Dumb Decisions (and Slightly Better Ones)

Beneath the Floor - June 2020
Hero dark forest

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have made some dumb decisions in your life.

I’ve made some real stinkers. Giving up a career in engineering to make Pokemon cartoons (Back now). Deciding that 2am was a great time to try my very first handbrake turn (It wasn’t). And then there’s a whole subcategory involving girls and misspent youth.

Turns out fellas - when a girl says things like “you can sleep over if you like” and “my dad thinks all we do up here is kiss”, she’s one step away from holding a neon sign that flashes ‘I WANT YOU’. But when you’re young and don’t want to ‘lose the friendship’, you tend to play it safe and these things fly over your head, haunting you years later. We’re not even friends anymore.

But the good thing about dumb decisions is, you tend to learn from them. And then you can make sure you don’t make the same mistakes later on when it really counts, like with your future wife, for example. Not that there aren’t a whole host of dumb decisions (past and future) that she’s witnessed... But that’s a story for another time.

Speaking of stories and dumb mistakes, I’ve recently realised I’d been making a fairly silly one in my recent book. I’m quite a big fan of tools and items in stories. Valyrian Steel. A Foxhead Medallion. Batman’s utility belt. Literally anything in the hands of Kvothe. They’re little stories within themselves, and I like knowing what a character has in their pockets so I can try and think how they’ll possibly get out of each situation they find themselves in. In my Case Files series, my paranormal detectives have a whole bunch of equipment - magical and mysterious - to help them solve cases and keep civilians safe (and unaware). A compass that points where you ask it. Tattoos that predict how close you are to death. Books that turn people to stone. Revolvers that leap into the hand.

And a newspaper.

You know, just a normal newspaper. But one that was written by the Ministry of Secrets, detailing cases nationwide for field agents, hidden in code. So... in a world of curfewed monsters, lost magic and dead gods, I’d got my guys reading newspapers for clues.

Some questions I’d not answered included:

  • Who delivers the newspaper?
  • Is it different for every agent?
  • How does the person delivering the paper know where each individual agent is?
  • How will they get rid of the newspaper each day to stop it falling into the wrong hands?

Now, the way I like to work is I write these questions down in a separate document for that item, and answer as many as I can without it becoming a major distraction. I need to make sure that any questions relevant to the plot have an answer. Even if the reader doesn’t find out in this particular book, it needs to make sense in that world and have an answer that at least I know so that everything makes sense. Otherwise my entire world would be a patchwork quilt of nonsense.

Out of everything so far - vampires, demonic phone boxes and a monster prison - this printed newspaper had become the biggest logistical nightmare for my secret agency. Then one day, I had an epiphany. I have a document for the book, compass, revolver, tattoo, because they’re anomalous items that require explanation. They’re items that belong on Floor Fifty-Four. What if the newspaper was too…

What if it wasn’t just a normal newspaper. What if every day, the stories changed? What if the paper itself was ordinary, but the ink was not? What if you could write in the crossword, and the ink would bleed into the paper, and a response would form back? What if in the 1980’s when my plot is set, these newspapers were the best form of communication at the Agent’s disposal? In a world without mobile phones, limited to short messages that can fit in the puzzle section. That eliminates all four logistical questions above in one fell swoop. Granted, it creates a thousand more, but they’re exciting questions. Questions for which the answer might be ‘an enslaved deity’ rather than ‘a paperboy called Kyle’.

Now don’t get me wrong. This isn’t fleshed out either. I’ve not so much solved my problem as created a new one. But it’s one that feels like it clicks much better into my world. It’s the exact kind of object I like. Full of intrigue and mystery, but with limitations and rules.

I love that ‘eureka’ moment that often comes with world building. This newspaper had been a sticking point for months. It was a dumb decision that didn’t quite fit, and I knew it, but I couldn’t figure out why it was dumb. But as soon as I came up with this new idea, it was like someone had sat me down and made me watch an hour long powerpoint presentation.

Maybe this new decision is dumb too. As I’ve said, I do have a habit. But I want my books to be fun, as well as dark and creepy. And what’s more fun than a magic newspaper?

OK, when you put it like that, it sounds dumb…


Want to see for yourself? The first eight chapters are free to Newsletter subscribers. Have a read and let me know what you think!

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