Category: Craft of Writing (page 1 of 3)

Writers’ Brains Are Always Looking for Inspiration

If the weather permits, I take one walk (and sometimes two) on the days that I’m working in my office in downtown Birmingham. Most of these walks are non-events and nothing exciting happens. I get my exercise, and the rings on my smart watch close the gap toward completion.

But every now and then, something happens or I will see something, and a spark of writing inspiration ignites in my brain. A couple of weeks ago, I was walking along my normal route when I noticed something I hadn’t seen before. I stepped across a storm grate and saw a red light at the bottom. After my brain registered it, I paused and went back to see what it was. But I couldn’t really tell.

As quick as that, a story idea was born. I cut my walk short and hustled back to the office as the words burst into my head. I pounded out the beginnings of … something? Nothing? A short story? A novel? A tale that will reside within the Zauberi Chronicles universe? I don’t know. Only time will tell.

Here is the makings of the (totally rough and unedited) story that I scratched out that day when a red light at the bottom of a grate became a source of inspiration.

Finding Inspiration in a Red Light

Red lights stared up at me from below the sidewalk grate. Normally, I walked around the grates, having read an article once — or was it a scene in a movie? It doesn’t matter — about the number of people who fall through grates each year. Admittedly, it was a small number when you consider the number of people who walk on sidewalks, but still, there was some chance it happening. An avoidable chance.

So most days, I sidestepped and went around or course corrected as I approached one. But not that day. I must have been feeling adventuresome — ha! The notion that walking across a slotted metal portion of the sidewalk constitutes adventure should tell you most everything you need to know about that state of my risk aversion.

Regardless, on this day, I walked across the sidewalk grate. I stared at the ground waiting for signs that it would buckled under me and I would fall to my death. I saw something I had not seen before. Could not have seen before because I didn’t have the right angle of view. Two red lights in the tunnel that ran under the sidewalk.

They were peculiar enough that when my feet hit the pavement again, I circled back and took another lap. This time, as I walked, the lights blinked. Not blinked in the way that a light flicks of and comes back on. The blinked the way something does when an eyelid closes over it and reopens.

I’m a rational person. More than that, I’m hyper-rational. So I talked myself into the most obvious solution. I had walked past something that had momentarily interrupted my view of lights, and my imagination had taken off at a sprint. I cut my walk short, returning to my office. Digging back into spreadsheets would allow me to revert back to normalcy.

A New Short Story, “The Murder Tree”

Deep in the hills and hollows of Walker County, Alabama are a people whose sacred oaths are etched into the heart of the Murder Tree. You may dismiss them as hillbilly hitmen willing to kill targets at economical prices. They are both more and less, but they are a dying breed who remain beholden to their oaths until the end.

Samantha Ray is a gifted killer who was born into her calling of contract killing. She is irreverent, savvy, and a little bit reckless. She is also the only viable heir to the family business that goes back several generations. But is she willing to pay the cost that will required of her?

Go check out my new short story, The Murder Tree, for $0.99 on Amazon (also available on Kindle Unlimited).

J. W. Judge The Murder Tree A Short Story

Flash Fiction: A Shark Story

Brief intro: This story is loosely based on an actual occurrence at our family vacation this summer. I had intended to include this telling of it in a short story (“The Murder Tree”) that I’ve written for an anthology. But a couple of beta readers didn’t think it contributed to the overall story, so it got 86ed. Hope you enjoy.

A Shark Story

Deddy and Momma decided to take us to Gulf Shores for a vacation. We never went on vacations. Not because we didn’t have the money for it. It just wasn’t something they were raised up doing. Anyways, they took us to the beach, and everything was going fine. I mean, we didn’t have all the fancy toys or umbrellas or nothing like some folks did. But there was sand and ocean, and we were having a good time. Me and my brothers was playing on the sandbar out a ways. Further than we were supposed to be. Momma and Deddy had told us not to go too far. They didn’t say why, but we knew. Deddy couldn’t swim — he was scared of water — and Momma couldn’t show him up. So she had to stay there alongside him. The story of her life really. Standing at his side come hell or high water.

So we were out on the sandbar playing. The water was about chest deep for me. I was four or so. But the two boys were bigger. All of a sudden, there was a big gray fin bearing right down on me. I couldn’t do nothing but pee myself. But Jeb sees it, and he snatches me up out of the water and pushes Buddy out of the way. It makes enough of a commotion that the shark makes a hard turn. It didn’t have a bite-sized snack in front of it anymore. It was going to have to work for its meal. And it wasn’t interested in putting in that much effort. The shark was close enough when it turned that its tail smacked Jeb right in the belly.

