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THE LAKE: Behind the Story

Haven't read THE LAKE yet? This post contains several spoilers, so make sure to read the story first!

Link to the story:

Like many of my stories, I’m not entirely sure how this one began. I sat down to write a short story after a long break of writing them, and found that there was nothing waiting in my fingertips to come pouring out. I messed around with a few sentences for a few hours, but nothing felt right. In desperation, I turned to my most trusted tool for curing a temporary block—my antique typewriter.

A Smith-Corona portable from the 40’s, it was the first typewriter I ever purchased (I did have one as a kid, but I’m old enough to where that was actually a useful tool, so that one doesn’t count). It’s a gorgeous machine, but an obsolete one, so it spends most of its time looking pretty on a side table in my office. Writing on a typewriter is just not practical, especially for someone who writes as much as I do. If I was one of those authors that puts out a novel every five years or so, then I would gladly use it. But I’m not. I need to be able to do my rewrites quickly and efficiently so that I can move on to my next project, so wasting time literally retyping every word of a story is as impractical as an ice cream oven. But that doesn’t change the fact that there really is something magical about an old manual typewriter. The clack, clack, clack of the hammers striking the paper, the smell of old grease, the little bell that gives you a congratulations every time you finish a line. It all makes writing such a joy—until you get used to it, of course. So when I’m stuck, I’ll carry that old beauty from my table, set it on my desk, feed in a blank sheet of paper, and start typing. And without fail, I’ll always produce the first page of a story.

I’m not sure where that opening line came from, but the image came quickly from it: a girl tied in a chair, head lolling about unconscious, and a nervous man standing nearby. I knew where this was: on the lower porch of the old cabin on my grandfather’s lake property. So from this image I then crafted the story to fit.

The obvious thing for that man to do was to throw the woman into the lake. So he did. The problem then came of what would happen next. Would the woman return as a zombie? Would guilt slowly eat at the man until he threw himself in after her? Would his first murder spark him into a career as a serial killer? So many options, yet none of those felt right. I’d already written a story where a sudden onset of conscience forced a killer to follow his victim in The Millionth Problem and I had no desire to shell that lobster twice. Zombie stories can be fun, but it just seemed too…boring for this tale. And as for him becoming a serial killer, well that might make a good novel, but I was trying to write a short story. So I decided to take a subtler approach: The man must keep his secret.

The location is real enough, as I’ve already explained. My grandfather bought the little cabin exactly as I described it in the story in 1980, around the same time that Jimmy moved there. Lake Hartwell is very much a real lake, and a place that many of my childhood memories are set. Because I wanted this story to take place over decades, with Jimmy constantly worrying over his watery secret, this of course meant that the story would have to begin in the early eighties. Being twenty-five, I only have about twenty good years of memories in me. 1980 was a bit before my time, so I had to rely upon great sources of information to get the setting right, namely my grandfather himself. Life itself is inspiration, so there is no greater source of stories than our elders, never forget that. Notable things I needed to glean from him included what the docks looked like in those days, the activity level of the lake, and the house sizes. The lake itself is very much a character in this story, and its constant changing was something I wanted to get right.

The water level of Lake Hartwell really does change. A lot. Owning land there means you’ll have a grand old time moving your dock in or out five or more times a year. This usually isn’t too much trouble, but the lake has been known to go down or up as much as five feet in a single week. I can remember two serious droughts in my lifetime. One in 2002 exposed a roadbed and a sunken dock. The worst one in 2008 exposed even more and turned the usual thirty yard walk to the dock into a trek three times that length. It was these events that I wanted to use to make Jimmy the most nervous. The drought of 2002 didn’t make it into the story because in my research I found that the second worst drought had actually occurred in 1989, a year before I was born. Two droughts worked, but I just didn’t think that a third one in the middle was necessary.

As for the scuba diving knowledge, well, I didn’t have to do much research at all. While in college I took a scuba class as a P.E. I’m fully certified and used my own knowledge. It’s so much easier when you already know the facts and don’t have to do special research.

The thing I hoped was clear throughout the story was that Jimmy was not a sociopath. He was a man demented and driven to murder by jealousy the first time, and fear the second. He felt an immense amount of guilt over the murders, which is very important in understanding this story. He killed the college students because he was scared of them finding the body of Sarah, and his guilt being known. Killing them ate at him, but he had to do it. Until he found out that he didn’t have to do it at all.

So what happens after the story ends? Well, I had considered adding one final line: Jimmy put down the note, and there was a knock on his front door. But I decided against it. Would Sarah really come for him out of the darkness he had come to fear? I think she will, unless something happened to her in the intervening years. But like several of my stories, I think it’s best to leave this one up to you, the reader.

What ended up happening to Jimmy? You have an imagination, figure it out for yourself.

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