The Very Idea

I like to hear from writers about how they come up with story ideas. Sometimes something completely out of the blue triggers one.

A second grader told me his favorite author, Dav Pilkey, the creator of the Captain Underpants series, got the idea to write his books when his teacher said the word “underwear” and the whole class burst out laughing. “It was funny and he wrote about it,” the boy told me. (Out of the mouths of babes … ) Pilkey, who is now in his 50’s, dyslexic, and phenomenally successful, has written a slew of graphic novels with characters that now appear on the screen. And it all started with a word and a laugh. One brief scene in an otherwise ordinary day …

I’ve had my moments.

Once I was rummaging through a rack of clothes next to a woman wearing a huge diamond ring. She seemed to be a lovely person—we chatted briefly. But there was something about the way she was loading up the blouses and dresses on sale, like she would buy all of them. She held out a long white linen tunic that had been reduced to $290. “Such a bargain.” This offhand comment, for some reason, made me think of waste and greed, and pretty soon I had a whole story cooked up. Entirely imagined, I wrote “Fat Peanut,” a short story about greed that destroyed our family cabin on the beach. From blouses and dresses to cabin.? I had no idea how I arrived there, but I sat down and wrote it and a literary journal picked it up almost immediately (shocker).

Another time, I overheard a woman talking about the high cost her husband, a dentist, incurred when he opened his own clinic. He was mortgaged to the teeth. I got the idea for “Killa.” It sure was fun writing it, but it hasn’t been published yet. Maybe it’s too bizarre—involving killing off the elderly dental implant patients with a rare South American poison.And maybe it just needs more work. Another shocker.

I’ve been to dozens of meetings and conferences with writers, and it always fascinates me to hear where they develop their ideas. They are, of course, avid readers, but their stories often come from something that happens in real time:

One young writer at a conference, smoothing the white tablecloth, told us how her father-in-law had shot someone, and it provoked a wrenching story of family dysfunction and suicide. Out of normal, predictable lives, some women have told me how they created paranormal romances on made-up planets and in medieval castles. A school teacher invented a detective in the 50’s and his noire-ish story won an award at a crime fiction fan conference; he couldn’t have been less noire-ish–He was upbeat, blond, and teaching kindergarten. Most of these writers came up with their ideas out of bits of conversation, well-spent, idle time on a train or in a cafe, some extension of a character they created in a story and didn’t want to leave. Someone they met, loved, hated. Life.

And then there are the really funny, offbeat, crazy types, such as Carl Hiaasen creates in his fabulous Florida capers. I once went to a luncheon where he spoke and someone asked him where he came up with “Razor Girl” and “Skink” and a raft of characters too funny for words, except his. Hiaasen said he got a lot of ideas off the police blotter. “You just can’t make this stuff up.”

Well, here’s to making stuff up while keeping tuned in to story ideas at every turn.

Most of the time, the story IS right there. In front of us:

  • Really listen. Local conversations contain the nuggets of stories–the drama, pathos, humor, wisdom of everyday life. Elmore Leonard, a master of dialogue, used to sit in bars and record the crazy things people say. I like bars. And sometimes I sub in the local high school. You should hear some of the stuff they say—especially about their mothers! They talk about their mothers a lot, and most of it good. Fortunately.
  • Go to a cafe or park or somewhere and write up that parade of characters, what they wear, what they eat and drink, what they say, and whom they are with. The where, when, why, how. Apply a little imagination and, bueno, a most important person emerges: the action figure, victim, lost love, hero. And then, you must ask yourself: What happens to them when they leave the cafe?
  • Once I sent a manuscript to an editor who wrote me back three words on a postcard: “A writer writes.” This was the directive that I had taped over my typewriter for years. (Yes, I’ve been at it a while.) And these three words still make the most sense.

If the book is not there yet, so what? Write stories, essays, something. My memoir was not accepted by a publisher until my short stories and essays began appearing in journals.

Writing becomes a way of life, of thinking about characters and plots and other devices. Of creating and showing ideas. Someone has to do it. We might as well face it, we’re addicted to type. Applying the rear to the seat and putting something on that great white way is a start. We never get to “the end” unless we start.

I have a contact page on my website … please, tell me where you’ve gotten story ideas …