Momma and Deddy saw the whole thing. We hightailed it back to the beach, and they snatched us up and put us in the car. We drove all the way home to Walker County still in our swimsuits, itching from sand and dried saltwater. Deddy and Momma didn’t say a word for about the first hundred miles. And Buddy couldn’t stop talking about it. He thought it was the coolest thing that ever happened in his life. Might still think that. We never took another vacation after that.

If you’re interested in reading other flash fiction, you can find it here: “From the Morning’s First Thoughts” and “Something Black in the Stairwell”.

Searching for The Root of Inconsistency

My lack of steady progress in my current writing project, Walls Ascending, has been a source of consternation of the last two months. But to be clear, it hasn’t been the book itself that has been frustrating. I’ve written the first twenty-five percent, and I think it’s a compelling story so far, and a good tie-in to its predecessor, Vulcan Rising (link). Something else has been at the root of inconsistency for me. It just took me a while to sort out what that was.

Expectant Writer Searching for the Root of Inconsistency

The rate of my progress has been quite stilted, which stands in stark contrast to how I wrote Vulcan Rising — almost daily writing for fourteen weeks from start to finish. But Walls Ascending has been an unexpectedly different experience.

January was a pretty good month, in which I wrote for sixteen days in Walls Ascending. There were other days I had to work on other projects or didn’t do any writing. Then came February, when I wrote eleven out of the first fourteen days. I was making steady progress. But then everything fell off a cliff. After Valentine’s day, I didn’t write again until March 23. While I had spent about a week of in March doing the final pass at Vulcan Rising, the great majority of the month saw no creative work being done.

So a few days ago, when I got frustrated about the resistance I was feeling in getting back into the story, I tried to figure out what was going on. What was at the root of my inconsistency?

Digging in to Find the Root of Inconsistency

When I dug in, I realized it wasn’t the story that was problematic. It wasn’t that I had some sort of writer’s block. What has been happening is that I have had an extraordinarily stressful last couple of months at work. I’ve had two jury trials to prepare for, neither of which ended up trying for various reasons. There have been countless other hearings I’ve had to argue and briefs I’ve written. And I’ve been working between 50-60 hours per week for the last six weeks or more.

So when it came time to sit down and write creatively, my brain gave be a “hard pass.” It was taxed. It had no extraneous decision making left to give me, because work has been requiring so much.

There are times when I can work more than hours per week consistently, and it’s not overly stressful. But that is entirely dependent on the nature of the work being done. It’s almost like a pitcher’s pitch count in baseball. Not all pitch counts are created equal.

A pitcher might be in the seventh inning, having thrown 105 pitches, but his team has been in the lead the whole game. He’s still feeling good with plenty of life left in his arm. But another night, he might have racked up 80 pitches by the fourth inning. He’s had runners on the bases all night. His team isn’t producing runs. It’s been one stressful situation after another, and he’s already gassed.

That second scenario has been the first three months of 2021 for me. Stressful days and weeks stacking onto of each other, compounding their effects. The result is that when it’s time for my brain to write witty banter between two characters, it tugs at its ball cap to tell the manager it needs a meeting on the mound.

Do Some Self-Assessment When You Hit an Inconsistent Patch

At some point, you’re going to find that a confluence of life events has conspired against you to prevent your creative work from being done. You may not at first recognize the source of the problem. I know I didn’t.

But once you realize there’s a problem, don’t freak out. The Muse hasn’t abandoned you forever. You haven’t lost your ability to do your creative work. You haven’t encountered an immovable writer’s block.

It may be that your brain is just saying, “I can’t do this right now. Could we instead have some rest? That would do me a lot of good.”

Of course, you may be like me and not be very good at resting. That can be its own source of stress. But dwelling too much on that may derail this particular train. Once you’ve searched out the root of inconsistency and discerned whether it’s something that is present for a reason or a season, allow yourself time to recover before digging back into your creative work.

For me, I took a couple of mornings to write this article, rather than attempting to force my way back into Chapter 10 of Walls Ascending. I was supposed to be in trial this week, but on Monday morning, we were informed that the trial won’t be going forward. But all that pent-up energy, anxiety, and stress doesn’t dissipate like air from a popped balloon. It’s bleeds off slowly like a tire with a small leak.

