Category: Craft of Writing (page 1 of 4)

What a New Story Idea Feels Like

Several months ago, we released an episode of The Write Approach called “Where Do Story Ideas Come From?” in which Barbara Hinske and I talked about the various sources inspiration that had been the catalyst for novels. For my own writing, novels have arisen out of dreams and nightmares (Vulcan Rising) and from conversations with other people (Casual Business with Fairies). Even a throw-away line spoken by someone on a podcast I was listening to has sparked a short story (The Murder Tree).

But what we didn’t talk about is what a new story idea feels like when it hits you. For my daily devotional this morning, I was reading in the book of Job. In the fourth chapter, one of Job’s friends is speaking to him, and says, “A word was brought to me in secret; my ears caught a whisper of it.” Job 4:12.

Very often for me, that is what a new story idea feels like — something that I caught a whisper of. And I have to write it down before it dissipates on the wind and is lost forever. That applies not only to story ideas in whole, but to lines of dialog and particular phrases within the stories themselves. Story ideas are such fragile things until we build a house of words around them.

Now, I need to get back to writing my fifth novel. I have some ideas for the current chapter, including a couple of particular lines of dialog I’ve already jotted down, because I didn’t want the whisper of them to be carried off.

Semi-Regular Update about What I’m Working On

After writing 15,000+ words in January, most of which went into my fifth novel, February had very different things in store for me. I’ve continued to make progress in that novel (a suspense/contemporary murder mystery), and am writing what I think is the last chapter of Act I, unless the chapter goes overly long and has to be divided. That’s a thing that’s been happening fairly regularly in the book — scenes that I expect to take a few paragraphs end up taking an entire chapter. It’s been a fun experience and has lengthened the first quarter of the book.

In February, I churned out 6400 words. That total is so much lower than January because of a couple other (very time consuming things) I was working on.

Through my publishing imprint, Scarlet Oak Press, I am publishing another children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute, written by Claire E. Parsons and illustrated by Naomi L. Hudson. It’s a book about letting Mommy have a few minutes for self-care and meditation so she can better take care of her family. It’s scheduled for release on April 25. You can pre-order a copy from your favorite online bookstore.

Another thing that took a great deal of time and attention in February is that I’ve decided to attempt to obtain an agent for my fifth novel and sell it to a publisher. I did a great deal of research and came up with a list of 25 literary agents to submit it to. Now, I’ll be waiting for the next 8 weeks to hear back from each of them. If I don’t get any takers, I’ll publish it through Scarlet Oak Press, which was the initial plan. No harm, no foul.

Finally, Barbara Hinske and I released several episodes of The Write Approach in February, and we continue to be very proud of the guests we’ve interviewed and topics being discussed.

Funny Story about Last Night

At 1:00am, my wife and I wake up to some kind ruckus outside our window. There are bumping noises and some other things we couldn’t identify. We check the littles’ rooms to make sure they’re squared away.

We have some feral cats in the neighborhood. I told my wife I thought it was the cats playing with the water hose roll-up contraption. We look out all the windows that give us a view into the back yard, but don’t see any cats. The noises subside.

The absence of noise isn’t very reassuring. Whether it’s a person or an animal, just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean their gone.

I open the gun safe and get out my pistol. I have to check the perimeter of the house. My wife asks, “Are you scared?”

I say, “I’m not very comfortable.” It was an understatement. Wish my flashlight and handgun ready, I open the front door and slip out as quietly as I can. Fortunately, the moon is bright enough that I don’t need to use the flashlight and can remain stealthy.

By the time I’m halfway around the front of the house, I realize this is almost exactly how the first few chapters of my debut novel Vulcan Rising opened (obligatory link). Fortunately for me, I didn’t discover anyone kidnapping a baby pegasus.

In fact, I don’t see anything. No cats playing and no people lurking. The only other option is that something or someone is in the basement garage, part of which is below our bedroom. I have to pluck up considerably more courage to go into the basement.

