where ideas come from (the cranky version)

by Toni

Last weekend, I was asked the question a lot of people tend to ask writers: "Where do you get your ideas?" And I understand that what they really want to know is, "How do you make a story out of it?" because an idea, by itself, isn’t a whole story.

For every writer… probably even for every story… there’s a different method. Here’s one way that it happens:

My thought processes as I’m leaving a shipping office…

Dear F..E.. employee:

Did you murder the real employee in the back and bury his or her body and then decide to come out front and screw with the customers just to see if you could drive us batshit? Were you aiming to create such a chaotic meltdown that one of us started shooting the others just for some relief, and you could then duck out the back on your phone call to your "boss" (and really… twelve calls later… she’s not going to forgive you for Friday night, so quit begging her)? Because I’m standing there watching you in your non-regulation green shirt, and you are either brand new on the planet, (which in case, welcome, and we call these things jobs which means you actually have to know how to do something, unless you’re the president), or you are the dumbest excuse for the use of oxygen since Paris Hilton. Standing there dumbstruck like a minister asked to officiate at another Pamela Anderson wedding doesn’t exactly count as "working" when you should be using this thing called a computer in front of you. Did you notice I remained calm and polite? Did you notice how I did not walk around the desk and rip your arms off your body when you kept typing in the wrong zip code and then kept telling me I had the wrong zip code, in spite of the fact that I kept saying, "that zip code starts with a three" and you kept typing a two? Seventeen. Times. Seventeen. I felt damn near Zen just by walking out of there without your severed head tucked under my arm. I WANT A DISCOUNT FOR THAT.

and then… a few minutes later…

Dear Little Old Lady Driving In Front of Me While I Go To A Different Shipping Office To Find Someone Who At Least Knows How To Count to Three:

I’m really glad you’re being careful. Really. I’m especially impressed with your conscientious use of the turn signal a mile before you actually slowed down to turn. When your car came to a complete stop and you scooted forward in your seat in order to be tall enough to peer under the top of the steering wheel and yet, over the dash, I felt a rush of relief that you were checking out the oncoming traffic and making sure that you weren’t about to turn in front of someone. I sense from the multiple dents and the lack of a right rear quarter panel that this might be a lesson learned from experience. But if–while I’m waiting for you to make up your mind in spite of the fact that there is no other traffic on the road–I could have logged onto the internet, checked my bank balance, paid a few bills, checked my email, wrote a letter to Congress about ancient people driving, scheduled a dentist appointment and filed a tax return, maybe it’s time to admit that you shouldn’t be trying to make snap decisions like when to go ahead and make a left turn.

and then about two minutes later…

Dear Young Man Who Is Trying to Placate Your Woman While Sitting At The Stop Light:

You are not invisible, just because you’re in a car. Honest-to-God, those clear things that you can see out of? Means we can see inside. Yeah, I know. Nifty. And the rest of us at the intersection want you to know that when your woman is yelling at you and pushing you away so abruptly that we can practically hear her snapping her fingers as she wags her head, the best course of action is probably not to try to grab her boob and tweak it, especially while you forget to leave your foot on the brake and you then roll into the intersection. I’m pretty sure the list of "How to Score With Your Woman" does not start with "humiliate her and then get her maimed in an accident." I may be crazy, but hospitalized women aren’t generally all that affectionate. Just a thought.

Now, none of these are official ideas yet. Just character sketches, really. Vignettes. Moments of observation, coupled with a reaction, but they are not, in and of themselves, a story.

And so… I finally make it home from what was supposed to be a "quick" errand, and I scan a couple of dozen headlines, and two pop out at me:

Man [newlywed] burned alive for not washing his feet before climbing into bed… and then Airport Stops Women With Human Remains in Suitcase.

(After reading the second one, I will never look at little old ladies the same, ever again.)

And this is where the being-a-writer part happens, because a lot of the headlines just don’t naturally combine with my observations for the day, but now these two have my attention. Tonally, they fit.

Almost without thinking about it, a story starts forming. I could see a really incompetent shipping employee, whose grandest achievement was being a vertebrate, who didn’t have a clue how to treat a woman… and the woman who finally snaps, killing him, and then using the old, "it was his last wish" to take the not-quite-decomposed body parts abroad. I could see the woman (and the man’s older sister) forging a death certificate and moving the body, thus making future exhumation impossible.  And the only one who suspects the real truth is the frothing at the mouth customer who’s pissed off that she didn’t get to do the honors herself, who become insatiably curious. I don’t know if she’s the detective, yet, or the next victim, but there’s a combination there that I could use for a story: character in conflict.

Of course, that’s just riffing… but there are enough elements there and enough ways to combine them (or pluck out a few more headlines for inspiration) to generate multiple stories. And this is after only an hour or so of interacting with the world and cruising the headlines. Give me a day of brainstorming (and, God help me, having to go to the grocery store), and I’d have a full length novel’s worth of characters and conflict.

