In the Origin of the Story series I’ll be sharing insights of how some of my stories came to be. What inspired them, and what kind of process followed it. All of that spoiler-free, so you can still enjoy the story if you didn’t have a chance to read it yet.
Today I share the process behind my post-apocalyptic short story, To Conquer the Sea. As you will see, it traveled quite a lot publication-wise, but it’s now available on my website.
The idea… or the ideas
To Conquer the Sea wasn’t a single story idea. It came to be from several notes I took down. I have a special notebook to write all the ideas that aren’t solid enough to make a story but seem cool at the time. This could be an interesting image, a one-liner that isn’t attached to anything, or an unusual, quirky piece of setting.
It isn’t anything unusual to see me stopping in the middle of a sidewalk, with a miniature notebook and a pen, scribbling few words down. These tidbits are gone within moments, so I learned to write them down immediately. If they seem worth enough keeping, they’re definitely worth those few minutes to write them down, before I’d regret they’re gone.
So, they end up in my notebook. Sometimes they stay there forever. Sometimes, they end up as a part of a story. I use it whenever I need some inspiration or just to amuse myself with all the oddities I collect there.
Dreams and images
One night, I had a dream. As dreams go, its logic was rather muddy and the storyline broken, so I couldn’t quite the sense out of it, but one scene remained in my memory until the morning, crisp and clear. In my dream, I a veiled woman attacked me, and would have died if someone didn’t come to my aid. After killing the attacker, that person said annoyed, “I’ve killed her three times already.”
I thought it was neat, but the dream didn’t provide any story ideas along with it, so I just noted this little tidbit down, and moved on.
Some time later, I had an image of a spike coming out of the sea, and a man staked on it. The picture was rather gruesome, but interesting enough for me to write it down. And as I did, an idea struck me, and I returned to the entry note from the dream, scribbling beside it, “link with the spike scene?”
And this is how the story started.
To Conquer the Sea
I didn’t start writing until I had the whole story outlined in my head. I had to figure out, how the spike in the sea and the woman connected, and why would someone want to kill her… three times. I also needed to know what the Sea (capitalized for a reason) was. And, what’s most important, I needed an ending.
Somehow, I knew it would be a story of how people react to things they don’t understand or are afraid of, and all the pieces finally came together. For that, the postapocalyptic setting seemed to be perfect.
How I write about the sea
As I wrote description of the Sea through the eyes of Andreas who saw it for the first time ever, I couldn’t help contrasting it with Elliot’s disenchanted perspective. I knew I still gasped at the sight of the sea, but I could also see why many people wouldn’t consider it all that special.
At the same time, my writer self went quietly, “Damn! I won’t be able to use this description anymore!”
Sea always fascinated me. In my youth, I spent my vacation time there, and I had a lot of memories of waves, sunsets, and the water’s changing color. This wasn’t the first story I wrote about the sea – a few years earlier, Esensja magazine had published my Śpiewając morzu (Singing to the Sea) – and I knew it wouldn’t be the last either.
In a way, I took it as a challenge. In the years and decades to come, in the many stories I would write about the sea, I’d try to describe it differently each time. I’d try to find a unique angle for each of them. I’m probably not the one who should judge how I did it, but I’m satisfied with the outcome.
The Sea or the sea?
As I mentioned above, I capitalized the Sea for a reason. But there is one instance where it is not. When my editor was preparing it for its first publication, she caught that “sea”. But instead of just correcting it for consistency, she asked, “Is this intentional?”
It went to print like that. I couldn’t help wondering whether the readers caught up on my intention or considered it a typo. If you’re willing to give the story ago, let me know if you found it!
This story was first chosen for a Polish anthology by one of the major publishing houses. Mistrzowie i adepci (Masters and Apprentices) was to feature well-established fantasy and science-fiction writers alongside the emerging ones. As the anthology ended up canceled, the editor passed it to the editor of the magazine owned by the same publisher. So Pokonać Morze (To Conquer the Sea) was eventually published in 2011, in the 65th issue of Science Fiction, Fantasy i Horror magazine.
A few years later, I translated it, and it was accepted into Of Dead and Dying: Stories of Postapocalypse anthology by Witty Bard Publishing. Sadly, the publisher closed its doors, so the book isn’t available anymore, but you can still read the story online.