My wife, Julie, kicked me under the table at a restaurant the other day.
“You’re doing it again,” she said.
“You’re watching something going on. You think you’re subtle, but you’re so obvious.”
She’d caught me red-handed. Something had caught my eye in the restaurant. But I was listening to her—honest! Her mother was wrestling tigers in Sumatra. Well, I think that’s what she said.
I’m always people watching and situation observing. Regardless of the facts of the matter, there could be a story in it. Truth always makes great fiction. If I can think it, I swear someone else has already done it.
It doesn’t have to be a big thing that catches my eye. A couple breaking up or falling in love can be just as fascinating as cops chasing a subject down the middle of a crowded street. I can always learn from how people handle themselves in real situations. A Hollywood bar brawl looks nothing like two drunks really trying to duke it out on a street corner.
But I have to admit my passion is for the strange. I love coming across weird chunks of real life to ignite my imagination. The other month, I was driving to Fresno to give a speech to the Central Valley chapter of Sisters in Crime. I was hurtling along I-5 and I suddenly had to swerve out of the way to avoid an army duffel in the middle of the freeway. I considered stopping, but with the onslaught of traffic behind me, I was going to get smooshed and what the hell was I going to do with the bag if I did pick it up?
It hit me. What if I stopped to pick up the bag? What would I find? Clothes? How about a bunch of cash? Would I keep it? Bloody right, I would. Finders keepers. What if the owners of the moneybag saw me take the bag, came after me, and we mixed it up?
Then again, what if it was body parts in the bag instead? I don’t think I’d keep the bag then, but my fingerprints would be everywhere and the cops would suspect me of chopping up the body. I’d be an innocent man, but the cops wouldn’t believe me and then I’d have to go on the run to clear my name.
Maybe I decided to leave the bag alone because of the potential of above and I drove on by. What if the effect of this was that a school bus struck the bag, flipped the median and started a chain-reaction of carnage leading to a fatal pile up? How would I feel then? Especially when the parents of the school children banded together to hunt me down as part of some tragic revenge story.
All these things occurred to me within 3 seconds of passing the duffel, so that gives you a feel for how my mind works and why I should be confined to a state facility.
The point of all this is that the incidences that lead to ideas are out there. I must admit I have a habit of stumbling on to the strange, but I can’t be everywhere at once. This is a reason I comb the newspapers for stories. Not the headline stuff, but the little stories that warrant only a few column inches. These back-stories and page fillers are great resources. People do the oddest things for the oddest motives and that’s what I’m looking for. Crimes stories usually boil down to a very basic and fundamental reason and that what I’m always searching for—a passion for crime.
There’s only so much a writer can conjure from thin air, but there’s a whole big bunch of stuff out there happening all the time. I might not use it word for word, but reality makes a great foundation for fiction.
So sorry, Julie, I’m going to keep people watching.
Here’s looking at you,
PS: And don’t even consider using these story ideas. I thought of them and if you use them, I’ll hunt you down like a dog. That’s intellectual property justice. Plain and simple. Don’t make me hurt you.