One of the things any writer hears often, probably the most-asked question unless you are speaking to writing students, in which case it has to do with finding agents or publishers, is along the lines of “How do you get your ideas?”
Some people have been to enough talks to get the sense that authors don’t like this question, and so they phrase it shrewdly, as in “Is there a special place from which your ideas come?” Or perhaps “How do you dream up the things that happen in your books?” While the phrasing is perhaps more palatable, the question is the same, and writers can be pretty obnoxious about this question, and unfairly so. Just because you don’t have a quality answer does not mean that it is not a quality question.
In the case of “The Dark Side of Sunlight Basin,” I can answer the question with specificity. A very good writer and editor named Christopher Golden approached me and asked me to write a story for an anthology he was putting together. I told him I didn’t have anything remotely close to a vampire story idea. And then…
At the end of June last year, Those Who Wish Me Dead had just been released, my book tour was done and I wanted a break from civilization, or at least from e-mail— so my wife and I headed to Montana. This was her second backpacking trip in the Beartooth Mountains, where that novel is set. The Beartooths are truly rough country – it is the largest block of tundra in the lower 48 and has more than 25 peaks over 12,000 feet and our trip was spectacular: it is so, so rare in our modern times to have the opportunity to stand in the deep snow while getting rained on and getting a sunburn all at the same time. Add to that the experience of being bitten by mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, that are able to draw blood right through the gloves you’re wearing to keep the frostbite at bay.
People in our urban lifestyles take these treats for granted, and it was a real pleasure to be able to introduce my wife to the gentler, simpler pleasures of wilderness living. She felt so freed, in fact, so uninhibited, that she proceeded to use language that would ordinarily get sailors thrown out of bars at the wharf, so I think my attempt to remove her worldly stress was a smashing success. For some reason, when we returned to the CDP – it isn’t accurate to call our home base a town or a city, it is technically something called a Census Designated Place, which creates an amusing portrait of the census worker assigned to this district – she wanted to do something less strenuous for the rest of our days in the mountains. We’d been told that Cody was an interesting town with a great museum, and my great-grandfather once rode in the Bill Cody Wild West shows, so I was intrigued by that and we set off on the drive. Now, it is important that we pause here so I can state something very, very clearly: I have never run out of gas in my life.
This had become a point of pride for me, and something of a contest with my father, much to the delight of anyone who rides with us. But on the way back from Cody, you traverse sixty-some miles of mountain switchbacks with no cell service and few areas to pull off the road. It was at the last possible turn off with cell service, the cheerfully named Dead Indian Pass, that an executive decision was made from the passenger seat – the very place from which no executive decisions should ever be made – and we came to a stop overlooking an area called Sunlight Basin and I was forced to call for help. Then I did a particularly wise thing, and called my father to argue that I hadn’t lost our contest, and explain the technicality involved – the car was still moving, there was still gas in the tank, and so this didn’t count as running out of gas.
My father’s quote: “Well if there’s gas in the damn thing you should be moving until you can’t move anymore!” I agreed, but sadly my dad had his own bit of misfortune that day, though, in that my mother had picked up the other line unbeknownst to him, listening to him tell me that I should have disregarded my wife’s opinion and continued on down the switchbacks, gas or no gas, cell or no cell. When I hung up the two of them were embroiled in a rather grim conversation of their own.
We had plenty of time left to wait for rescue, but wind and hail started buffeting the car. It actually began to shake where it was parked and for whatever reason my lovely wife was simply not in a talkative mood with me. Not only that, but she’d taken my copy of the New Yorker to read, which seemed very rude, but it didn’t seem prudent to point that out, based on the occasional muttered threats coming from her side of the car. So, I sat in the car waiting on our friend to arrive from an hour away with a can of gas and I looked out on Sunlight Basin, which earns its name by the way it catches and holds light. I could see the darkness at the fringes of it and suddenly I did have an idea for a vampire story.
So here’s a small taste of that story, which I’m honored to say appeared in a collection with some absolutely fantastic writers, and as honest an answer for the question of “where do you get your ideas?” as I can provide.
