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:
(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…