Somewhere in between the time I first get a notion for a story - be it an image, a dream, a fragment in something I've read - and when I actually sit down to write, I ask myself the single most important question in the writing process:
What is this story really about?
Take, for example, "Diana and the Goong-si", my story from MIDNIGHT WALK. It would have been easy to dismissively say, "It's about the fact that I love Hong Kong's hopping vampire movies, and thought it would totally rule to set a hopping vampire tale in the time of Dracula." Perhaps that wouldn't be a bad story; in somebody else's hands, it might even be better. Who knows.
But for me it wasn't enough. The story needed to be about something, be it a strong emotional hook or even a sociopolitical subtext. Because I knew this would be a long piece, I decided to go for both (and it was interesting how they ended up meshing). For the emotional pull, I made my protagonist a strong woman who is filling a traditional male role - that of an adventurer in search of a lost love. I realized I could play with that notion in a number of ways, exploiting not just Diana's yearning and grief, but I could also let her be slightly transgressive by putting her in (necessary) drag at one point. Some time after I'd finished the story, I would occasionally find myself thinking, What would Diana do in this situation? The character has lived on past the story for me, always a good sign.
But beyond Diana was something else that began pricking at my consciousness, something about the 19th century setting and a voyage that encompassed numerous British ports, and that was the notion of colonialism (or imperialism). When I was a kid, I'd see movies where some WASP-y protagonist would laughingly teach some native assistant English, and I'd think, That's such bullshit - why isn't Mr. Englishman learning the native's language? In the 18th and 19th century, the British went far beyond mere whimsy in their domination of foreign cultures; read a few historical accounts of massacres, slave labor and enforced drug trade in India and China, and quaint notions of wise and benevolent empire fall by the wayside pretty quickly.
Was it sheer coincidence that I was also pondering America's role as an empire over the last 10 years? Well...
So I had Diana's character and a commentary on imperialism suddenly burrowing into this story, and - as I mentioned above - it wasn't long before they began to intertwine, as Diana discovered her own unease with her country's ruthlessness, adding even more to her emotional turmoil.
With those elements in place, the story virtually wrote itself for me (thank you, story!).
And yes, this philosophy serves me well on other work as well. I was, for example, recently invited into a new zombie anthology, and told that the parameters of the story had to include the traditional Romero zombie tropes: Flesheating corpses that must be shot in the head, etc. etc. I could probably have thrown together a fairly typical zombie action shoot-'em-up pretty quickly, but I wanted something else. I thought about what I'd be like in a post-zombie apocalypse world - alone, scared, barely surviving - and I realized I'd also be very lonely. So my story, "Joe and Abel in the Field of Rest", became a story about loneliness and some of the many forms of love. The story will be out later this year in the book THE DEAD THAT WALK, edited by Stephen Jones.
I hope some of you will tell me what you think these stories are really about. Your answer might be very different from mine, and that will make me very happy.