One of the most frequently asked questions to authors is a variation of “Where did you get the idea for this story?” I have a friend who always replies, “I order them from a company in Montana.” I usually say, “I have no idea,” because honestly, I don’t. I know there was a random thought that passed through my head at some point in time, and was lost in all the other thoughts that aren’t random – the day job, calling the plumber, getting my hair cut, buying groceries, calling my mother-in-law. For whatever reason, that random thought settled somewhere in my gray matter and germinated into a full-blown idea, which may or may not bear any resemblance to the original fleeting thought. I can’t speak for all authors, but no book of mine has ever ended up the way I envisioned it. Lines of dialog or settings might come into my head and stay there, but plot points, characters, even the tone of the story, are all subject to change. All to say, by the time a book is on the shelf, the original random thought that led to its existence is long forgotten.
Still, it has to start somewhere, and I’ve often wondered if people who aren’t compelled to write, which equals roughly 1% of the population, are bombarded by thoughts that could one day become a story idea? I decided to put it to the test.
I recently accompanied my mom while she shopped for a pair of gray pants. There are somewhere around 40 million pairs of gray pants in the Dallas metropolitan area. We saw 30 million of them. We even went to H&M, which Mom declared a war zone and wanted to leave almost as soon as we arrived.
As we were jostling our way out, I saw a pretty, dark-haired woman pushing a stroller with twins: one boy and one girl. Tagging along was an older guy with a scraggly gray beard, lots of tats, and clothes straight out of the alley. At first, I thought the guy was just following her. Creepy perv alert! Then she spoke to him, and smiled, and they engaged in a convo about whether the twins needed a nap. Okay, so I’m thinking, Grandpa. But they were more familiar than that. Maybe baby daddy? Nah. He was more interested in the hot girl looking at a sweater than twin momma. Could be her brother, who’s way older because her dad had her in a second marriage. Maybe Bro was in the war, and it messed with his head, so now he never shaves and wears gross clothes because a) he doesn’t care, b) he wants to stick it to the man, c) he spends all his money on drugs to combat his depression, so can’t afford clothes, or d) he’s an actor and just took a break from filming a remake of Dirty Harry with Chuck Norris to hang out with his sister, who’s visiting from…Columbia! She could totally have been from Columbia. Maybe she’s here to find her husband’s long lost brother and convince him to go back to the old country and run the ranch left by their father. Her husband can’t because…he broke his leg chasing wolves off the ranch. No, the wolves attacked him and ate his leg, and now he feels like less of a man, and she’s hoping bro will go back and make him realize he’s worthy because…he’s smart. Note to self: Research if there are wolves in Columbia. Maybe the ranch is in Montana….
Anyway, you get the idea. I had all these thoughts within a nanosecond. I nudged Mom and said, “What do you think’s their story?” She glanced over and said, “Why do men wear beards like that? A beaver could live in there and no one would know.” I persisted. “Mom, what do you think is up with them? Is he the babies’ dad, or her dad, or maybe her grandfather? Her brother?” She forged ahead, trying to get out of the store, and said over her shoulder, “I don’t know, but I hope nobody has to sleep with that. Really, he could have lice. Hey, wait, look at this jacket. You’d look cute in this.”
So, after I’d imagined an entire set-up, making up backgrounds for strangers, Mom dismissed all of it by focusing on the guy’s beard. It's not that she has no imagination. She just doesn't make up stories in her head. That could be why she's an accountant.
What about you? Do you see strangers who stand out for some reason, and immediately begin writing their story? Do you see a news article and instantly think it would be a great premise? Do you percolate all those thousands of moments until one rises to the top, reforms into an actual idea, then write it down? Tell us something random you saw or read today, and go with it. Tell us where your thoughts led.