Here are a few other headlines I’ve come across:

Nipple Ring Falls Foul of Airport Check (hmmm… makes me think twice about those multiple piercings I was contemplating just yesterday… and if they seriously thought the nipple ring could have been dangerous enough that she couldn’t wear it on a plane, as in, a potentially explosive device, did they really want to stand that close when they were forcing her to take it out?)

Teen’s Underwear Dance at McDonald’s Leads to Robbery, Assault Arrest
(and I really don’t want fries with that, thanks)

Man Arrested for Having Sex with Picnic Table (… I just cannot add anything to that one… except this is one time I seriously wished for there to have been ants.)

Drug Smuggler Caught as Swallowed Capsules Burst (… hi, honey, would you like a little BBQ sauce on your insanity for today?)

Cemetery Full, Mayor Tells Locals Not to Die (and passed an ordinance that says "offenders will be severely punished"… um, how?)

and probably my favorite, the Look Good for Jesus Cosmetics Line. (I suddenly see a cosmetics line that poisons you and sends you to meet your maker.)

So here you go — you get to rant at anyone you want to today in the comments, and then tell us how you’d kill ’em. Fictionally, of course. Any method you want. Bonus points if you find a crazy headline to go with it. Have at it…

29 thoughts on “where ideas come from (the cranky version)

  1. R.J. Mangahas

    Dear Tourist,

    I understand that it’s exciting for you to be on Cape Cod (probably for the millionth summer in a row) and I understand that you like to take pictures to take back home and say, ‘Look where I’ve been.” Fine. But do you honestly have to stop in the middle of the damn road to take a picture? Of a post office no less!! Don’t you have post offices where ever the hell it is you’re from? Now that you’ve gotten your picture:“WILL YOU GET THE HELL OUT OF THE DAMN ROAD BEFORE I RUN YOUR ASS OVER?!?!?!!? Oh, and enjoy the rest of your trip.

  2. toni mcgee causey

    R.J…. that’s perfect! I once (a long time ago) saw another tourist go up to a picturesque home and bang on the door and ask what time the tour starts. The woman lived near a public site and directed him there, but he said, “No, I don’t want to see that stuff. That’s what all the tourists see. I want to see your house.” As if that just made it okay.

  3. J.D. Rhoades

    Funny you should mention this one, Toni, because I have just the thing.

    Dear guy sitting at the table across the aisle in Chili’s: Dude. Really. You’re sitting in a nice restaurant, across from a really cute, nicely dressed, and superlatively stacked young woman who’s been smiling and trying to make eye contact with you for the past fifteen minutes, and you keep staring down at your menu with this sulky expression on your face like someone stole your lollipop. And oh my god, SHE’S PAYING. Lighten the hell up, willya?

    And here’s the weird part: this same scenario happened with TWO CONSECUTIVE COUPLES AT THE SAME TABLE. My kids theorized that there was some kind of curse on the table itself.

    Maybe you could spin this out into a sort of miniature version of Anne Rivers Siddon’s THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR.

  4. Rae

    Oh, lord, where to begin?

    Dear English-speaking tourists in Italy / France / other countries where people typically speak a language other than English:

    First: Talking really, really loud will not make the locals understand you better, and will probably make them think you’re angry, and will not get you faster service.

    Second, and conversely: In any given public place, a number of the people probably do at least understand English, and some are probably also English-speaking tourists. We can hear you, and understand you. Don’t assume that you can have an incredibly personal conversation without at least a few people understanding it, and being completely grossed out. (I’ve observed this one several times. Ewwww.)

    Third: I can’t imagine that you’d ever dress that badly at home. Do you have to wear your ratty t=shirt and too-tight pants when you’re representing the U.S abroad? Do you have to wear white tube socks with your sandals? Aloha shirts are acceptable – marginally – in the tropics. Europe is not the tropics. And have you seen your legs? Believe me, those bermuda shorts are not showing them off to their best advantage.

    Here’s a book of travel etiquette. Read it, learn it, use it, or be prepared to get stabbed through the heart with a replica of the Eiffel Tower.

    Bonne vacances 😉

  5. toni mcgee causey

    Dusty, I think your kids are onto something… that table seems cursed. It’d be weird to have a hidden camera there for about a week.

    I’m cracking up on the miniature THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR.

  6. Bill Cameron

    Dear Pushy Evangelist in the Coffee Shop Where I’m Trying to Write,

    Is there some place in the Bible where it says, “Thou shalt ignore the phrases ‘No, thanks, I’m not interested,’ and ‘Seriously, I’m really busy here'”? Because for Christ’s sake, one more interruption from you while I’m trying to write and the next words you’re going to hear out of me are “Fuck off, you fucking fuckwad.” And I’m going to say it loud enough for your passel of bored, misbehaving kids to hear too.

