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.
Man, I wish I could come up with so many terrific ideas, and from a single incident!
I do this, too! And my husband’s always scolding me. He thinks I’m being rude, but it’s actually the ultimate compliment, I think. Here we are, trying to get into a stranger’s life and head.
Thinking like a thriller writer 101. I’m with you and Naomi, I can’t look around without having this convoluted chain of thought. Last Saturday there was a rolled up carpet on the side of the road, and so on, and so on… you’ve captured the gist of it. Well done!
It’s scary where my mind goes in just about all the time . . .
In airports, I’m fascinated by the dramas unfolding. People who talk loudly on cell phones utter phrases that inspire entire marvelously twisted ideas. Long drives, empty restaurants, my kids’ school — everything is fodder.
I hope no one ever is able to truly read my mind; he or she would be horrified.
. . . but I have alot of fun.
Simon,I love the Walter Mitty reference. We must all be in a mind meld, because I just blogged about Thurber and posted about Mitty, and someone else referenced a Thurber story at Naked Authors. I guess there’s a little bit of Walter in every writer.
Teachers branded me a daydreamer. Guilty as charged, I guess. 🙂
Needless to say – I love Walter Mitty. Where would writers be without his influence? Okay, Thurber then.
I am lucky in that when I space out in restaurants my boyfriend sees it but thinks it’s so cute and feminine that I’m “being a writer.”
Most men in my life have wanted to kill me for “being a writer.”
(Of course, that last there above is a lot of material. I guess me thinking that’s material is me “being a writer…”)
Um… is there some award for the significant others of writers? Because if not, we should really make one up.
Great post, Simon… I feel so horribly guilty now.
Oooh, me too! We were leaving a restaurant last night and I was bummed because we reached our car before I could determine the actual cause of the fight between the couple behind us, who’d seemed fine only moments before in the restaurant, but while at a table with two or three other couples…
Aren’t restaurants great? You either go there to settle differences or create them. 🙂