Now that I’ve become cognizant of the problem, I’m trying to give my mind ample opportunity to get itself right. I’ve got a few relatively non-stressful weeks ahead of me. So I want to be in a proper head space to take advantage of them by pounding out the next few chapters of Walls Ascending.

The Unsettling Genesis of Vulcan Rising

When people ask me how I came up with the idea for Vulcan Rising, I don’t mind telling them. But they almost universally seem disappointed. It wasn’t what they expected. They don’t know what they expected, but it wasn’t what they heard. Besides that, they find it unsettling that others are walking around with tales of dark and fantastical things rattling around in their heads.

I can almost see the regret formulate within them. They wish they’d never asked. Their perception of me has changed, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. But that’s okay. It’s not me that has changed, just their understanding of who I am. The shadow side was always part of me; they just hadn’t been acquainted with it before.

In the vein of transparency, I don’t mind telling you about the genesis of Vulcan Rising. Then you can cast or reserve your judgment as you see fit.

Expectant Writer J. W. Judge The Unsettling Genesis of Vulcan Rising

The Origin Story for Vulcan Rising

This isn’t the first novel I thought I would write. It’s not the first novel I’ve tried to write. Nor the second. But sometimes the muse is working behind the scenes, aligning things just right so that you’ll be ready when the time comes.

Three of the chapters in this book were inspired by real life situations. And while I wrote them down as they transpired, it didn’t occur to me until the third one that I could write a novel that featured these events. That was at the end of August 2020. By early December, I had finished my first draft of Vulcan Rising.

In early January 2020 (before the world went sideways here in the United States), my five year old, Jack, started calling for me in the middle of the night. I looked at the clock and saw that it was 3:40am. With only an hour and twenty minutes left until my alarm was set to go off, I knew that my good sleep was pretty much done for.

I went up to his room and tried to coax him back to sleep. But when he told me that he couldn’t sleep because he didn’t want to be alone anymore, I felt really bad for him and laid down beside him.

But in that little bed with only a minimum of covers made available to me, my mind started racing. And I came up with the scene where Thomas finds Ning in his bed and dismisses Joseph to return to his own.

A Return to Transcribing Dreams

A couple of weeks later, I had a really strange dream. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. For a time during my 20s, I wrote down my dreams. But that seemed to somehow magnify their intensity and creepiness, so I stopped. Then the dreams returned to their baseline weirdness levels.

More recently, I’ve started writing down dreams that are particularly interesting and stick with me. I’ve started letting my dreams fuel my fiction writing, rather than let them dissipate into the ether.

In late January, I had a dream that was graphic and surreal. I remembered every detail — three men were kidnapping a pegasus colt, and I stopped them in my driveway and shot one of them; then I had to return the mythical creature to its mother.

I had an inkling the dream could be the inciting incident for a much bigger story. But what I had in mind then was a much different story than what Vulcan Rising became.

Fast forward seven months to August 2020. Sometimes you have weird interactions with your kids. It seems like their brains are working overtime all the time. Not infrequently, those conversations lead to story ideas. So when that happens, I try to run as far and fast as I can with it.

One morning, Jack came down from his room and snuggled up right beside me on the couch. He was unusually somber and his responses to my conversation prompts were monosyllabic and noncommittal. His demeanor caused my mind to wander, thinking about its potential causes. One of which was whether he thought he’d seen something in the stairwell. Perhaps, he had. Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t a chimera. But who’s to say for sure.

Converting Your Nightmares into Novels

I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. As far back as I can remember, I have had dreams and nightmares that felt as real as anything I experienced in my waking hours. Lately, I have allowed some of those dreams to fuel my writing. Two dreams I had in 2020 served as the catalysts for me writing my first novel, Vulcan Rising. But what of the nightmares? Those are a little harder to embrace. What if you convert your nightmares into novels or short stories?

Expectant Writer Convert Your Nightmares into Novels

Turn Your Nightmares into Novels and Short Stories

Nearly twenty years ago I started writing my dreams down. I have folders and notebooks that are riddled with bizarre dreams. And sometimes it seemed that the more I wrote down, it had an amplification effect. The dreams I remembered got weirder and more frequent.

So I was always hesitant to write down my nightmares. What if I had the same experience and the nightmares too increased in frequency and intensity? I can tell you I’d rather not increase the number of time I wake up in the middle of the night unable to go back to sleep and afraid to do so if I could, for fear that I might fall back into the same dream sequence.

