Thursday, March 21, 2019

New (ish) Answers to “Where Do You Get ideas?”

“Where do you get your ideas?” It’s probably the most asked question at author events. Some authors dislike it but I don’t mind. People genuinely want to know. Why not discuss? We’re not giving anything away. What the questioner makes of our responses will be his or her very own, and not a problem for us.

I believe it was Ray Bradbury who claimed there was a factory in Schenectady that manufactured all the ideas and sold them for a modest fee   

but the most common answers are “Newspaper stories” and “Eavesdropping.” True for me. A tiny bit of information, almost an urban legend, was the start of my first Brooklyn book, and a series of news stories about a very odd crime- thefts of valuable stained glass from neglected cemetery chapels – was the germ, remembered for years, of the second.   

A character in the third was inspired by a newspaper clipping in a library file, so that was newspaper, once removed.

Here are some of my recent discoveries:

My local paper is the New York Times which has a big real estate news section on Sunday. Real estate is big news in this always changing city.   

Through the section  covers major development and trends in depth, lately I find some of the best stories are in the 
Q & A column. People are desperate to  know how to deal with the difficult – noisy, nosy, threatening, rude, cat hating -or cat adoring! -  neighbors.  After love in all its forms, what can make people crazier than the spot where money and “my home, my castle” meet? And clash?

Recent gems were questions about the mice and insects coming from the apartment of a hoarder, a renter who does not understand why owners in the co-op building object to his free-roaming cat, and a belligerent neighbor who has taken to dropping  in on every open house for possible home purchasers. You think that one might discourage a buyer?  How about people who illegally occupy a cheap, rent-controlled apartment in this expensive city? How about the guy who makes his living investigating such cases?  

The possibilities are endless.

Eavesdropping?  I recently waited at a bus stop where an older man, friendly, cheerful and probably somewhat substance impaired, was flirting with a similarly aged woman. Far from being annoyed, she seemed thoroughly entertained. When he said, “But how can I marry you if I don’t know you’re a good cook?” she promptly said she was from Trinidad and starting telling him about the wonderful Caribbean delicacies she could make him. There was a lot of laughter.



My most surprising source recently was my very own files. I found some notes about a long ago crime wave in a small, farm-country town near where I grew up, perpetrated by the illegitimate  children of the police chief.  I thought, “Wow. I’ve just been handed a plot.”
 I have absolutely no memory of ever writing those notes, and no source at all for the information. Did I read it in the hometown paper? Did someone just tell me a story? Was it accurate or just gossip?   And does it even matter?

I can just make it up. It is fiction, after all.  In the end, it doesn’t matter where it came from. It’s all about what we do with it.


DanF said...

Tris - well said. Many authors hate that question, but I think you have responded beautifully. Thank you.


Wendall Thomas said...

Triss - I love these. Especially the horrible neighbor Q&A's. I actually teach a class where I have aspiring screenwriters come up with stories from clippings and have them eavesdrop for dialogue, so I'm heartened to know someone who writes as well as you goes down those roads too. Although finding an old note of your own has to be the best!

Carolyn Wall said...

I write mostly fiction. Because it's my job to dream something awake,I do some some relaxation exercises, deep breathing stuff,and let myself fall into a space. If the place, or a thing, speaks to me, I've already begun. Sometimes I sit and watch people, see mannerisms or suspect a relationship that screams to be written about. Now and then an object speaks to me -- an old barn, a badly potted plant, a pearl earring. Three empty Quaker oil cans on the side of the road. Those things breathe. They suggest scenes or whole stories.

Carolyn Wall said...

Carolyn Wall, here, Triss. I write mostly fiction. Because it's my job to dream something awake, I do some deep breathing stuff, fall into a space and look around. Maybe something speaks to me -- a pearl earring, a badly potted plant. An old barn. Places and things start to breathe. I like waiting rooms and malls for watching people, relationships. On the other hand,three empty Quaker State oil cans on the side of the road suggest trouble. Trouble screams to be written about!

Triss said...

Dan, thanks so much for your encouraging comment.

Triss said...

Wendall and Carolyn, thank you for commenting. So interesting to read about how you do it.

Sheila York said...

When I'm asked that question, I usually say, "If I knew, I'd have more, and better,"

Triss said...

Sheila, I like it!

Liz said...

My husband told me one yesterday, not a plot but a great punchline from a substance impaired guy on the bus. He was ranting on loudly about his opinions and the virtues of "weed," annoying all the other passengers, when he suddenly announced, "And Moses smoked weed! He went up there on the mountain and smoked some weed and came down with the Ten Commandments, and how can that be bad?" It got a big laugh and made the audience a lot less hostile.

Liz said...

PS "Substance impaired" made me think of telling that story, but the point is "eavesdropping." You don't have to eavesdrop to hear other people's stories on the bus nowadays.