There are many more dark crooks and hidey places in the confines of the basement. Not to mention how vulnerable to anything that’s down there when you descend the stairs. But I find nothing and no one in the basement either. Both a relief and a frustration.

I lay back down in the bed, but sleep is far away. I read in the 3rd book in The Expanse for a long time. Eventually, I get sleepy again and set the book aside.

The ruckus commences again at 3:00am. I climb out of bed and turn on the outside floodlights. The noises stop.

I lay back down, wishing the night were over already. I stay awake until sometime after 3:30. I’ve only just fallen back asleep when start up again. By now I’ve determined that whatever it is, it’s definitely in the basement. I know I’m done sleeping since it’s 4:00.

The next 2 1/2 hours pass slowly as I work on book-related things for the upcoming launch of Casual Business with Fairies (another link) and wait for the rest of the house to wake up. Once everyone else is awake, I venture down to the basement again. This time, things are different.

Things are upended and scattered around. But most telling is a giant pile of cat scat sitting in one of the old car seats that we’ve never done anything with. I never see the cat, but I open the basement doors so he can skedaddle. Hoping for a better sleep session tonight.

Casual Business with Fairies: The Novel I Didn’t Expect to Write

I never know where the inspiration for stories is going to come from. My debut novel, Vulcan Rising (link), arose out of a really strange dream and a couple of peculiar interactions with my five year old. One of my short stories, “The Murder Tree” (link) opened with a line that I derived from an off-hand remark made by the host of a podcast I was listening to.

But this story had a different path. In the Spring of 2022, I was involved in a conversation with several other parents about the tooth fairy and how everyone handles it. The group is rather eclectic, and the responses were diverse. During the discussion, one of parents made a statement about why they don’t participate in the tooth fairy myth: “We don’t do casual business with fairies.”

Casual Business with Fairies Coming May 2, 2023 Not all fairytales end with happily ever after

That sentence lodged itself in my brain, and out of it, this novel was born. But this is not the novel I intended to write.

After I wrote Forging Bonds (link), which completed the first trilogy of The Zauberi Chronicles series, I had planned to switch tracks. There was a horror story I wanted to write, but after outlining it and writing a chapter or two, I found it difficult to engage with. This may be hard to believe, but it was just too grim of a story. The really disconcerting part is that the story is based on a nightmare I woke up from one night.

When the horror story didn’t work out, I started outlining a murder mystery novel … also based on a dream I had. But for whatever reason, the muse wasn’t having it.

Next, I had in mind that I would finish one of the novels I had abandoned before starting Vulcan Rising. But Casual Business with Fairies (link) latched onto me like a spider monkey. Even though I had only the vaguest of ideas for a premise, I began to write. Five thousand words into the story, I still had no idea what it would become, but I kept the faith that I would figure it out. I had been in a similar position with my second novel, Seeking Sanctuary, and I would work my way out of it again.

Casual Business with Fairies surprised me at every turn. Each time I thought I had the story and characters figured out, things went a different direction. It was both exhilarating and frustrating. But in the end, I think it became the book that it was meant to be. Most of all, I hope it’s a story that you enjoy.

Learning from Other Writers

Learning from other authors matters. Here are three specific examples of how other writers have had a direct impact on my fourth novel.

1) I’ve given my chapters names (in addition to numbers) because of advice from Lisa M. Lilly Author about drawing readers in from the Table of Contents.

2) I’ve crossed over a character from another series because of my conversation with Kevin Tumlinson on The Write Approach podcast (Ep. 6).

3) And I’ve focused on keeping my chapters shorter — most are between 1200-1500 words — as a result of my conversation with David Ellis about pacing and keeping reader interest. (The Write Approach, Ep. 5).

Something You Need to Know (Flash Fiction)

As has so frequently been the case with my creative writing, a dream has inspired a new story. The opening of this flash fiction story occurred in a dream, but I woke up in the middle of it, so I had to guess at how this would have played out. Hope you enjoy.

