If you’ve ever written a story or a novel that has found favor with even a handful of readers, then you’ve likely been asked this question: “Where did you get the idea for that?” More often than not, ideas come from a variety of places — most located deep within the writer and triggered by various sensory stimuli. A smell, a sound, a picture, a memory . . . and sometimes, not even the writer is sure where the idea originated.
Yesterday, I had an idea for a story. Its original trigger was a sense of nostalgia, a longing to read the kind of story I once read as a younger man: a traditional sword-and-sorcery tale in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s Conan or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Now, I know with a bit of searching I can find numerous examples of this sort of tale online, at places like Wattpad or Black Gate. But, part of the thrill, the joy, of being a writer is reckoning if you, yourself, could turn out the type of story you’re wanting to read. I wanted to see what I could come up with.
An idea gives birth to a litter of questions. Should it be set in a created world? The mythical past? Who is the protagonist? What is the hero’s goal? Who or what stands in the way? And, of course, some questions of a more technical aspect, such as: what voice? What tense? Will I need a narrator or will it be in the hero’s point-of-view?
This picture gave me the basis for WHERE the story will be set:
That’s the remains of the Tholos temple (originally dedicated to Athena) in the ruin of ancient Delphi. Thus, the where is our own world, through the lens of a sword-and-sorcery filter. And when? Well, I wanted to continue the theme of ruins, so it must be set after the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi had had its day. The early Middle Ages? I did a quick search online for the history of Delphi and discovered it had lost its lustre by the Byzantine era. I chose, then, to set it in the reign of Emperor Justinian. And THAT informed my choice of protagonist.
Ever since reading the REH tale “Delenda Est”, I’d wanted to write a tale featuring Vandals. This looks to be as good a chance as any. My hero would be a lone Vandal, an outcast (because the “Other”, who lives on the fringes of society, make for good commentators on the glories and evils of that society), condemned for apostasy and smitten by wanderlust; a Pagan in a time when those with such heretical beliefs were purged from the body politic with fire, like an infection. Another quick internet search, this time on the history of the Vandals and the Visigoths, lent me his name: Athalaric.
All my characters possess an element of autobiographical detail. Athalaric is no different. That he and I are both Pagans is no coincidence, and while it won’t figure heavily into the plot, it does give me a touchstone on which to build his personality. Unlike me, he is a tall, blond warrior, beardless but with long golden mustachios weighted at the ends with scrimshaw beads of ivory and silver. His weapon is the Frankish ax . . .
But, what is Athalaric doing in the mountains of central Greece? What is the story about? Keeping in mind that this is a tale of sword-and-sorcery set in the historical past, in a time when the glorious ruins of Hellas serve as quarries for Christian basilicas, and that our protagonist is an ax-wielding man-of-action who is prone to brooding introspection on the nature of the Gods, it makes sense that the story must start with a woman.
A young woman in distress, beset by an angry mob of Greek peasants at a crossroad in the vale of Phocis, beneath the dark mountains that hide Delphi from view. There is a dead man at her feet, and she fights her attackers off with an ornamental knife amid cries for her execution. “Burn her! Burn the witch!”
Enter Athalaric, a hard man with a soft spot for the underdog; a warrior returning from the ancestral lands of the Vandals in the dark forests of Hungary. A Pagan who has no stomach for Christian superstition . . . coupled with a short, explosive temper. Blood will flow . . .
And thus do the Muses speak, their voices conjuring from nostalgia the seeds of a story and nurturing it into a visual scene firmly anchored in time and place. All that remains is the writing of the tale.