The Story Behind the Story: Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates

Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates is now live on Mythaxis. Here’s my account of how I came to write the story and why the title turned out wrong — the McGuffin in the story is really a box of Stuckey’s praline candies.

This story scratches several itches for me. One is a minor idea of a female lead whose first name is Pershing, though she’s very different from the character I’d originally had in my head. The original had no story attached to her so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice.

Another is my desire to write a story about the kind of reporting job I used to have. A government reporter whose work focuses on dull stuff such as budget hearings, development approvals and the like as opposed to busting crime rings, writing searing exposes or simply as shallow media whores. As Death is Like a Box of Chocolates is set in 1983, the issues I discussed regarding Internet journalism aren’t relevant. However Pershing does share my frustration that crime news grabs more eyeballs than government and budget hearings which have more effect on people’s lives.

A third itch was Foz Meadows’ writing about how women’s looks in fiction become generic rather than individual. Pershing’s a stunningly beautiful woman but she dresses down to minimize the impact: attractive enough to be taken seriously, not so attractive harassment becomes unendurable.

The oldest itch, going back to when I used to fly a lot more, was a fear of being robbed in an airport. What if I were on the toilet in the airport restroom and someone just reached under the door, grabbed my backpack from the floor and pulled it out? What if I took my time getting to the baggage pickup area, — what would stop someone just picking up my luggage and walking out with my stuff? Then my imagination kicked in and I saw the thief opening whatever they stole and regretting it — for the little time they had left to live. Maybe with modern airport security that wouldn’t happen, which is part of the reason I set it in 1983.

In the opening Greg Haughton, a sexist prick “who believed in the importance of big brass balls the way his grandparents believed in the inerrancy of Holy writ,” gets humiliated by a couple of women he hit on. Next day, after dropping his sister at the airport, he gets a sudden urge to prove how big his balls are by walking off with something from the baggage carousel. He sees a box of Stucky’s pralines among the suitcases and swipes it. And then he opens it …

When I first read the story to the writer’s group, it was dark, and heavily focused on misogyny, with guys doing strange, irrational things in pursuit of women. One of my cohorts objected, correctly, that what I was showing didn’t go much beyond everyday misogyny in the real world. Rather than amp up the misogyny I cast a broader range. There’s Pershing’s co-worker who suddenly quit to write a bestselling novel, saddling her with a lot more work; there’s her father, almost cancer free but abruptly stopping chemotherapy. Plus the guy who tried kidnapping a woman because he knew she’d love him if she saw how much he cared. And a whole lot more.

Much other strangeness follows, including the secret of the box of pralines. The switch from just a box of chocolates was because Stuckey’s stores used to be everywhere in the South, or so it seemed. Drive off any interstate and you’d find a Stuckey’s store; we stopped at a lot of them on family trips in the 1970s. So I felt it fit the era.

The end result is a quirky little story set in what’s a lightly fictionalized version of my old home turf back in the Florida Panhandle. Plus a lot of period detail — General Hospital when it was the hottest soap on TV, Reagan’s invasion of Granada, next to no security at the airport.

Click on over and enjoy!

#SFWApro. Cover by Micah Hyatt, all rights remain with current holder.

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Filed under Story behind the story, Writing

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