There's Something You Need to Know (Flash Fiction)

As we walked out of the restaurant, Amber said, “I guess since we’re dating now, there’s something you need to know.”

Goose pimples prickled my skin. That sounds ominous. “Okay.”

She stopped on the sidewalk, and I stopped alongside her. “I like to go to the club and drink every night.”

Not exactly healthy, but not as bad as she’d made it sound. “Mm-hmm.”

“Except I can’t afford to buy my own drinks, so … you know.”

I either couldn’t follow that train or didn’t want to. “I don’t know.”

“Guys buy me drinks.”

“Why would they do that? I mean I know why, but what prompts them?” The charm and the coy smile and the mini-dress were all the ‘why’ anybody needed. I knew that. But still you didn’t buy drinks for every hot girl at the club. That’s a good way to go broke. Or maybe you did? I don’t know. I’d never been. And it’s not how we’d met.

“I … uh … chat with them.”

Everything was coming apart. Dinner had been so nice. But if this were the dessert course, it was a plate of bile. “To be clear, the nights that we’re not together, you’ll be at the club flirting with guys so they’ll buy you drinks?”

“It’s not a big deal. I get to drink some expensive cocktails. And they get to go home a little later and wonder why they didn’t close the deal.” She left a little space for the rebuttal to breathe before dropping the other shoe. “Some of them get a little handsy sometimes, but that’s about it.”

“Nice. So you’re flirting and getting felt up.”

“Hey, how ‘bout you get off my—” she laughed sharply and covered her mouth as a family with several small children walked by.

Red splotches peeked out from under the collar of my shirt. It was the telltale sign that I was getting angry. A giveaway since youth. “Don’t you think you should have told me this before now?”

“No, I don’t. It wasn’t your business until now. And frankly, I’m not real sure it’s your business now.”

This wasn’t going to work. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who’d read it that way. Amber pulled her phone out of her clutch.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting an Uber.”

“Come on. I’ll take you back to your place.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m not going back to my place.”

It took a minute for the inference to sink in. I was being dense.


She flicked her eyes up from her phone to me just to see how salty that little word was.

“I can wait with you until your ride gets here,” I offered.

“Umm, hard pass. That’d be super awkward.”

The anger must have been wearing off. I tried but failed to swallow a laugh at how obviously true that was. Inappropriate laughter was a default mechanism in stressful situations. It hand landed me in hot water countless times.

My face must have been a jumble of messy expressions. The laugh broke the tension like a spell. One side of her mouth curled up in a smile.

I turned to walk to my truck. There wasn’t anything left to say. Crap. Yes, there was. I pivoted to face her again. She was scrolling on her phone. “Umm. What about chem lab?”

She looked up, her eyes a little wider than before. Neither of us considered how that would go if this didn’t work out. She shook her head. “We’ll figure it out. But not right now.”

“Fair enough.”

Writers’ Brains Are Always Looking for Inspiration

If the weather permits, I take one walk (and sometimes two) on the days that I’m working in my office in downtown Birmingham. Most of these walks are non-events and nothing exciting happens. I get my exercise, and the rings on my smart watch close the gap toward completion.

But every now and then, something happens or I will see something, and a spark of writing inspiration ignites in my brain. A couple of weeks ago, I was walking along my normal route when I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. I stepped across a storm grate and saw a red light at the bottom. After my brain registered it, I paused and went back to see what it was. But I couldn’t really tell.

As quick as that, a story idea was born. I cut my walk short and hustled back to the office as the words burst into my head. I pounded out the beginnings of … something? Nothing? A short story? A novel? A tale that will reside within the Zauberi Chronicles universe? I don’t know. Only time will tell.

Here is the makings of the (totally rough and unedited) story that I scratched out that day when a red light at the bottom of a grate became a source of inspiration.

Finding Inspiration in a Red Light

Red lights stared up at me from below the sidewalk grate. Normally, I walked around the grates, having read an article once — or was it a scene in a movie? It doesn’t matter — about the number of people who fall through grates each year. Admittedly, it was a small number when you consider the number of people who walk on sidewalks, but still, there was some chance it happening. An avoidable chance.