But then I started having nightmares that the more I reflected on them, the more they seemed like good premises to horror and fantasy stories. So I started writing them down as well. My sleep hasn’t been more interrupted, but I do have more story ideas that I’ve been accumulating.

So when you open a story from me sometime in the future to read about what happens in your first two weeks in purgatory or why a child who was kidnapped doesn’t have any memory of his life before he was returned to his family, just know that you have these stories because I converted my nightmares into novels.

What kind of worlds can you create and how can you dazzle your readers if you allow yourself to peer into the darkness and writing down the nightmares that keep you from sleeping?

(Un)pleasant Surprise While Doing Research for my Novel

In what may turn out to be a terrible idea, I’ve decided to set my second novel, Walls Ascending, in a place that I’ve never been. I have a good reason for doing so, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to pull it off.

Walls Ascending is the sequel to Vulcan Rising, a contemporary dark fantasy novel that verges on horror at times. This second book is looking like it’s going to follow suit.

Expectant Writer J. W. Judge (Un)pleasant Surprise While Doing Research for My Novel

What I looked for and (thought I) found was a sleepy, little town in the Black Forest of Germany. I did a little bit of searching and landed in Hornberg. Then I started writing.

The setting in Vulcan Rising is Birmingham, Alabama, and there are times that it becomes nearly a character of its own. I want Hornberg to be that for Walls Ascending despite my not having set foot there. This meant that I needed to do more research. Fortunately, my training as a historian and a lawyer has instilled in me a deep appreciation for the treasure that can be uncovered with diligent research.

As I dug into Hornberg’s past, it didn’t take me long to strike gold. I learned that in 1959 a serial killer named Heinrich Pommerenke went on a killing spree, and over the course of 3 1/2 months he committed the following atrocities before being captured: “65 crimes, including four murders, seven other attempted murders, two completed and 25 attempted rapes, six robberies, ten break-ins and six simple thefts” (Wikipedia).

As soon as I read it, I knew that was going to making it into the dark fantasy story I’m writing. How could it not? It seemed like immediate affirmation that the sleepy, little German town with an insidious past was the perfect setting for Walls Ascending.

But I wouldn’t have had that extra element of specificity and authenticity, if I hadn’t put in the time and effort to conduct extra research for my novel. It’s not the first time that researching for a novel has paid off. And I expect it won’t be the last.

Flash Fiction from the Morning’s First Thoughts

I woke up with a weird thought for a story this morning. No real idea what it might be or where it might go. All I had was what if there was a blue glow emitting from under my pillow. This is how it evolved.

Luminescence Flash Fiction from the Morning's Thoughts


She woke to the glow of the alarm clock’s digits offending her eyes. But she realized fairly quickly that wasn’t the intruder. The light was the wrong color. The clock was still on, reading 3:27am. But that’s not what had caught her eye.

Her periphery signaled to her that the offender was in the bed. A blue luminescence emitted from under her pillow. Had she left her phone in the bed and shoved it under the pillow during the night?

She glanced to the nightstand. No, it still lay there, perched on the corner. Its screen darkened but waiting eagerly as a puppy for attention.

A river of blood coursed behind her ears. Her heart tried to push out from behind her ribs.

This was a ridiculous response. There was a perfectly valid explanation for the glow. She couldn’t now come up with one, but that’s because she’d allowed herself to panic.

She plucked up her courage and tugged at the corner of her pillow. It didn’t concede to the slight pull she applied. That was weird. It was a pillow. Any minimal amount of force should have dislodged it. What had been fear transitioned to frustration.

She ripped at the corners of the pillow and pried it away from the bed.

The blue luminescence revealed itself.

It comprised the circumference of a void that had opened within her mattress. But it wasn’t really within the mattress. Or touching the mattress. They were … she couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing … occupying the same space. But not.

The void was about the size of a volleyball. The glow around its edge pushed outward. But within was nothingness. It wasn’t even black. She could only perceive it as a total absence of anything. As if it devoured whatever it consumed.

She hovered her hand over the opening. It pulled at her. A gravity well with a strength many times greater than its size should permit.

Her phone screen lit up. A Twitter alert. The momentary distraction was enough. The void seized her hand. It pulled her in up to her wrist. And then to her forearm.

She strained against it. She pushed against the mattress with her left hand for leverage while the void consumed her right. She was elbow deep now. The luminescence brightened and thrummed, overjoyed at having captured its prey.

