hot—headed men on drugs, easy access to guns, and a power-hunger union man who wants to destroy the mayor at all costs, you have a whole train wreck of things that can only lead the town to implode. And as each domino falls, I am provided with an interesting opportunity to examine the events, of how actions and emotions, no matter how rightfully felt or good intentioned, can spin out of control with devastating effects.
And in the middle of all that chaos I insert people like Abbie Randell, reporter Richard Keene, scientist Dr Pellan and policemen Leo and Earl who are just trying to stay afloat in all the chaos and desperately want to return to the way life was before the alien ship came and started all of this…
Every character has been thrown into this situation against their will. Every character wants something desperately. Every character will make a decision that has wide-ranging affects. Every character will be changed by what happens.
So how does it end? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
And that, my friends, is how The Time of the Stripes developed into the novel it is today. Sparked by a simple conversation with a colleague about a nut allergy, influenced by world events taking place at the time, and my personal fascination for human behaviour, all threaded together to form this particular story and these particular characters. Sounds simple right? But it was an idea that developed slowly, from concept to completion, over three years.