I have a brand new play, The (Completely Inaccurate) Legend of the Mummy Witch House, which has just officially been published by Playscripts. You can read the play for free*, purchase scripts or license productions here. It’s a short, very silly, not-even-remotely-scary wacky horror comedy for middle school and up that I think you’ll enjoy for Halloween or anytime.
But as the title suggests, this play is a really goofy mash-up of a bunch of random horror-related things and since the most frequent question authors usually get is the infamous, “How do you get your ideas?” I thought it might be fun to look into the mental process that lead to this very weird play.
Let’s start with the baseline of my brain. When it comes down to it, I really only ever write about three things: identity (the biggest one), storytelling, and why you should give obscure stories a chance. Go ahead and go back over everything I’ve written and you’ll realize pretty quickly that I am a three trick pony. Every idea I have plays back into at least one of these themes so it’s an important background to keep in mind. This idea actually touches on all three of these.
The whole thing started around last Halloween when I was thinking about the movie Hocus Pocus and how I wanted to write something unabashedly goofy and Halloween-ish like that movie is. I also love the haunted house type of movie where our heroes (like Mickey, Donald and Goofy or Abbot and Costello) come to explore a creepy old house and are menaced (comically) by monsters. But I only wanted to write something like that if I could use classic horror creatures that weren’t overused (sorry, ghosts, zombies, vampires and werewolves) and the only classic monster movie creatures left that weren’t done to death (pun intended) were witches and mummies.
Witches were right out because a) um, real people and b) the real awful events of Salem, MA which, to me, make them nothing I ever want to joke about. Mummies are also real people but also the trappings of the classic mummy story involves way more Egyptian cultural appropriation that I am comfy with writing. But what if I could do a classic-ish mummy story but with the other kind of modern mummy? Namely, the poor senior citizen you seen on the news from time to time who no one realized was dead for so long their body was mummified before anyone found them? I had this half idea of an old cat lady who’d died and been mummified by bandages of fur from all her cats laying on her corpse.
Or maybe they ate her. Then I could have zombie cats!
The idea stalled out here which is probably for the best as it was getting kind of gross and grisly. Halloween was over at this point anyway so I stopped thinking about it.
At the start of the New Year, Playscripts asked me for a play for their upcoming Halloween collection, Scared Silly!. Everything I already had in the works was too long so I brainstormed a bunch of ideas for something that might fit. I fleshed about about a dozen likely ideas.
I returned to the whole mummified cat lady and the zombie cats thing but found myself asking the question one often has to ask when writing comedy: Is this idea too ridiculous or just ridiculous enough? I decided it was too ridiculous.
So I did a bunch of research into lesser known monsters because I like obscure stories, as discussed, and realized many of them are pretty darn similar to each other with only subtle differences. I started mulling the idea that a witch would probably be annoyed if you called her by a similar but different title, such as sorceress and vice versa. How would it feel to be mis-named all the name? I have friends with genders outside the binary and I wondered if I could make a connection here with respecting someone’s preferred pronouns.
I started working on a haunted house kind of story I was tentatively calling “The Hipsters of Horror” where a group of kids meet some horrors that are less mainstream but have no idea how to fight them. I wrote a lot of this and it was really funny (and had a whole pretty bit with a version of this creepy dude with his big boobed mannequins that will almost certain appear in another story I write someday). I pitched this idea and Playscripts said it was go and I had about two weeks to write it. (While 10 months pregnant and moving but let’s not dwell on that part.)
I started to write and, whelp, this idea was way too long too. But I’d already pitched it so I had to cram what amounted to a whole new story into the pitch I’d given and I didn’t have a lot of time to do it in. If I had all the time in the world, I’d take some time off from the idea and let my mind figure out a new way through but there was no time for that so I got down to work with a little thing I like to call The Brute Force Method. I needed a comedy with obscure horrors and a haunted house and I needed it now. Go, brain, go!
Here’s where things got a little Frankenstein: I chopped up bits of all my ideas and slammed them back together in a new way.
