Saturday, July 14, 2012

The heart of a sniper

I've been meaning for a long while to institute a series on the blog here about some of the more memorable story ideas I've come up with - over forty or so years of being a dilettante almost-writer.

As I am somewhat pushed for time at the moment (OK, lazy), I thought I'd start with my sniper story - the background to which I've already recounted on here a few years ago (along with the opening few paragraphs). 

This was originally written as a long short story (one of the very few things I've got around to writing out in full), Watching, which I felt had the scope for expansion into a short novel. Of course, I've never got around to attempting such an expansion, and I think I'm unlikely now ever to do so.

Anyway, my starting point for this was examining the perspective of someone who holds a god-like power of life and death over people: what does a sniper think about, crouched in his nest for hours at a time, waiting for the right moment to shoot, just watching people? 

I was also fascinated with the possibility that in a civil conflict like this there might not always be rigid demarcations between the feuding communities, that people from either side might be able to mingle with their "enemy" and for much of the time conduct relations with them in a more or less normal way. 

So, the narrative idea developed of an odd love story where a sniper becomes infatuated with a young girl he sees through his sights by day. At night, he starts crossing over into her community to try to meet her and develop a relationship with her. Eventually, he is successful in this; but as they become lovers, he is increasingly tormented by guilt about the people - her people - that he has killed, and by the fact that he must try to keep his role in the war a secret from her.

He is particularly tormented by the fact that he's killed the girl's former boyfriend - the only time that he'd killed with some kind of personal animus or moral judgement. Ordinarily, he selected only sick or elderly victims, and soon acquired a reputation for this apparent mercy. However, from his high vantage point, he'd been able to observe many times that this man was a callous womaniser, routinely cheating on the girl the sniper had become smitten with. He wasn't quite sure himself why he'd suddenly decided to shoot, whether there might not have been some element of anger or envy or self-interest behind it; and this not knowing his own motives gnawed at him.

After the war, he had married the girl and they had emigrated to North America, but his guilt about the secret he was harbouring grew worse and worse, and his anxiety was beginning to damage their relationship. Eventually, he felt impelled to confess to her that he was the sniper who'd killed her previous lover. And she had replied simply, coldly, "I know."

And in that moment he knew for the first time what it is like to be watched from a great distance by someone who holds your life in their hands.


JES said...

Oooooh...! I'd read and liked the post from 2009, but this really puts the stamp on it that says, well, So WRITE it already!

Froog said...

I think it's about as written as it's ever going to be.

a) I did write - and then lost it (only in short story form, but still). Bloody computers!

b) This was a long time ago. One goes stale on ideas after a while, moves on to the new shiny thing.

c) I lack stamina - in reading or writing. I can't get my head around the idea of sitting down for that long and churning out that many words.

Froog said...

Interesting aside...

I tend to be very self-aware about where my ideas come from. And this whole story - or the key scene in it, certainly, where the sniper shoots the boyfriend - occurred to me because I'd just read somewhere that in really cold weather blood falling on snow can produce a cloud of steam... and I had this very intense, cinematic picture in my mind almost immediately of this young guy shot in the middle of winter, the pool of red blood around him contrasting with the white snow; a cloud, almost a smokescreen of steam wafting around him; a young girl rushing out to him, oblivious of her own danger, weeping over him as he died.

I thought, wow, this is a good scene. But what's my POV here? Oh my god - I'm the sniper who just caused this.