Behind the Scenes of “The Prophet’s Burden”

My latest flash fiction story, “The Prophet’s Burden,” is now available to read on Havok’s website. And, since I’m a volunteer editor, there’s no 24-hour time frame—it’ll always be available, whether or not you’re a Havok member. To celebrate its publication, here’s a short look at how I wrote it.

If you’ve already read the story, you may have guessed that it follows the same exploits of the adventurer from “Sword of the Stones” or “The Tomb of the Ophidian Scepter.” I’d been thinking of writing about another of his expeditions, and the “sixth sense” theme for October 2020 seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so.

So in a way, the “sixth sense” theme wasn’t exactly the seed for this story, but it did help focus it. I thought it would be cool to feature an artifact that would allow the adventurer to sense the future—an extremely valuable skill for someone in his line of work! The idea was that the artifact would allow its wearer to discern the future as long as they were wearing it in that possible future. I wanted removing the artifact to feel particularly weighty, because that is the only course of action that can’t be predicted.

The madness element of the talisman (since that was the type of artifact I settled on), evolved naturally as I wrote the story. It made sense that trying to comprehend a multitude of experiences all at once would be overwhelming. I didn’t quite have the word count to delve into this aspect, but I envisioned the talisman grants/forces its wearer to experience the future in all five senses. So you don’t just see what happens; you feel, hear, smell, and (sure) taste it, too. So the adventurer’s brain was telling him that he was being stabbed, crushed, eaten, hearing his partner scream and animals roar, smelling burning flesh, tasting noxious gases, etc. all at once. Not a very pleasant experience!

I don’t really go into that in the story though. What was interesting was composing scenes from the main character’s future-perspective while considering what was actually going on in real-time. I wanted to give readers the option to re-read the story and understand what Alma was seeing/hearing. For example, the first “real” dialogue after the adventurer puts on the talisman is him answering Alma’s as-yet unasked question, which is why she just stares at him for a moment. It was a unique challenge, but I think I pulled it off.

In terms of the actual writing, the first draft started right with the adventurer putting on the talisman. Herein lies a tip for writing flash fiction. The story really picks up when the main character puts the talisman, but that moment doesn’t offer any backstory to help ground readers. Nevertheless, I wrote that scene first because I knew I would need to get to it quickly.

Later, after writing the majority of the story, I went back to write the intro. This offered several benefits: 1) I knew how many words were left to write the opening and keep the story under 1,000 words. 2) I was already in the writing groove, so instead of spending a few paragraphs warming up my “writing voice,” I was able to jump right in. And 3) I knew what moment I was writing toward, so I knew which information had to be relayed, and which stuff could be left out. The resulting “opening” section lasts approximately 120 words, but it moves toward the inciting incident pretty quickly (compared to what I would have likely done without the constraint).

Because the crux of the story always lay in the scene where the characters finally grasp the talisman’s power, I knew the ending would have to be similarly fast-paced. I wanted to include another scene showing the different futures that could result from an encounter with an enormous crocodile, but the word count just wasn’t there.

Since I didn’t have the space to describe this scene going into further detail about the artifact’s effects on the wearer, I opted for a broader overview as the adventurers exit the temple. Even though I think it could have been interesting to dive into this aspect, I think the end result fits well with the main character’s inability to focus.

The ending was a little tricky. As I mentioned above, taking off the talisman was meant to be a significant gesture and indicate that the adventurer could accept not knowing the future. But since this story felt a little heavier than other installments, I wanted to reintroduce just a little levity at the end. My first draft had the main character commenting about what drew the ancient civilization mad (an idea that didn’t make it into the final story). However, my editor Lisa encouraged me to push this a little more. I’m happy she did, because the end result gives the characters a little more good-natured banter. And adding banter is always a good call.

Of course, you’re invited to add a little banter here in the comments or over on the story itself! I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into how “The Prophet’s Burden” came together. Thank you for reading!

Behind the Scenes of “Blood Hunter”

Yay! My newest flash fiction story, “Blood Hunter” is available to read on Havok.* It’s a Western about a werewolf bounty hunter whose lycanthropy gives him the ability to track prey by taste. Here, I wanted to share a little about how it took shape.

Like every story for Havok, this one started with the month’s theme. During this fourth season of Havok, each month’s theme is based on a sense. For August, that sense is taste. So I knew taste needed to play a prominent role in the story.

I didn’t have any particular flavors in mind, but I thought it could be interesting to do something with the taste of blood. Of course, I thought it might be weird to have a normal human making a habit of tasting blood, so I thought it would be cool to introduce a werewolf character—which offered reasons for both heightened senses and an interest in blood.

As for the setting, I recently got it in my head that I wanted to do some sort of Western-mashup story. I have no idea what prompted this, but this story seemed like a good opportunity. Werewolf cowboy, anyone? (Because of the weird-West setting, I can imagine this story taking place in the same world as “The Exomaton of Panner’s Bend,” though there isn’t any crossover.)

In terms of the writing strategy, I knew I wanted to retain a strong connection to the taste theme. I was afraid of mentioning it a couple times but otherwise ignoring it. Because of this, one of the earliest beats I imagined was a moment where the werewolf character describes a series of tastes in quick succession. This developed into the middle scene, which ends with Lemuel describing the different things he can taste to McKinsey.

That scene, in fact, is the main reason McKinsey is in this story. In my head, it didn’t make sense for Lemuel to just think about each of these things—he needed to say them out loud. So I developed the concept of Lemuel being recruited by the deputy and them hunting Coyote Sam together.

At that point, I thought McKinsey would be the main character. I envisioned his arc would begin with him being suspicious of Lemuel (because of his werewolf nature), and end with him respecting the bounty hunter. I wanted to portray Lemuel as a misunderstood, mysterious, yet honorable outcast who was doing his best with the hand life had dealt him.

But I quickly realized this story would not fit into 1,000 words. And since the core idea of my story placed the heaviest emphasis on plot, I ended up letting go of things irrelevant to it. This ended up moving the point of view closer to Lemuel’s perspective and eliminating McKinsey’s character growth. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for flash. Even though McKinsey’s role may be diminished in the final piece, his role still accomplishes what it’s meant to, functioning as a pseudo-foil to Lemuel.

The final scene also involved compromises for the sake of word count. In an earlier draft, I toyed with the idea of Coyote Sam’s gang hiding out in an abandoned coal mine, where the taste of the air would affect Lemuel’s ability to track them. That detail, and a more drawn-out fight scene, had to be trimmed to keep things within 1,000 words, but I’m still happy with how the story turned out.

And I hope you’re happy with how it turned out, too! Taste was an interesting theme, and I appreciate the way it pushed me out of my comfort zone to write “Blood Hunter.” Thank you for reading it, as well as this behind-the-scenes post. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or on the original story over at Havok 🙂

*Since I’m a volunteer editor, this story is published as a Staff Saturday post, which means it’s always available to the public! If you want to read my earlier Havok publications, or hundreds of other flash fiction stories, you can always become a Havok Horde member. As a member, you can also vote on stories and influence which ones are selected in anthologies.