    Sincerely,Bill “Not Interested” Cameron

  7. Jordan Dane

    “HEADLINE – Nipple rings fall foul of airport checkFri Mar 28th LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A woman who claims she was ordered by federal airport screeners to remove her nipple rings with pliers demanded an apology from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration on Thursday.”

    Pliers and nipple rings – who couldn’t make a story out of this? This could be better than the exploding shoe. But I can see the nipple ring being a security distraction from the fake breast implants filled with heroin or nitro. Victoria has a new secret.

  8. Allison Brennan

    This is when I realize that I live a boring life and have no observation skills.

    Though the other night when I was heading to my favorite brewpub to write (because it’s the only place open until 1 am in my town), I passed a couple of scruffy looking boys in their early 20s–you know, the kind who should be in college or working but figure they’ll live off their hardworking mother for the rest of their lives–who didn’t look like they could afford the over-priced drinks or appreciate the chardonnay shrimp pasta that was my favorite. I sat down at a table in the bar, popped open my laptop, and thought, I wonder if they have guns and plan to hold up the restaurant. I mean, there’s probably a lot of money here on a Friday night, but then again, wouldn’t the restaurant have a time lock safe? But what about the money on customers? What if they stole my laptop! Shit! I haven’t backed up my book since I started revisions! So I logged in and emailed myself my book, because if those brats took my laptop I’d never make my deadline if I had to recreate all the changes . . . and because I was logged in, I had to read my email, then I thought about a research point that needed looking up, and an hour later I started writing. I lost an entire HOUR all because those loitering hoodlums.

  9. Jordan Dane

    STORY—Taken from Darwin Awards—“A 50-year-old man was bird hunting in Upstate New York with his buddies and his faithful canine companion. They stopped for a smoke, and he noticed that his dog had found a bone. It was a deer leg! The man tried to take the bone away from the dog. Like any right thinking dog, the animal would not relinquish its treasure, and stayed just out of reach. Frustrated with this blatant show of disobedience, the man grabbed his loaded shotgun by the muzzle and began wielding it like a club.”

    Of course the guy shoots himself with his shotgun when it hits the ground and goes off.

    Headline – Man Pulls a Boner

  10. Terri Molina

    I’m not feeling particularly cranky right now so I can’t bitch about anyone or anything….maybe later when my caffeine wears off. 😉

    I just wanted to say…great blog, Toni! You really crack me up….and I can just see you in your car, suppressing the urge to get out and actually scream at these people. lol

  11. Louise Ure

    Headline: Inventor of rape device prepares for launch

    “A controversial device, which its inventor claims clamps itself to a rapist’s penis forcing him to seek medical treatment and be revealed to the police, will be launched by a South African woman on Wednesday.

    The “Rapex” device is inserted into the vagina by a woman who feels she is at risk of rape, and if she is attacked, small burr-like teeth will attach themselves to the tip of the rapist’s erect penis, explained inventor Sonette Ehlers.

    As he withdraws and becomes flaccid, it is only possible to remove the device by surgery, Ehlers said ahead of a launch and demonstration at Kleinmond near Cape Town.”

    The story is weird enough, but … a demonstration?

  12. toni mcgee causey

    Hey, Bill. I’ll buy your next latte if you go ahead and say it. (It’s the pushy ones I mind. Everyone else, being nice, making a reference to their beliefs? Utterly fine. If I say thanks, but no, then please move on. I really don’t think there’s a way to force someone into having faith.)

  13. toni mcgee causey

    Jordan, exactly… can you just imagine if that thing had been an explosive? Because really, the very best course would be to make her use pliers… while you’re standing really close enough for her to hear you laugh. And I’m cracking up over the idiot using a gun as a club. I mean, I feel bad for his family, but wow.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    Allison, you’re cracking me up. That’s exactly why I can’t work outside the home in a pub or something. You see what I did with just driving on an errand? And I wasn’t actually sitting where there were a bunch of people to watch. I get nothing done! But at least you got the book backed up.

  15. toni mcgee causey

    Terri… the funny thing is, I never yell. I just get ranty, which just sort of goes to the point where I have usually completely cracked up whoever it is I’m ranting at and while they’re doubled over in giggles, I’m trying to figure out just where I went wrong because they’re not feeling REMORSEFUL and making vows to change their behavior. Maybe this is why the adult men who happen to be in my family have NEVER THROWN AN EMPTY BOX AWAY FOR THE LAST 26 YEARS. Are we anticipating having to live on the street and so that cracker box circa 1992 is going to be the one detail that keeps the rain off our heads? I’m not sure, but I’m thinking… no.

