Monday, May 12, 2008

So Many Ideas, So Little Time

Whenever I’m with my dad’s friend Dan, he makes the following announcement: “Watch what you say around her or you’ll end up in one of her books.”

Um, well, guilty as charged. My brother gave me a shirt that says basically the same thing. So I guess it’s safe to say I’m gaining a reputation as a writer on the prowl for ideas. Who among us isn’t? Where do the ideas come from? How many times have you been asked that very question? Do you find it easy to answer or is it hard for you to explain to lay people how the writer’s mind works? (Maybe they’re better off not knowing…)

For me, the single most important element to finding ideas is being open to them. The ideas are everywhere—if you’re looking. I’ve stumbled across them in the following places/instances:
  • Airports. Two of my MSs have come from things I’ve seen or overheard in an airport. Yes, I’m a shameless eavesdropper, and you should be, too!
  • Driving. Oh the crazy stuff you’ll see and notice on the road if you keep your eyes and mind open to the possibilities—while staying in your lane, of course.
  • Newspapers. In most major metropolitan dailies, you’ll find news briefs from other papers around the country. Any time something catches my attention, I Google the names of the players to get the full story. This practice has paid off. I read last September about a congressman who was found dead in his home. My most recent MS features a U.S. Senator found murdered in his home. Fiction can be stranger than truth.
  • Your work in progress. Two of my MSs are sequels I never intended to write. However, in the course of writing one, the idea came for the second and then the third. Who am I to argue with the muse when she’s in that kind of mood?
  • Talking to people. I recently met a Rhode Island Superior Court judge—a pretty blonde with sparkling blue eyes who looked more like a Mary Kay saleswoman than a judge. My husband and I talked to her for more than an hour, during which she told us about some of the threatening (and truly revolting) letters she’s received from people convicted in her courtroom. On the ride home, I said to my husband, “What do you think of this idea?” and gave him the outline of a story about a judge who’s been threatened and the hero assigned to provide protection she doesn’t want. He stared at me, eyes agog, mouth hanging open. “It’s a sickness,” he said. I just smiled. I’ve been on the receiving end of that particular look of his often enough to know when I’ve got a winner.
  • Life experience. I recently sprained my ankle, which warranted a trip to the emergency room as well as my first MRI and first exposure to physical therapy. Everything you do, everywhere you go, and everyone you talk to brings something new or different to your body of experiences. Ask questions, notice the smells, record the sounds, and then put them away until you can use them in your work.
  • Music. Driving through the country listening to Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey,” I had an idea for a dark romantic suspense. The song created a mood for the story. In fact, the first line of that MS is, “’Tupelo Honey’ played on the jukebox.” The song put me in a mood that led to a plot.
  • Read everything. The idea for a tree-hugging environmentalist hero came from an article in People magazine about men who don’t just talk about the green lifestyle, but live it.
  • Seeds that grow into stories. The idea for my debut novel, “Line of Scrimmage,” began with one simple thing—a pair of unwelcome boots landing in a foyer. Those boots and the man who owned them would turn the life of the woman who lived in the house upside down. From the boots came the injured NFL quarterback, his wife who couldn’t wait to be free of him in ten short days, and his Hail Mary play of a lifetime to stop a divorce he never wanted in the first place. All that from a pair of boots landing on marble.
  • Controversy. An ambitious and controversial land development a mile from my house inspired a self-made hero who wouldn’t take no for an answer—in business or in pleasure. (My cousin now works for the guy who inspired my hero, so that will be interesting if the book is published!)
  • Advice columns and sappy radio shows. Read “Dear Abby” every day. You’ll find kernels from real lives that might generate a story idea. Request and dedication shows on the radio also offer a peek—albeit usually a sappy peek—into life experiences that will differ from yours and might stir your imagination.

Once the ideas start flowing, you may find them hard to turn off. Recently, I was drying my hair when a fully formed idea for a plot came to me. It was so clear and so developed that I put down the hair dryer and went to type it up so I wouldn’t forget it. I placed that document in the “Ideas” folder on my computer for when I’m ready to start something new. Before I began writing with the goal of publication, I don’t recall “receiving” such well-formed ideas about plot and characters. Either they’re coming so freely now because I’m more open to them, or my late mother, who lived long enough to read the first four chapters of my first MS, is channeling them to me. I like to think it’s a combination of both.

Just as important as knowing when a great idea is staring you in the face is recognizing an idea that’s off limits to you. A good friend was recently telling me about a serious health problem she was born with. It was something I'd never heard of, and it would make for a fabulous young adult story since it involves body image and oodles of teen angst. But because it came from her, wrapped in a cloak of pain and suffering, it's off limits to me. Other people’s life experiences aren’t yours for the taking, unless they consent and agree. Don’t write it thinking they’ll never find out, especially if you’re writing with the goal of publication. Books have a pesky way of getting published, and the last thing you want is a ruined relationship to deflect from your amazing accomplishment.

I’ll end with a story from my small Rhode Island town, which marshaled an army last year to stop a Target store from moving in. While they were battling the corporate giants, a boutique named “Posh and Naughty” moved into the town center. Posh’s owner, a buxom blonde who favors Anna Nicole Smith, practices what she calls “guerilla marketing” that drives both her landlord and the buttoned-down conservatives crazy. So far her “marketing” strategies have included everything from dancing in front of the store in a skimpy Mrs. Claus suit to sunbathing in a bikini in the parking lot. She is a character and a half and would make for a fabulous romance heroine. Someday I’ll write the story of the sex toy merchant who saved the marriages of the same town fathers who were trying to put her out of business.

So many ideas, so little time.

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