That nasty virus is on our minds so much, it’s hard to think of anything else. At least that’s the way it’s been for me. One great diversionary tactic for me has been getting lost in a story: book, TV show, movie, online series, opera and play broadcasts. To follow a story line, my mind has to give itself over and forget where I am and what’s going on. The better the story, the further the present recedes.
How do those stories get started? What are the seeds, the germs (if I may)?
Where do you get your ideas?
That’s the question every writer I know gets the most often. The trouble is, none of us can answer it. You might as well ask us how we breathe, or walk, or how electricity works. Okay, some people know that. To me, it’s magic and I want it to remain like that.
There’s an answer I’ve given in the past that goes something like this: It’s impossible to say where my ideas come from. They just do. Everything I read and experience and remember gets mixed up in the primordial ooze within my brain, and things seep out. Sometimes they even pop out, fully formed.
However, I can give better answers about specific pieces.
Writing to a theme
I’ve written a couple of short stories for anthologies lately. For them a theme was given in the call for submissions. One call was for stories based in the 50s or 60s, mid-century. Of course, I started out casting my mind back to what happened back then. I was an obedient child, for the most part. Except for that time I broke into the high school on the weekend. But I don’t talk about that. My life was dull, going to school, doing homework, playing my violin, reading books. My little brother, though, he had adventures. Maybe I should write about something he did. He was a free spirit, growing up in a different part of history than I did. Drugs were a part of a teenager’s life when he was one. I was on the very edge of that wave, so didn’t even know about their existence when I was a young teen.
Using past experience, mine and others
One of the more outrageous things he did was run away with a traveling carnival. (No, there were some more outrageous, but this one would make a good story.) I got some details from him and twisted his adventure into a story that would fit the anthology. It was accepted!
Using rejected stories
Another recent one was calling for stories using those weird animal group names, like a clowder of cats, a sloth of bears, a cast of falcons, and the one mystery writers love, a murder of crows. In fact, I used that group name in a story for COOKED TO DEATH in 2016, “Murder with Crow.” This anthology used the actual term for the title and I went through lists of animal group names until I let upon one for a group of animals I had been trying to work into a story, bees. I found that they could be called a “grist” of bees and my story took off. This veered off quite a bit from the reject, which involved a much-too-complicated plot of poisoning with tainted honey. The honey had to come from Greece, where the bees do not avoid oleander, like they do here, due to a different evolution. And the honey weapon had to come from an unregulated bee-honey-farm, because they’re very careful about that over there. Oleanders are quite poisonous. So I used another bee weapon, the venom from their sting.
Places I’ve lived or visited
My novels are usually inspired and shaped by an agent or publisher, but not always. My Imogene Duckworthy series was inspired by living in a tiny town outside Wichita Falls, Texas. It was an environment totally foreign to me—so very interesting! I loved writing about that area. The books are humorous. How they not be, when Wichita Falls is named after a fake, manmade waterfall (because the natural one washed away many, many years ago, and it was more of a rapids than a waterfall in the first place).
Old interests revived by new discoveries
When the Neanderthal genome began to be investigated, and eventually completely sequenced, an old interest in anthropology surfaced. I’d taken a course in it in college, but never had a use for it, beyond my own curiosity about what came before, and where we came from—what we’re made of. My People of the Wind series was born to help me explore these fascinating ancient people and to try to help explain to our world who they were, as opposed to the brutish caveman stereotype so wrongly applied to them.
Conversations, sometimes overheard
One of my early stories brought a whole bunch of diverse elements together. I’m still proud of that story, which was nominated for an Agatha Award. The title indicates those elements, “Handbaskets, Drawers, and a Killer Cold.” The “handbaskets” part was a conversation I overheard in a diner in New Mexico on a trip with my husband. I used the conversation verbatim in the story, since I hastily scribbled it down as soon as I overheard it:
“Jesus H. Christ in a kettle!” snarled an elderly man a couple of tables over, and threw down the ketchup packet he’d been wrestling with.
“In a kettle?” answered his companion, another wrinkled geezer. Both were wrapped in mufflers and topped with woolen caps, but had taken off their thick gloves to eat. The second man picked up the ketchup packet and pulled on it. It remained intact.
“What’s he supposed to be in?” asked Ketchup Man, snatching the packet and resuming his struggle.
“A handbasket, you idiot.”
“I thought that’s what we went to hell in. Godammit!” The ketchup packet finally burst, dousing the man’s plaid wool scarf.
The “drawers” part was a conversation I had with an ex-policeman in Dallas while we were both waiting in the hallway to get rejected for a capital murder jury. Him because he was an ex-cop, me because I was against the death penalty. We started the conversation by saying we both knew we would not get chosen. I asked him why he quit being a policeman. His answer moved me to tears, so it had to go into the story, since I was writing a story about a policeman. Here’s the gist of what he said.
He always had to remain professional on the scene when he answered a call. He would shove the things he saw into a drawer in his brain, to deal with later, but he would never deal with them later. Eventually, his drawers became too full and he had to quit. The worst cases were the ones where he saw what people did to their own children.
The “killer cold?” I had a bad cold when I was writing it and I gave it to the cop character.
Anyway, that’s an idea of the jumble that germinates story ideas.
I sincerely hope the COVID-19 virus doesn’t germinate in any of you, or in me. Stay safe, stay healthy.
Check out Kaye’s new class, starts Monday!