Colour me surprised. Sometime over the weekend of March 13 2010 the total downloads recorded for my short horror story, Colder Still, passed beyond the 1,000 mark. How many of those 1,000 people have actually read my story I have no way of knowing, but it’s exciting enough that the story is readily available and that more than 1,000 people have demonstrated enough interest to at least download it.
It was published (i.e. uploaded) almost exactly a year ago, so it’s taken a while to get even this far. I can’t claim to have done any great promotion for it, other than a few pleading mentions on Twitter. In fact I fully expected to see a few downloads within the first week or so and then pretty much zip after that. Nevertheless, over the past year downloads have continued quite steadily and show no signs of slowing down (1,135 downloads as of my last check).
It’s always been my intention to discuss the process of writing my stories – whether you want to know about it or not – and reaching 1,000 downloads is enough of a cue for me to start talking about how and why I wrote Colder Still. I do want to say up front that if you haven’t read the story you should stop reading this right now as there will be spoilers. Instead, if you’re so inclined, go over to smashwords.com and download Colder Still.
Ready to go on? Okay, so most of my stories (or, at least, my ideas for stories – many of which remain unwritten) come from the tiniest sparks of inspiration. It could be an idle thought, a ‘what if’, or some random image that pops into my head while I’m halfway between sleep and wakefulness. In the case of Colder Still it was a dripping tap.
Seven years ago my wife and I lived in a small unit in Maylands (Perth, Western Australia). One night I was lying in bed and could hear the tap in the bathroom dripping. As it went on I started to think of the water as something sentient that was trying to escape from the tap, slowly and patiently, something that would finally creep out of the sink, ooze its way over to me and eventually trickle its way down into my lungs. I should probably add that I wasn’t overly concerned about this possibility – if I was I’d have just gotten up and turned the tap off – but I enjoyed where the thought process was taking me.
Although I started dwelling on this very slight concept of the water having a purpose, or a function, I couldn’t get into the idea of it having any sort of consciousness. This left me with the basic thought that the water would have to be, somehow, under someone else’s influence; a kind of remote murder weapon perhaps. But how do you ‘program’ water? The obvious way, to me, was that you ingest the water yourself and subsequently the water absorbs its programming directly from you (a process of osmosis, if you like). We’re already leaning towards a revenge scenario, but how much more interesting is it if the only way you can exact your revenge is through your own death? Now the water could work as some sort of potentially unstoppable virus, propagated by hatred from one person to another, each one dying in turn and condemning the next maligned soul to a watery death.
Still, you can’t write a story about water alone. I needed a framework and it just so happened that I’d been reading Band Of Brothers around the same time. While I wasn’t particularly looking to write a piece of historical fiction, some of the imagery from the book inspired me, as did the sense of other-worldliness that comes from being at war. Where my memory gets fuzzy is exactly how and why I ended up with a cross-generational tale. I would guess that I wanted to explore that old mainstay of fiction: the Mysterious Object (or, indeed, Sinister Memento) that is found in the closet or cupboard or elsewhere. That leads naturally enough to a father hanging onto a memento from the war.
One other point now consigned to the mists of forgotten memory is why the characters turned out the way they did, specifically the father and son. I can guarantee that there’s nothing in there that resembles any familial relationship of mine. However, drama works best when dealing with conflict rather than harmony so it’s, again, a natural step to have a father and son who hate each other, and that, in turn, leads nicely to the story’s conclusion. Also, we’re talking revenge here, and while there’s a small cast of characters in the wartime scenes, there’s a contrasting sense of intimacy (however antagonistic) in the contemporary scenes. Why introduce needless characters when you can be economic and stick with just the father and son?
As mentioned I wrote this story seven years ago, while sitting in a wiltingly hot apartment in Maylands, usually while my wife trotted off to her bar job. I don’t recall how long it too to write, but let’s say a month. Once it was written I made a passing attempt to find a home for it but, in truth, it was too long for all the short story publications and competitions that I found so I just let it sit there on the hard drive. I read it through a few years later, made a few changes, and then consigned it to digital purgatory once again.
Sometime last year I started to get interested by some of the new self-publishing options available, as well as the freedom that the rise of the ebook allowed. I thought as a trial of sorts I’d dust off Colder Still and upload it to Smashwords, which seemed a very promising online publisher at the time (and still does). I can’t exactly claim the rest is history, but over the past year I’d had a bunch of people read the story, who would never have done so otherwise, and I’ve even been lucky enough to get some nice comments and feedback.
Reading it back I’m surprised by how much of the story I still like (I usually groan when reading back anything I’ve written from more than about 6 months ago). I’m pleased that several of the wartime supporting characters come to life in ways that weren’t entirely planned, such as Malone and particularly McWhirter. There are also a few scenes that remain with me many years after I first envisaged them, like the unseen death of Weathers and the water trickling its way, unnoticed, into McWhirter’s mouth. I’m also frequently surprised to find the the main character actually dies less than halfway through the story.
One of the things I’m still not entirely happy with is the length. Although it’s the right length for the story itself, it’s still too long to be a short story, and too short to be a novella. At one point I considered trimming it down to try and make it suitable for magazine specifications, but there would have been nothing left! I’ve considered expanding it but, as interesting as the main concept is, I don’t think I can usefully take it any further than I’ve done already. I’m not about to add a death every 20 pages, or pad out the exposition to interminable lengths, or turn out something that would end up being a poor imitation of Ringu.
So I’ll probably just leave it as it is. Either way – I hope you enjoyed it.