She couldn’t extract herself. She was freaking out. Shoulder deep. Her face pressed against the mattress. Still she pushed against the mattress to no avail.

She screamed for help. But she lived alone. Was alone.

The ambitious aperture further opened its jaws and drew in her wider parts. Her hips and midsection fell in. She tried to grab the sheets with her toes as she splayed across the chasm. But she couldn’t sustain her weight as the opening slid outward so her heels fell in.

She sobbed now. Her destruction an inevitability. Still she resisted. She was proud of her resolve, despite the certainty of the result. She took a deep breath as her head sunk into the void, facing upward. Her ceiling fan still spun counterclockwise, oblivious to what was occurring beneath its blades.

With her left hand, she clung to the illuminated edge of the void. Having eaten its fill, it closed around her fingers, a shrinking pupil. It closed with a silent clang, lopping off her fingers at the first joints. Leaving in its wake four fingertips on an untidy bed with disheveled sheets.

Flash Fiction: Something Black in the Stairwell

J. W. Judge

Sometimes you have weird interactions with your kids. Their brains are working overtime all the time, it seems like. Not infrequently, those conversations lead to story ideas. Sometimes they turn into something, like this one about a magical animal that appears on his bed. So when it happens, I just try to run with it. An exchange my son and I had a couple of days ago inspired this story, Something Black in the Stairwell.

[Note: I have adapted a version of this story to be incorporated into my debut novel, Vulcan Rising. Read more about the novel at]

Expectant Writer Flash Fiction: Something Black in the Stairwell

Something Black in the Stairwell

The boy called through the monitor, “Can I get up?”

I looked at the clock. 5:57am. It was still a little earlier than he was supposed to get up, but I knew telling him to go back to sleep at this point would just create a fuss and yield the same end result. “Yeah, buddy, come one down.”

I returned my attention to my work and waited for the boy to join me on the couch in the living room. I heard the thud of feet above me as he slid off the bed to the floor. Then plodding to the stairs. At this point his foot sounds crescendoed. Every time. It was as if he were wearing too-big work boots while trying to navigate the stairs. It was incomprehensible to me how such a small person could make such racket.

There was a pause before his steps descent resumed at a more rapid pace.

I was entering data into my spreadsheet when he came into the room, not saying anything, and sat right up against me. The sectional can comfortably seat five. But he glued himself to my ribs and burrowed in, snuggling so that I had to put my arm around him. Unusual, but okay.

“Did you sleep okay?” I asked.


“Not me,” I told him. “I had a hard time getting to sleep. Was thinking about this presentation for work.”

“Did you stay awake all night long?” he asked.

“Nah. Just woke up off and on.”

Several minutes passed with the only sound being that of me depressing the keys on my laptop. The boy broke the rhythm without looking up at me.

“Something black tried to get me on the stairs.”

“What?” Not sure I’d heard correctly, or if I had, what it meant.

“When I was coming down the stairs, something black tried to reach out and get me,” he repeated.

“You mean you saw a shadow on the wall?” I prodded.


“Buddy, we’ve talked about this. The streetlamp shines through the trees and makes shadows.”

“No,” he said again.

“What do you mean no?”

He finally looked up at me. “That’s not what it was. It reached out to get me.”

“Why did you wait so long to tell me?”

He shrugged.

“Alright, I’ll go check it out,” I told him.

He clung to my shirt as I shifted my weight to get up. “Please don’t leave me in here by myself.”

“Well, bud, I’ve got to go check it out. You can either stay in here or go with me.”

The decision weighed on him. Where did the greater fear lie? Then I watched him summon his courage and resolve to go with me. “Okay, let’s go,” he said. He was like his mother in that way. Once the decision was made, he was committed to it, come hell or high water. I admired it.

We walked from the living room through the kitchen and into the entryway. We turned to look up the stairwell. Best I could tell, everything was as it should have been. “Buddy, I don’t see anything here. You sure it wasn’t just the shadows of the trees moving?”

“Yes.” Just a stoic yes.

We stood there a minute longer, looking at nothing. “Well, I don’t know what to say. There’s nothing here. Let’s head back to the living room.”

I had started to take a step when he said, “It’s not here any more.”

“How do you know?” Doubting that it had ever been there to begin with.

He shrugged his little shoulders again. “I can feel it.” He was looking at the place in the wall where it must been as he’d come down the stairs. A cold shiver crawled up my spine. He turned his face to me. “But it’ll be back. I can feel that too.”