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obituarist writing

The Obituarist

‘Social media undertaker.’

That’s the concept that came to me back in… holy crap, January. I don’t know what inspired it, but I suddenly thought that there could be a career – and a story, more importantly – in managing and then shutting down someone’s social media or internet presence after their death. Just what that story would be wasn’t clear, though. Something a little off-kilter, certainly, but would it be mainstream or genre? Horror or sci-fi? I’d had a vague concept in the back of my mind for years about a shut-in who slowly realises that the people he communicates with online are from alternate universes; the internet focus was an obvious connection between the two, but nothing immediately grabbed.

So I shelved the idea for a while. I shelve a lot of ideas. And by ‘shelve’ I mean ‘forget’ about half the time, unless I write something down immediately, even if it’s just a blog post. This is why I carry a notebook. Which I don’t use often enough.

Then in June, in one of those times when I put my imagination on cruise control and see where it goes, I came up with an opening paragraph. I do that a lot – just write 100-odd words to kick off an idea without thinking about it too much or knowing where it’s going. I usually file them away and come back to them periodically to see if they inspire me to go further.

I’ve tweaked the opener a little, but here in all its glory is the start of what I decided to call The Obituarist:

Jay Moledacker was far more handsome in death than he ever had been in life. Okay, not true, but at the very least his Facebook profile picture was now a lot more dignified. Not difficult, since his profile picture while alive had been a photo of him vomiting onto a horse after a drunken racing carnival.

Now that he was dead – of an embolism, rather than being kicked by an outraged thoroughbred or whipped by an equally horrified jockey – he looked regal, elegant and a good six years younger. That’s because I had to use his college graduation photo; everything after that point seemed to involve young Jay throwing up, getting punched in nightclubs or asleep on someone’s kitchen floor with FUCKWIT written on his naked chest in mustard.

A life well lived. Well, a life. Lived.

And it had fallen to me to close it all down.

Which didn’t stop my clients – i.e. his parents – from dicking me about on the invoice.

Looking at this, there are a bunch of signals in it about the kind of narrative that it would kick off – signals not just to readers but to me as I consider writing it. There’s an obvious streak of humour, but it’s not overwhelming, which is good because I can’t write comedy. But there’s also a slight hint of melancholy, or maybe resignation; it’s the speech of someone who’s aware of the funny and sad aspects of what he does. And there’s a character voice right there to work with – kind of my default voice, I admit it, but hey, my default voice is generally pretty entertaining.

So that was interesting, and it made me think that the idea had legs – and, to some extent, made me think that a semi-realistic story would better suit that tone than a horror or high weirdness piece. But nothing immediately sprang to mind, and so I shelved it again.

Cut to last month, as I started the process of changing email addresses. Which is kind of a pain, because I used my old email address as part of my login for a bunch of sites, and it’s connected to bank accounts and other important things, and if I don’t take care when changing details someone could maybe use my old email to log into something and then work out my bank details and steal my identity and holy shit the core premise of The Obituarist pretty much unpacked itself into my head. Because it’s not just a social nicety to clean up the internet footprints of the dead, it’s a way of stopping identity theft, and that means there’s the potential for crime and money and murder involved.

And there’s a story in that.

So I’m gearing up now to create The Obituarist (note: provisional title) as a novella to ideally write over the next couple of months and publish online by January/February. I’ll post some more information about premise, theme, tone and the like in the next few weeks, but here’s the basic pitch:

Kendall Barber (note: provisional name) used to be a professional scammer and identity thief. Then something changed in his life, and he decided to use those skills legitimately to become what he calls an ‘obituarist’, locking down the online lives of the newly dead.

But now his past is reaching out to catch up with him, just as he gets in over his head with a new client whose dead brother may have been murdered – if he’s even dead at all. If Kendall doesn’t play his cards right, he could wind up just as deceased as the usual subjects of his work.

On the other hand, Kendall may know more about what cards to play than anyone else realises…

20 000 or so words of slightly-surreal crime, touching on themes of death, identity and secrets, and taking more cues from Raymond Chandler than I should probably admit to in public. That’s The Obituarist. Or will be, if I pull my finger out and write it over the next two months. Which is the plan.

Stay tuned for more updates.