So most days, I sidestepped and went around or course corrected as I approached one. But not that day. I must have been feeling adventuresome — ha! The notion that walking across a slotted metal portion of the sidewalk constitutes adventure should tell you most everything you need to know about that state of my risk aversion.

Regardless, on this day, I walked across the sidewalk grate. I stared at the ground waiting for signs that it would buckled under me and I would fall to my death. I saw something I had not seen before. Could not have seen before because I didn’t have the right angle of view. Two red lights in the tunnel that ran under the sidewalk.

They were peculiar enough that when my feet hit the pavement again, I circled back and took another lap. This time, as I walked, the lights blinked. Not blinked in the way that a light flicks of and comes back on. The blinked the way something does when an eyelid closes over it and reopens.

I’m a rational person. More than that, I’m hyper-rational. So I talked myself into the most obvious solution. I had walked past something that had momentarily interrupted my view of lights, and my imagination had taken off at a sprint. I cut my walk short, returning to my office. Digging back into spreadsheets would allow me to revert back to normalcy.

A New Short Story, “The Murder Tree”

Deep in the hills and hollows of Walker County, Alabama are a people whose sacred oaths are etched into the heart of the Murder Tree. You may dismiss them as hillbilly hitmen willing to kill targets at economical prices. They are both more and less, but they are a dying breed who remain beholden to their oaths until the end.

Samantha Ray is a gifted killer who was born into her calling of contract killing. She is irreverent, savvy, and a little bit reckless. She is also the only viable heir to the family business that goes back several generations. But is she willing to pay the cost that will required of her?

Go check out my new short story, The Murder Tree, for $0.99 on Amazon (also available on Kindle Unlimited).

J. W. Judge The Murder Tree A Short Story

Flash Fiction: A Shark Story

Brief intro: This story is loosely based on an actual occurrence at our family vacation this summer. I had intended to include this telling of it in a short story (“The Murder Tree”) that I’ve written for an anthology. But a couple of beta readers didn’t think it contributed to the overall story, so it got 86ed. Hope you enjoy.

A Shark Story

Deddy and Momma decided to take us to Gulf Shores for a vacation. We never went on vacations. Not because we didn’t have the money for it. It just wasn’t something they were raised up doing. Anyways, they took us to the beach, and everything was going fine. I mean, we didn’t have all the fancy toys or umbrellas or nothing like some folks did. But there was sand and ocean, and we were having a good time. Me and my brothers was playing on the sandbar out a ways. Further than we were supposed to be. Momma and Deddy had told us not to go too far. They didn’t say why, but we knew. Deddy couldn’t swim — he was scared of water — and Momma couldn’t show him up. So she had to stay there alongside him. The story of her life really. Standing at his side come hell or high water.

So we were out on the sandbar playing. The water was about chest deep for me. I was four or so. But the two boys were bigger. All of a sudden, there was a big gray fin bearing right down on me. I couldn’t do nothing but pee myself. But Jeb sees it, and he snatches me up out of the water and pushes Buddy out of the way. It makes enough of a commotion that the shark makes a hard turn. It didn’t have a bite-sized snack in front of it anymore. It was going to have to work for its meal. And it wasn’t interested in putting in that much effort. The shark was close enough when it turned that its tail smacked Jeb right in the belly.

Momma and Deddy saw the whole thing. We hightailed it back to the beach, and they snatched us up and put us in the car. We drove all the way home to Walker County still in our swimsuits, itching from sand and dried saltwater. Deddy and Momma didn’t say a word for about the first hundred miles. And Buddy couldn’t stop talking about it. He thought it was the coolest thing that ever happened in his life. Might still think that. We never took another vacation after that.

If you’re interested in reading other flash fiction, you can find it here: “From the Morning’s First Thoughts” and “Something Black in the Stairwell”.