Joshua Viola is a Colorado Book Award finalist and the author of The Bane of Yoto and Blackstar. He edited the Denver Post bestselling anthologies, Blood Business and Nightmares Unhinged, and co-edited Cyber World—named one of the best science fiction anthologies of 2016 by Barnes & Noble.
A question that always arises when it comes to being an author is “What is the inspiration behind your work?” This question is asked in panels, interviews, random conversations and between authors. At times, this is an easy question to answer—you can pinpoint the moment the idea hits—but sometimes it isn’t.
Ideas for stories are everywhere, but you have to remember that not all ideas make good stories. Some ideas are much too closely related to something you’ve read in a book or short story, or viewed in a movie or TV show. Other ideas are more nebulous and take time to develop. Some strike hard and fast, but eventually fade away, while others take a longer approach, like a slow burn, and reveal themselves at a snail’s pace. When inspiration hits, an author has to decide whether the story is worth pursuing. For each author, the criteria are different.
Some authors work well with short story ideas.
Others work best with longer forms.
Writers can be more comfortable in a particular theme, point of view, character type, setting, and so much more.
Sometimes it’s as simple as picking a genre.
In early 2016, I began working on Cyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow, a cyberpunk anthology that explores our potential dark futures. Through the process of constructing the book and reading submissions by some of today’s best science fiction writers, ideas for my own story began to take shape.
While it may be a common trope in the cyberpunk genre, I knew I wanted to tell a neo-noir mystery with a detective on the center stage. But then there’s the big question for anyone who wants to do something that’s been done a million times before: Why?
First, I needed to figure out who this detective was. I knew I wanted the female equivalent of Blade Runner‘s Rick Deckard, but I didn’t know much else about who she was, let alone her name.
After letting the idea simmer for a few days, I took a late-night stroll through downtown Denver, soaking in the city’s lights under a full moon. Maybe the character was blind, and that would somehow work to her advantage. After a second thought I realized that was too similar to Ernest Bramah’s character, Max Carrados.
Perhaps, though, she was colorblind, like me.
I tucked the idea away for later.
As I walked the city streets, I thought about my favorite Japanese movies, video games, and anime. I’ve always been fond of Japanese storytelling and how it differs from what we do in the west. The Japanese embrace many ideas that would seem risky or strange in America. They turn these ideas into intriguing tales unlike anything else the world has to offer. In that moment, I knew this detective was going to be of Japanese descent.
But what was her name?
I reached a crosswalk. As I waited for the signal to turn green, I looked up at Denver’s night sky and was impressed by how big and bright the moon was that evening.
Intriguing name, but who was she? What made Denver Moon unique? And where did she live (it sure couldn’t be Denver)?
I’d watched the original Total Recall for what must’ve been the 100th time earlier that day and the answer came to me in a flash.
Mars. She’s a detective working the dark underbelly of Mars City.
For a few rare minutes, the ideas were flowing. I thought about cyberpunk favorites like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. And then, for some reason, Vampire Hunter D.
If you aren’t familiar, Vampire Hunter D tells the story of D, a dhampir—half vampire, half human. He wanders a post-apocalyptic landscape in search of vampires to slay. You might be wondering, what the hell does a vampire hunter have to do with a colorblind detective on Mars? Not much, except for the character’s sidekick, Left Hand.
Left Hand is a grotesque little face symbiotically attached to D’s left palm. Yes, you read that right. He cracks jokes and guides D on his quest through a brutal nuclear wasteland. He’s odd and peculiar and perfect.
I wanted to create my own version of Left Hand for Denver as a way to pay tribute to the odd storytelling elements I enjoyed so much in Japanese manga and anime.
Then Smith was born.
Smith is Denver’s sidekick, an artificial intelligence who’s been injected with Denver’s deceased grandfather’s memories and installed in a 21st century Smith & Wesson. It was weird enough that it might work.
As soon as I got home, I drafted a short story titled “Denver Moon”. I liked where it was going, but it was missing something. I couldn’t quite nail down what it was until I realized I simply didn’t have a plot, just a bunch of ideas and no direction. I shelved the project.
Fast-forward to the final editorial phase of Cyber World. Warren Hammond, author of the gritty KOP series, was one of the last writers to turn in his story for the anthology. “The Bees of Kiribati” was—without a doubt—my favorite in the collection. I was mesmerized by Warren’s tight, crisp prose and disturbing plot twist. It dawned on me that Warren might know what “Denver Moon” was missing. Even better, maybe he’d want to lend his talents to the story. I had to convince him to hear me out.
Warren and I met a few weeks later over a beer to discuss the mystery project I hinted at in an email. He was hesitant at first, making it clear he’d never collaborated and he wasn’t particularly interested in doing so anytime soon. My heart sank. We’d just sat down and before I had a chance to sell him on the idea, it was dead. But after a few sips and an opportunity to dive into what “Denver Moon” could be, Warren was interested. We traded ideas, taking our first collaborative steps together.
Warren offered his own version of the project, taking the initial concept into a bold, new direction, and thus, the worldbuilding began. He expanded upon Denver’s colorblindness, suggesting a Martian disorder called red fever that turns its victims into bloodthirsty killers. The only people immune to the illness would be those like Denver, monochromatics—an element that plays an integral role in the story. He conceived Denver’s nemesis, Rafe Ranchard—a former member of the red planet’s political superpower, the Church of Mars. Most importantly though, he helped give Denver a personality and determine what it was she needed to do in the book: save her long-lost grandfather who she thought had been dead for twenty years.
The plot was coming to life. We were sending Denver on a mission to unravel the mystery behind red fever, discover the Church of Mars’ darkest secrets and find the grandfather her AI, Smith, was patterned after.
We discussed the different avenues to tell our story. Warren and I knew there’d be a novella, but why stop there? We planned to recruit a regular Hex Publishers collaborator, award-winning artist Aaron Lovett, to turn “Denver Moon” into a graphic novel. And, like Cyber World, we wanted a soundtrack. For that, we roped in another colleague, Klayton (Celldweller, Scandroid)—a musician known for his work on films like Blade Runner 2049 and Transformers: The Last Knight. On top of that, we planned to work with Killbot Entertainment, another friend of Hex, on a Denver Moon PlayStation 4 dynamic theme.
Through the process, Warren and I got to know each other better, and that allowed us to define our characters, their world, and the obstacles they’d have to face. As the project evolved, Denver Moon became so much more than I hoped or imagined.
In the end, a story was born and a friendship was forged.