On Writing “They Have Suffered”

I do not know how long this will be, so apologies in advance if it is overly long. This is just a little insight into my writing the finale of The NoSleep Podcast Season 16.

2021 has been a whirlwind for me and my family. I believe it was January when Jessica McEvoy presented an intriguing challenge – to write an epistolary story. Approaching a story from a different perspective was inspirational for me. I churned out a couple that ended up being accepted for Season 16, The Hole in the Great Grass Sea and Knocking After Midnight. Right about that time I received an acceptance from Sinister Smile Press for their anthology If I Die Before I Wake vol 5. 2021 was off to a roaring start.

When I am not writing stories my day job is as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the United States Air Force. As you can imagine, this occupation can demand a lot of my time and attention. I learned in the Air Force opportunities are typically a blessing. Not always, but usually. I returned from a deployment to Brooklyn in support of the vaccine rollout, a gratifying but tiring time in my life and the second substantial time away from my family in eighteen months.

I came back and slipped into moving mode. I had an assignment to Texas just a couple of months away, a house to sell and a house to buy. Suffice it to say, writing took a backseat. 

I never stop writing. If I am not writing I am thinking of what I am going to write next. I go to sleep thinking of stories and write throughout the day. But, nothing was coming. In the brief downtime I did have I could not think of anything. 

I have not been asked where my ideas come from, but this is something asked of more renowned authors so I suppose I can offer my thoughts. The origin can be anything from a song to a podcast to a real life experience. Sometimes it comes from the ether, or comes from somewhere so deep in my past I don’t even recognize it. A Sundown Town, for example, is a mixture of the family I was raised in and the place I eventually lived.

But, I was in a rut. The stories weren’t coming. I tried to think of a story and it didn’t come. Writer’s block. It’s happened before, but this time it kept going. One week. Two weeks. Nothing. There were calls for stories in various anthologies. I could not think of a story, not even the nugget of a story. I remember Googling something like horror story prompts. Still nothing.

There is a progressive metal band called Persefone and I fell in love with their album Aathma while I was deployed to Kuwait in 2019 and 2020. It’s a concept album, and one that spoke to my beliefs about life and the Universe. It basically describes the journey of understanding the dynamics of life and death and the soul. Here is an example of the lyrics:

My soul is not contained within the limits of my body
Instead, my body is contained within the limits of my soul

And

I’m not this body
Nor this realm of senses
I am not this face
These eyes, these hands
I’m a living wave, calmed

Around May of this year a story started to form around the lyrics. The story, at that time, was titled The Call of the Void, and it was a much different story than They Have Suffered. I did not consider it a story I might eventually submit for consideration as a NoSleep Podcast Season Finale. But, the story came, almost fully formed. I had the journey in mind but not the characters, not the specific scenes. That story was about a person who recognizes their experience in reality is false, forced. After much trying, she connects with another who accepts her perspective. Something, the guardians of the tapestry of the Universe, was attempting to keep them apart. These would be the basis for the gray men in Suffered. Thinking about it, I saw the potential for a season finale. I thought of The Whistlers and Whitefall. What made them classics? It wasn’t sustained horror. It was characters. It was the journey.

I had not written it. I kept turning the idea over in my mind. Imagine a rock tumbler. That was my brain over the summer. The original ideas rubbed against the new ideas, refining, smoothing. And I did sit down to write. They Have Suffered was a placeholder title, one I assigned to a different short story I have had in my mind for a couple of years now. Early in the writing I found a perfect place for the term. Eventually, I recognized how it applied to both the main characters and the people in the background. Honestly, I just kind of loved the title and it fit.

As I mentioned, the Air Force taught me to seize opportunities when they present. They Have Suffered was coming along, but there were other markets asking for stories, my new job, and my family. We lost a dog this summer, our third in a couple of years. The kids were back in school after a COVID-inspired vacation. I was taking my time with it. I knew I wanted the story to end in Marfa, and I planned a trip there possibly next year. And then the opportunity came. Jessica recounted this part on the NSP Book Club page so I feel comfortable relaying it here. She asked if I had an 18-20K word story ready to go. I did not. I had an 18-20K word story partially written. I had the characters in place, the ending solidified in my mind, and about 12K words still to write.

Of course I said yes. My mother came on a planned visit and my wife suggested we go to Marfa together. That was a special trip both for how it contributed to the story and because it was the first trip my mother and I had taken together in maybe twenty years. Marfa is wonderfully weird. The telephone booth I describe in the story plays Taylor Swift on a loop when you pick the phone up. It’s just this strange corner of Texas that feels out of place. It was the perfect place to end the story.

What does They Have Suffered mean to me? A lot of my soul is laid bare in that story, from a father who wasn’t there to thoughts about the Universe. It’s answering, in story form, the questions I have asked myself throughout my life. What if there was a reason your father left, something noble he just couldn’t share? What happens when you die? What exists beyond this realm of senses?

It isn’t perfect. No story is. If I had a year to write it I would still find flaws in the final product. But, my goal isn’t perfection. It is to write from my soul stories that make people think, make them wonder. I don’t answer every question the story presents. I might one day, but for now it is up to the listener. 

I am grateful for this opportunity, for the trust Jessica, David, and Olivia had in me. Whatever is to come in my writing career, this is a highlight. Thank you for reading.

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