I shaved my room full of mannequins down to a single mannequin that I made a golem. Golems have to keep a spell in their mouth to stay animated so the idea of one who kept forgetting this and taking his out amused me. (I am easily amused.) I trimmed my cast of heroes down to three hapless urban explorers (something I’ve researched a ton about anyway for another project). Then I took my zombie cats and my mummy that I’d already rejected as too silly and made them into a story within the story. To make it even more over-the-top, I made the old lady a witch, the cats into squirrels and added a cat who was her familiar. This became a so-bad-it’s-good legend the characters were obsessed with and were about to find out wasn’t even remotely true. Instead, they’d encounter lesser known horror creatures in this weird haunted house. One of my explorers was newly out as non-binary in a subplot that tied everything together so I could metaphor and maybe sneak an important message in there with all the silliness.
You remember the three things I always write about? This story connected back to storytelling (the legend), obscure stories (I packed it full of lesser known monsters) and respecting what people want to be called (identity). It was the coveted Hillary Theme Trifecta!
Boom! Done. Everything was in place for a good ole comic romp with a message snuck in under the radar, right? But it was still too long. Ughhhhh.
I rewrote the play over and over in those two weeks and finally came to a sad realization. The only way I was going to be able to get this play down to the length it needed to be was if I cut the whole gender subplot. There was no space left to do it justice anyway and I was running out of time so I had to do it. Out it went.
I read over the finished play and, while it was funny and worked, it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It was missing the special sauce. But the deadline had arrived so there was no more time to tinker with it. I handed it in and got all settled in to move and have my baby.
And then, post move, pre-baby, I got an email from the publisher. I needed to shave EVEN MORE more pages off it. What? How? I already cut everything what more do you people want from meeeee?
But it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you just refuse to consider failure an option and you’ve got the deadline of a literal human about to emerge from your nethers. As Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” Except I barely had a plan. I had a week to finish the cuts and I used that week to write the play over and over again. I cut characters, put them back in, rearranged scenes, gutted the plot and started over. I eventually managed to halve the length (more than they asked me to cut). And even though I hacked the heck out of it and took a ton out… I’m pleased to report it is better the new way.
And, the biggest surprise of all? During that wild week of rewrites, I somehow figured out a way to put the core of the identity / respect what people want to be called message back in even though the entire rest of that plot is long gone. It was a small moment of triumph after a grueling revision process I have no desire to ever repeat. Ever.
If you’re reading this and thinking, you spent waaay too much time on this short little play, I agree. But you need to remember that, when I say I spent three weeks on it, I mean three weeks total where I worked on it when I could, which was not every day and often only half an hour or so. My writing time is super haphazard. Also, I was pregnant and moving so my brain was, shall we say, not operating at optimal levels which made it hard to do the finessing writing requires, slowing everything down. Under ideal circumstances where I had consistant writing time and full brain power, would it have taken that long or required that many rewrites? Probably not.
Also important to note: if I had been writing this for me, I would have put it aside at the first setback to work on an idea that was easier coming. I only doggedly kept bashing on this thing to make it work because I had contractually promised it to my publisher and I needed to get it done ASAP so I didn’t have to worry about it once the baby came. When you have the luxury of time where you can let the knots in a project work themselves out, you can get away with less rewrites. But sometimes you’ve got a deadline so the only way is to just blast your way through the issues in a story so you can finish it on time and that means throwing words at your problems until they go away.
Yes, sometimes more time means less writing and that is a good thing. Writing is weird like that.
I was reading over the final proof of the play a few weeks ago and I glanced at an early draft. You’d think a story could only change so much when it goes from idea to finished product in only about three weeks but the original draft is unrecognizable from the play that was eventually published. It’s a great example of how writers get their ideas isn’t half as interesting as how they manage to turn those ideas into a fully realized story.
*=You can read all but the last bit of Mummy Witch House for free but the preview window is being weird so there’s a trick to it. Click this and then input “63” as the page number to jump to my play. Yes, even though my play starts on page 79. I assume it’s because they are only excerpts and that messes up the page count.