  16. toni mcgee causey

    Louise! Yikes, what a story. And like you said, demonstration? Geez. I guess for someone living in a very dangerous area, or walking alone a lot at night would use this… but I can’t see many women who are active sexually putting it in, because what if you forgot? I mean, seriously, I would hope you couldn’t feel the thing in there while you’re walking around (and I just lost every male reader)… but if you can’t…

  17. JT Ellison

    Toni, you are a twisted little thing.

    We were in a rush and needed food Friday night, and ended up in Fellini’s Subway. Time stood still. The workers wandered about, slapping meat on the sanwiches, but everything was in slow motion. It got so bad at one point that Randy nudged me and said, rather loudly, “Braaaaiiiiinnnnnsssssss.” Even my hysterical laughter didn’t rouse them.

    So here’s to you, Subway workers who have absolutely no sense of urgency. Next time mommy and daddy force you to earn gas money so you can drive the Beemer on Saturday night, consider that there might be a few people in the real world that have lives to live. And try to smile. Customer service makes all the difference.

  18. Kathy Reschini Sweeney

    Dear Petulant Parking Place Pursuer:

    I know you want a good space in the giant mall parking lot. I am sure that the stretch pants at Fashion Bug will all be gone if you have to walk too far to get there.

    But here is the thing: you cannot BLOCK the WHOLE FUCKING LANE while you sit there and wait for someone to come out. It could be hours. In the mean time, I’m just trying to get past you to an available space. And I already hate the damn mall any way, but I’m out of Clinique soap and you can only get it in the GD department stores around here.

    Thank you and have a nice day.

  19. toni mcgee causey

    J.T., that’s my superpower.

    Bill, you’re on. 😉

    Kathy, LOL… yeah, I have never quite figured out, unless it’s storming, why it’s such an issue to park close by if someone’s going to walking a zillion miles in the mall, anyway.

  20. Catherine

    There is a part of the small subtropical city that my children live in where a number of pedestrians and sometime bike riders pardoxically make a habit of randomly throwing themselves in front of my car. I used to get irritated, launch into a short sharp rant, and would wonder what Darwin would think of it…and then for some reason over the last couple of months Mr Bruen’s term of ‘fockers’ would just slide into my mind…and I’d mutter ‘fockers’ in weirdly calm accepting way…so that this weekend, when I had someone hurl themselves whilst on a bike going the wrong way down a one way street at me, I swapped feet and actually nudged the brake, smiled, internalised ‘fockers’ and continued merrily on my way.

    One of the strangest headlines I’ve seen lately was this one…’Man said ‘wombat rape’ led to accent change’

    A NZ man rang the police and claimed he’d been raped by a wombat and he was know talking like an Australian.


    I can only imagine how irritating phonecalls and the time it would take would be for the police to deal with someone like this… let alone if you were a family member…surely this level of stupid would really give someone a great murder defense.

  21. Catherine

    I listed the link for the UK newspaper instead of an Aussie one, as I thought their very dry comment, warning that wombats are very rarely dangerous made the story.

  22. Allison Brennan

    Louise, I am just . . . shocked by that story. All I can think about is lawsuits. Like, if a rapist, who is already fueled by anger and power, gets attacked by that thing, he may in fact take his additional rage out on his intended victim.

    Or the wife, pissed off that her husband for flirting with the pretty waitress, uses it as payback.

  23. max

    I am in too good a mood today to rant but I especially liked the guy who tried to tweak his angry girl’s nipple that is very funny.

  24. Tamar

    Funny, funny mini rants.

    I’m too sleepy to rant. But if I did have the energy, I might tell the IRS that when a freelancer moves his belongings and family across a large country, said freelancer, by definition, does not get his move reimbursed by his employer. He HAS no employer (see: freelancer, definition thereof).

    And I might add that stamping the audit letter with a date two weeks earlier and then letting it sit in your out box* before bothering to send it JUST ONE DAY before sending off the letter that says, “Your time to respond is up, now we’ve figured out how much you owe, and you gots ta pay us da bux or we go medieval on your asses” is not respectful behavior. Not even in New Jersey. My nine year old wouldn’t pull that one.

    Story idea from this? Um, conspiracy theory. Villain is IRS (should garner sympathy right away, yes?). This two-stepping sideswipe of an audit is actually a foray into a new form of torture they’re trying out since the government found out waterboarding is illegal.

    A nugget for a thriller, maybe?

    (* denotes possible exaggeration of malicious intent — or maybe a collaboration in villainy with the postal service, which is messing with freelancer taxpayer’s brain for its own nefarious purposes, most likely involving the super sekrit alien-run Dead Letter Office.)

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Toni – having just emerged from a hell of a week (about which I may end up saying a lot more on Thursday…) your blog was just what I needed. A heartfelt thank you ;-]

    And yes I believe I, too, have sat behind that same little old lady, chewing the steering wheel with frustration. There are times when a hood-mounted GPMG seems like *such* a good idea…


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