And one quick disclaimer: I still have never run out of gas. Stopping the car with gas in the tank is NOT running out of gas. This is science, and it can’t be debated.
They had a good time taking photographs of the new-growth forest where nearly thirty years earlier an incredible forest fire had roared through Yellowstone, but Kristen began to joke that their trip was cursed when they ran out of gas at an overlook above the Sunlight Basin called Dead Indian Pass. Jim was defensive, having insisted that they could make it through after leaving Cody without stopping for a refill, but he still had to smile at her incessant stream of snark as they waited hopefully for the return of a passerby in a Chevy pickup who had accepted fifty dollars in cash and promised to return with a gas can. There was no guarantee that he wouldn’t pocket the fifty, laugh at the tourists, and continue on his way, but it was the best option Jim had found.
“He’ll come back for us,” he told Kristen.
“I know he will. He’ll come back and tell us that there was no gas station ahead for miles, but he’s happy to report that there’s a hotel with, like, ten rooms in the whole place. And he’ll take us down there so we can sleep for the night in comfort. When we check in, we’ll notice that he seems to know the owner. It’ll be subtle, you know, just a little bit of eye contact, but it will be enough. The game will be in play then. And you know what the game is?”
He sighed and shook his head, trying not to smile.
“Cutting our heads off with a chainsaw,” she said, nodding. “Exactly. That is exactly right, babe.”
There was the trembling roar of exhaust down the highway, and Jim turned and looked out and saw the Chevy returning.
“Here he is.”
“When he mentions the motel…”
“I’ll tell him that we have a tent,” Jim said. “Got it.”
The driver had been good to his word, handing over a five-gallon can of gas from an Exxon thirty miles up the highway, complete with a Post-it note that read “ha, ha, ha” signed by the wiseass who ran the gas station. He did not mention any motel, and even stayed until Jim had poured in the gasoline and proved that the car would start.
“Where ya’ll headed, anyhow? Cooke City, Silver Gate, Red Lodge?”
“Somewhere in the middle,” Jim said.
“Ain’t much in the middle. What are you after?”
“Pictures. I’m a photographer. We’ve been driving for close to two months now. Working on a project called American Ghosts.”
“American Ghosts? You think there’s phantoms out here?”
Jim couldn’t tell if the man’s smile was good-natured or offended. He would have made a hell of a poker player.
“There are plenty of abandoned places, at least,” Jim said. “Things that were once, and are no more. From forests to towns. That’s what I’m after.”
That got a slow nod and no verbal response. For some reason – probably because the good old boy had provided him with gasoline on a lonely highway – Jim pressed on.
“There are supposed to be old copper and silver mines up in those mountains north of us. Abandoned equipment, gated entrances, and –”
“Adits,” the stranger said.
“Those gate mineshafts? They’re called adits. In mining, a tunnel goes straight through and comes out the other side. A shaft goes down, and a winze goes up. A horizontal entrance that goes nowhere? That’s an adit.”
“Okay. Good to know. Anyhow, I was hoping to get some pictures of them in the right light. You know, right at dusk. When they look good and spooky.”
Jim smiled, but it wasn’t returned. The stranger looked out across the Sunlight Basin and when he spoke again his eyes were someplace far away.
“They’re spooky enough. Just be careful which ones you pick. There are gates up for a reason, you know.”
“I don’t intend to go inside of them. Just take some photos.”
“All right,” the stranger said. “Go have fun, kids. But next time, fill `er up. Not everybody around here is as helpful as yours truly, and those mountains?” He waved a hand out over the basin. “They look mighty pretty in your pictures, I know, but they’re not jokers, either. They’re the real deal. You want to pay attention out here.”
Jim thanked him again and then turned back to the car and Kristen’s wide, mocking smile.
“How’s that male ego feeling?” she said when he opened the door.
“Bruised and battered, but still kicking.” He put the car into gear. Below them, the aptly named basin held all the light of the day, a tease that suggested there was no need to rush, but the surrounding mountains were already catching shadows. They needed to get a base camp up in a hurry, and then, if things went just right, they’d be lucky enough to catch the abandoned mines at twilight.