Okay, I wrote “The Island” in one night.
I literally wrote out a basic logline during a break in the day, wrote out a list of how everyone dies, and that was it. Then after all my nightly stuff, I opened Scrivener and began writing.
4200 words later, I was done. I couldn’t tell that story in just 1,500 words. I couldn’t give any back story, or give you an eye into the social structure of the Island, or give you developed characters in a 1,500 word story.
It required me to go to bed 15 minutes later, to be able to finish the story. And the next day I dragged at work, because that was some seriously intense writing.
What was I trying to portray in the story? I wanted to show how absolute chaos ensues when people panic. I wanted to show how a single man can completely change the way people think with a few comments.
Ernie Lee held a great deal of power over the community. The storekeeper Cary (yes, I know Squirrel Island doesn’t have stores, but I decided to make this story on a different Island!) had to divert a considerable amount of energy into watching Ernie the entire time, to keep Ernie from stealing something, or to distract Cary into letting him take something on credit he’d probably never pay.
We all know that person.
Ernie also had a single problem – he was a sociopath. He simply didn’t know right from wrong. Well, more accurately, Ernie knew right from wrong – he just couldn’t understand those concepts as they were applied to him. His responses if asked would be, a literal, “I don’t know what you mean.” So when they spotted a massive explosion that turned out to be a car crashing into a transformer and exploding, Ernie of course honestly thought it was an atomic bomb. And his words scared everyone, because when Ernie Lee states he’s going to survive, the very way that Carey was watching his store now becomes how everyone else watched their life. Ernie’s going to kill me, and if he’s going to do it, everyone else will too. It’s actually only four of them.
I borrowed one man from The Birds and from Jaws for my story – Missing Guy. In Jaws, it was Ben Gardner. These people never lived. They were dead from the moment the story was written. Who killed Missing Guy? Ernie. He beat the guy to death with the shovel. Darian only kills two men in the story. But again, that was part of Ernie’s plan – get them all to kill each other, and Ernie would just opportunistically take what was left.
The Island was originally titled “Squirrel Island”, but of course, I had to use artistic license, by putting a general store on it, and cars and trucks. And there are no permanent residents of Squirrel Island. In my story, there’s less than a dozen permanent residents.
Almost all of them are French. That’s a little known thing in some parts of Maine – There’s been a culture clash between the French and the Anglo’s for over a century. In most of Maine, it’s not so noticeable. It still can be found in some areas, like Lisbon Falls and Durham.
Where the French settle in, it’s usually in small communities. So I decided to make The Island one of those places. And because of its nature (a place where only a few people live every year), all of them are French except for one Anglo – who’s dead before the story even starts (Mike Johnson).
The antagonism between Ruthie Johnson and Ernie Lee is one of the established resident versus the outsider. Brooke was a outsider moved in like Ruthie, but because she was French, she was accepted, whereas Ruthie was not. Ruthie’s speech was designed to show them that. Probably none of the residents had ever realized that Ruthie was an outsider still, even though she lived on the Island longer than Brooke.
However, the only real antagonism Ruthie had was from Ernie. Carey’s reaction shows that the Islanders didn’t believe Ruthie killed her husband – but in New England once a rumor gets going, it gets a life of its own.
One of my goals was to give you an antagonist so nasty, you HAD to hate him. This is something I think authors have been getting away from, and it leaves the reader unsatisfied. Your villain is a villain because he’s too smart. Or he had a facial disfiguration as a boy, and so that’s why he became a body builder and a serial killer. Seriously, you don’t have to explain villains! You don’t have to justify them! Why is he a villain? Because he’s evil! I’ve found ample evidence in over 50 years of personal experience some people are just wholly given over to evil, and don’t care. Are they all sociopaths? No. The worst evil is done by people who know good from bad, understand how it applies to them, and have just made the conscience decision to go ahead and do wrong. Sometimes villains are villains because they’re evil.
Ernie murders Ruthie because he’s killing the outsiders, and purging his community. It’s satisfying to him. And he taunts her as she drowns by telling her that he knew all along she didn’t kill Mike, Ernie killed him years before.
In that one act, the reader now can’t wait to see Ernie die. Ernie killed a man, then taunts his widow for years by diverting blame? Oh, he’s got to die! Readers love to see despicable characters get their come-uppance.
Stephen Gagnon was originally named Elliot, and Brooke was originally named Elena. But that gave me three people in a short story who’s names start with “E”, and you can’t have that.
I debated the twist ending quite a bit. I wanted to write the story strong enough, so that you had to think it was a nuclear bomb, it really was World War III. But I couldn’t talk about an explosion that lasted minutes, the continuing roar, a blast of wind, stuff banged around on the Island, and then turn it into a car crash! In one of my novels I give you a blow by blow description of an atomic bomb explosion, and what it would be like to be within a mile or two of it. So that’s something I’ve done.
I could easily turn this into a movie script – the pacing is just right for it. But I’d be annoying and insist that all the actors have genuine Maine Accents.
I think the hardest part for me was this – whether to leave it like an “On the Beach” ending, or like it was. If you read it again, but stop at Brooke and Stephen in the police station after Ernie has been killed, the story has a chilling feel to it. I didn’t know if that’s how I wanted to end it or not? But for me the twist ending was the most satisfying.