November 23rd, 2012

  • brni

Guest Post: Joanne Merriam

At some point, inevitably, every writer who has published will be asked this question: Where do you get your ideas? The answer is rarely simple, and is likely to vary wildly from project to project. Today, Joanne Merriam goes in depth on the sorts of things that go into a story before it gets into a reader's hands.


I started The Candy Aisle in 2005, in the eight months after I immigrated to the US from Canada during which I wasn't allowed to work, and when my husband and I were so poor we couldn't afford an air mattress, and instead slept on the floor of our apartment, on top of our comforters to give us some illusion of softness. My husband, who as an American did not have to wait for a work visa, was working as a used car salesman at the time, and being paid on commission just about enough to cover our fixed expenses, with about $16/week left over for food and gas. We ate at friends' houses a lot, and went hungry a lot, and I spent a lot of time at the Food Lion which was walking distance from our apartment, roaming the aisles and reading labels, trying to figure out options that would allow us to eat for several days on, say, $2 (we had a lot of rice and ramen noodles). Every now and again they would have somebody giving out samples, who would become my new best friend. The description of the grocery store at the beginning of the story arose directly from that time.

Initially, the story was a literary flash fiction piece just about the grocery store, Philip's ham-handed pickup lines and Harriet's realization of his role in her past. The mosquitos and some of the details of her backstory were added to the story in 2007, when I realized that as it was, it was a sketch, not a story, and needed some conflict. The news was full of West Nile, an arbovirus (hence the name of my much deadlier version). Although I don't go into these details in the story, I envisioned that something like the West Nile virus had mutated and that instead of birds being the prime reservoir hosts, people were, with some dying very quickly and others carrying the virus unknowingly. Somewhere there's a version of this story where Harriet is a carrier - but I decided that I was more interested in Harriet's inability to connect and what consequences that had for her, than in the challenges inherent in being a disease reservoir, so that version was never finished. Another time, perhaps.

In 2008, after the longer version had been rejected by pindeldyboz, Her Circle Ezine and The First Line, I had the bright idea of sending it to ChiZine, which also rejected it, but editor Hannah Bowen gave me some valuable editorial critique which led me to rewrite it extensively, adding in the business with her boss, and the details about her father's nickname for her and her sister's life, and expanding the ending by several paragraphs. With very few changes, that's the version The Journal of Unlikely Entomology published this month.

One of the things that was fun for me about making mosquitos deadly was how that raised the stakes for my characters without giving them really very many avenues to protect themselves. Mosquitos are so small, after all, and there are so many of them, and by the time you notice them on your skin, they've already bitten you: rather horrifying, in a quiet way. They made a nice change from writing about hungry people who treat their neighbours as prey, or apex predators with a supernatural form of rabies.