If there’s one question I never get tired of fielding, it’s Is that your real hair? Another question I enjoy getting – one that actually pertains to writing (although my output has been known to suffer when I’m having a bad hair day) – is Where do you come up with your story ideas? It’s an age-old question (though not as old as Is it wise to touch this thing you call ‘fire’?), but since it’s asked so often, people must really care about the answer. Either that, or they’ve got nothing else to ask, except Is that your real hair?
Writers are sponges, soaking in every clever word and snippet of conversation they overhear, processing and filtering and always wondering, “Can I possibly use this?” More often than not, stuff that piques my imagination I’ll jot down in my trusty moleskine (otherwise it evaporates into the ether, since my mind is more sluice than sieve), to be given to a character to say or used in a descriptive passage. Every now and then – and what wonderful days they are – I hear something that triggers an entire story. Such was the case on Wednesday, September 4, 2002, when a human interest piece on NPR led to the conception of Two Birds. Yet another reason I’m a staunch supporter of public radio.
How do I know the specific date? I save everything. And while not written in a black moleskine, but rather a yellow cardboard Tollit & Harvey notebook I picked up in England, the words are there in red ink: “Story idea: from NPR bit yesterday about a Las Vegas basketball game, betting, and a power outage, raising suspicions of a deliberate power outage to save high rollers their money.” And there follow four hastily scrawled pages of an outline of a story that became Two Birds. Naturally, the plot veered significantly between that initial outburst and the final draft, but the guts were there.
I write primarily to amuse myself. In other words, I write what I believe to be interesting, hoping that others will feel the same way. I found the basic premise of a rigged power outage during a high-stakes basketball game fascinating, even though I couldn’t care less about sports (for which my adorable wife has praised me on several occasions). I knew there had to be a dead squirrel (the fall guy) and some form of reprobates fighting over the outcome of the game, though I determined early on that the reason for the power outage couldn’t be as clear-cut as first believed. That’d be too easy. One thing I’ve struggled with as a writer (as opposed to a dietician), perhaps due to an early and influential inundation of Hemingway followed by a college creative writing professor whose mantra was Less is more, is keeping things clear and concise while also leaving some elements on the sidelines, to be introduced later. Some authors seem to go out of their way to be oblique (which I suppose is the whole point of being oblique), not writing about what they’re writing about; sometimes the effect is brilliant, other times it’s maddening. It’s a balancing act, really, keeping the plot coasting along without telegraphing the ending.
That being said, in the longer works of fiction I’ve written, the plots have served merely as jumping-off points for the characters to do whatever they’re going to do. I may come up with their universe, but they inhabit it, and regardless of whatever I think I have in store for them, they have a habit of forging their own ways to the end. They’re tricky little bastards.
Story ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. Many get trashed; I’ll skim through my notebooks and wonder why I wrote them down in the first place. Others linger, and get transcribed from notebook to notebook, clamoring to be used. I have a short list of half a dozen story ideas that have survived for many years, ones that I know I’ll get to…as soon as the more recent ideas are processed and either pursued or discarded. So…huh. A long-ignored character comes to life and pesters his creator to get to work on his story.
That could work.