I’m supposed to be sleeping, but I’m wide awake in the dark.
I can hear my husband breathing next to me, slow and steady as the tide. I should close my eyes. I should go back to sleep.
It’s no use. I’m awake now. I get up. I sling my coat around my shoulders and slip my feet into boots and a notebook into my pocket before stepping out my front door and then…beyond the edge of the world.
It’s dark and silent. I don’t know where I am, but I’m not lost. I wait patiently in the dark, not scared, just…waiting for something to happen. If I wait long enough something always happens.
I yawn and check my watch. Maybe I should have stayed in bed.
Just then, a light sizzles into existence far away from me. A match. A hand lights a candle then shakes the match out and drops it. It falls with a click into the darkness. The hand takes the candle…
A woman’s hand or a man’s?
A man’s. The man takes the candle and sets it on his desk where it illuminates his features and the papers and oddments strewn across his desk.
I pull my notebook out of my pocket and take a few steps closer, so I have a better view.
What does he look like?
I look at his face. No lines, fair thin hair. The hand that held the candle is fine and slender as is the rest of him. Tall, but not remarkably so. If he looked at me I think his eyes would be blue. He’s young, I think, but looks older from hard work and trouble.
What does he do?
I look at the things on his desk. There’s a bird’s long-beaked skull, feathers black and white, papers everywhere covered in his tidy penmanship. Leather-bound books stacked up to his elbows and bits of rock and root and herb piled on top of those. He’s a magician. But not a very good one. His master died before he could teach him all the right secrets.
He looks up and around and, as though he were painting it with his gaze, I see the room he’s standing in. It’s a tiny, cramped office in daylight, packed full of books and boxes, dusty with cobwebs occupied by generations of happy spiders. There’s a creeping vine of some kind in a little painted pot balanced precariously on the end of one of the shelves. It’s drooping branches reach for the tiny gap of the open window that lets in a breath of fresh air and the rumble of the busy street down below.
I know that the rent is too high for him here, but its the only way he thinks he’ll ever get any clients. The man sighs and traces his finger across something on his desk.
What’s he looking at?
I sneak a few steps closer to peer over his shoulder at what is spread in front of him. I can see it’s a map drawn in red ink on crinkling parchment but the shapes of the land masses are unfamiliar to me. It’s a world I’ve never seen before, though one organized not unlike my own. A top and a bottom. Land and sea.
The magician groans and buries his head in his hands. “Oh, Mel,” he whispers. “Where are you? This is all my fault.”
Who is he? What’s wrong?
His name is Madge. His sister’s been kidnapped…and it’s kind of his fault.
Madge turns anguished blue eyes on me as though he senses my interested presence. “Please,” he begs. “Help me find her.”
His drawn face moves me somehow. I feel sorry for him. I want him to find his sister. I want to reach out and smooth the lines away from his troubled forehead.
I want him to be happy.
And that’s enough to begin the story.
This is the best answer I can come up with to one of the questions I get most often, which is ‘where do you your story ideas from?’
It usually starts as no more than a snippet of a person–a hand, the turn of a head, their shoulders as they turn away from me–and then expands to an entire world as I keep asking why, why, why.
Sometimes it’s easy and the tale arrives in a rush as though the character himself blurted out all his secrets at once and asked for my help. Sometimes it’s difficult and the ‘whys’ of the story come slowly. Then I have to work at it and work at it as though I were unraveling a tough snarl in a bit of net before tying it back together one knot at a time.