Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Idea Spark

I’m standing in the check-out line at the grocery, playing a little game. Maybe some of you have played it too. In front of me, there’s this guy–tall, dark hair, kind of muscular. Nice firm…umm, well you get the picture.

He’s working those biceps, lifting laundry detergent and milk jugs from the cart. Everything about him is laid open for all to see on the conveyor belt. Lots of pre-packaged meals and peanut butter, a loaf of multi-grain bread, sleeping tablets, manly deodorant, razor blades, and a bottle of wine–domestic white. Toilet paper, duct tape, soap, and a case of bottled water.

Sean, (I went ahead and named him) pushes the cart through and pulls out a wad of crumpled bills and a ton of change from the pockets of his low-cut jeans.

He has just enough for the bagged items. Almost to the penny. He pushes the cart one-handed, through the automatic doors and out of sight.

Based on his purchases I can surmise quite a bit about Sean. He’s single, has bills the paycheck never stretches far enough to cover, has trouble sleeping because of the money troubles, can’t cook, likes to eat and drink healthy, but doesn’t have the time for it since he’s always on the go, works out and cleans up nice after. Keeps a bottle of wine around for his girlfriend or a potential girlfriend.

But would I be right? Would the jumble of items paint a different picture if I placed a few of them in a different order?

Let’s see…white wine, sleeping tablets, duct tape, razor blades. Sounds a bit more sinister now, doesn’t it? Is Sean hero or villain?

The cash came directly from his pocket, not out of a wallet. No bulge in those jeans–well, at least not in the back. (LOL!) So no wallet. Maybe no driver’s license or identification–he’s paying cash, so he doesn’t need it anyway. Is he driving without a license? Or did he walk. He must live close.

What about those seemingly harmless items he bought? Placed together, they form an odd window into his world and into the world of a writer.

Imagination. This is where it starts. We see something and make comparisons and attachments, sometimes leaping over mountains of logic. We choose the solutions that seem to fit best, based on our own perceptions.

For writers, this means we’ve seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched something that triggered a connection–integrated the intangible with the possible. The result is a concept or premise for a story.
I’ve played the game all my life. It can be applied to a person, place or thing. The spark for inspiration needs only a little fuel. Curiosity and excitement will fan the rest.

The spark for my novella, Cup of Fate, started with a photo and a request for help. A member in one of my personal interest groups wanted to find out the meanings of the symbols painted inside an old heirloom teacup.

On further inspection, I realized she had a vintage fortune telling teacup. Some of the symbols were clear enough. The significance behind the baby carriage and wedding ring were self evident–but what of the other strange markings?

As I tried to decipher the cup, I began to play the “what if” game. An entire scenario popped into my head. What if…a woman, new to the area, went yard sale shopping and found this teacup. What if the old woman who sold it to her offered to read her fortune.

Sounds like fun, right?

Ah…but what if the tea cup didn’t foretell the future, but instead sent the poor soul who drank from the cup to an alternate reality, her destination all based on obscure drawings inside the cup–and exactly where those loose tea leaves chose to rest?

Keeping a creative journal organizes all the what ifs and other observations you make each day into a format you can return to again and again–your own hidden stash of gold nuggets. Writer’s block doesn’t stand a chance against such a valuable ally.

Dreams can also be a potent spark to imagination. H.P. Lovecraft suffered from terrible nightmares. Someone suggested he write them down in a journal. This enabled him to have at least some sense of control over the dreams. Better still, it allowed Lovecraft to write stories that have entertained millions of readers and inspired many of today’s top paranormal and horror authors.

Whether terrifying, highly erotic, or laugh-out-loud funny, all dreams can be used to spark the creative juices.

If you have a blog, think back to some of the more memorable events you wrote about. See if there is a theme. Who knows, you just might have enough there to create your own nugget of a story idea.

Once you know how to look, you’ll find the place where your story starts. Even if it’s in the check-out lane of a grocery store.

Clean up on aisles two and three.

Now, I wonder what that’s about?

This article was previously posted at the late Midnight Moon Cafe blog in 2007. I've reposted it here since it was one of the most popular articles I wrote for beginning writers.


Mary said...

Oh that was a good one. Now see as soon as I started reading the things he had in his cart, my mind went right too sinister. Sleeping tablets, duct tape and wine? Sounds to me like he's up to no good and the bottles of water are for re-hydration after he's thoroughly exhausted whom ever he used the duct tape on. Paid cash... and not wallet? But of course, he doesn't want anyone to know his name or address in case he gets caught while away from home...

Cassandra said...

LOL, I think we both must watch too much CSI or read too many Kathy Reichs and Patricia Corwell novels. :D

Although I did wonder when he left the grocery store, if I was going to hear about a murder on the 6 o'clock news that night or the next. Eeps. I guess "Sean" was an innocent man, or he chickened out. :gulp:

Mary said...

LOL Or it could be our imagination...

But I'm betting he just didn't get caught. lol