|As we waited for any potential customers to arrive, I stared out of the showroom window into the garden full of celebrities sprouting from the soil. This early in spring, most of the plants hadn't yet reached resemblance: the flower-buds were tiny blank faces, gradually developing features. Only the cyclamen — Harriet's self-portrait — was in full bloom. Their pink flowers smiled in the sun, looking cheerier than Harriet had done for some time. A pioneer in pomonics, she'd created all this floral art. But at the height of a recession, few people had money to spare on customised flowers. Most of our visitors came to complain about something.|
Like many of my stories, this one took a long time to come to fruition. The original inspiration arrived in April 2004, when I walked into my garden and discovered that one of my budding tulips had been decapitated. The flower had somehow come off its stem, and landed right outside my front door. I couldn't figure out how it had happened: the weather hadn't been windy, and the flower-bed offered no clues.
Presumably there was a mundane explanation. But as a science-fiction writer I'm not interested in mundane explanations, if I can imagine something more story-worthy instead.
Perhaps someone had deliberately decapitated my flower. Of course, no-one would do that for an ordinary tulip. But under what circumstances might someone do it? An idea occurred to me:
Maybe there's a body buried in the garden, and flowers are growing in the shape of its head to denounce the murderer. The killer is frantically decapitating all these flowers in order to hide the evidence of their crime.
It's a potentially intriguing scenario, and I expect different writers would approach it in different ways. A horror writer might focus on the creepiness of ghostly flowers calling for vengeance. A crime writer might focus on the search for the killer. But as a science-fiction writer, my own instinct is to extrapolate from any given situation to contemplate wider consequences — i.e. indulge in world-building.
In this case, the concept of flowers that look like someone immediately struck me as one that could be applied much more widely than an isolated case of murder. It felt like an exotic new art-form, reminiscent of J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands (one of my favourite books). An image sprang into my mind:
A decaying garden full of floral celebrities. It's late in the season: they've all pollinated each other and gone to seed.
Who would make flowers like these? I assumed that the artist would be somewhat strange and obsessed, in the way that fictional artists so often are. She would have a business manager who tried his best to keep her grounded. And her business manager would also be her lover.
Thus I came up with the characters of Harriet and Travis.
A story needs some kind of plot. My early ideas for a storyline were influenced by the Ballardesque atmosphere I'd conjured up for myself. Unfortunately, such an influence can become stifling. I experienced a similar problem with the idea that later became "The Odour of Sanctity". As I said in the notes for that story: "I originally intended to write a Ballard pastiche, as an homage. However, after contemplating some possible storylines, I found myself reluctant to tackle them — partly because I was intimidated by the challenge of writing that kind of story."
And so this story languished in my 'Ideas' file for several years. In 2013 I reviewed the file to consider which of my stalled ideas I should attempt to revive, and which I should abandon. I decided to revive this one. As frequently happens, the benefit of some distance made it clear what I had to do. I needed to abandon the Ballardesque plotlines and replace them with something fresh.
If the premise of a story is flowers that look like people, then it's necessary to define which people the flowers resemble. In 2013, Britain was still enduring economic hardship after several years of stagnation in the wake of the global financial crisis. The Conservative-led coalition government had imposed severe spending cuts. I imagined a protest group called the Austerity Rebels, who planned to stage a publicity stunt:
|"We want you to create the whole Government in effigy. Then on Bonfire Night, we'll burn them!"|
This political angle was a departure from Ballard. It better suited my own style, which naturally leans toward comedy and satire. Outright comedies can be difficult to sell, but it's sometimes possible to smuggle humorous elements into an otherwise serious tale. In this particular story, there are a few subtle jokes referring to British politics, which I know that American readers will overlook. Nevertheless, I enjoyed writing them.
Even with the new plotline, I still wasn't home and dry. In the first draft of the story, Harriet died at the end. This drew upon my original idea of a buried body from which flowers grew — the flowers looked like Harriet, and pricked the conscience of her killer. Yet I soon realised that this ending was simply too dark, and didn't fit the tone of the rest of the story. So I replaced it with a completely different ending, which took some effort to create.
The resulting story looks deceptively simple. Reading it, you wouldn't guess how far from my original inspiration it was, and how much material I had to discard along the way. But that's all part of the writer's job: making it look easy, even when it's hard.