Writing “The Hunt of the Unicorn”

The Unicorn in Captivity, one of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries

The Unicorn in Captivity, one of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries

The Hunt of the Unicorn is the opening story in our  anthology (released today!)  Dark and Dangerous Things II.

This story was born from three sparks – one funny, one interesting, and one deadly serious, and refined by a series of medieval tapestries.

The first spark was a post on a forum, joking about how unicorn season was fast approaching and that hunters needed to hurry and purchase their licenses and book their virgins. I had recently learned about “rededicated virgins” (the second spark), and joined in the conversation warning about being careful about those rededicated virgins.

I was so entertained by this exchange that I immediately began rolling the idea around in my head – a unicorn hunt, but they had to use a rededicated virgin. I found the whole idea funny, but couldn’t seem to find a direction for it. The seed for the story went dormant in my head.

Then, I read comments by Elizabeth Smart about her kidnapping and rape and how purity culture impacted her. She explained that one of the reasons she didn’t try to escape was because she felt worthless, like a chewed up piece of gum because she had been raised to believe that her virginity was the most important and valuable thing about her.

My emotional response to the idea that this girl wouldn’t even try to escape her kidnapper because she thought she no longer had any value slammed into the seed of the story about the unicorn hunt and the seed started to sprout. I wanted to explore ideas about virginity, gender, and purity, but the story was still rooted in something humorous, so I tried to keep it light.

My rededicated virgin, Lily, never explains why she wanted to be a virgin again, because I wanted her to be anyone. Anyone can make a mistake, anyone can become a victim, and anyone can want to leave the past behind.

At that point, all I needed was the reason for my main character to need a unicorn, and the hunt was on.

Once the story was in progress, I found The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. That gave me my title, and I added the dogs to the hunting party as a bit of homage.

I consider “the hook” — that first sentence, first paragraph that hopefully grabs the reader and pulls him into the story — to be one of the most vitally important parts of a good short story. The Hunt of the Unicorn lacks what I consider a strong hook, but I liked the opening so much, I could never bring myself to edit it down to a better hook. Every time I started to cut out that opening bit, I put it right back in:

Tam clenched his carefully saved cash tight inside his fist as he waited for his turn.

“Help ya?” The woman behind the counter lumbered over, moving sideways along the counter as if afraid to step too far away from its support. Grey hair fell in waves over a tank top better left to a younger woman, and a pair of sweatpants painted over every round protuberance of her body. She stopped in front of Tam and gazed expectantly at him with small, pale, watery eyes.

“I– um– need to book…” He wasn’t sure exactly what the right phrase was, and he glanced around the walls of the dingy office looking for a sign, a poster, or a billboard that might tell him what he was supposed to say. No such luck. “A guide? A hunt?”

The woman’s small hands patted their way over her body until she found a pack of cigarettes behind the strap of her bra. She took her time with the little rituals: opening the package, a quick census of the remaining cigarettes, tapping the bottom of the pack until one popped out, rapping it on the counter a precise three times before placing between her lips. She flipped open a Zippo lighter decorated with an embossed snake and gave a quick three puffs before cocking her wrist out to the side and blowing out a cloud of smoke.

“You want to hunt a unicorn?”

-From The Hunt of the Unicorn


One thought on “Writing “The Hunt of the Unicorn”

  1. I love your post, Donna! I especially like the way all three ideas came together. That seems to happen for a lot of writers, and that’s one of the things that makes writing fun.

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