Every writer is regularly asked the question of where their ideas come from. And every writer has difficulty answering it, because creativity is, by its nature, not designed. I had someone call on my entry phone this morning that helped illustrate my process, though.
She said, “We’re asking in the local area if people think the dead really can come back to life.”
The marketer in me reacted to that with the thought that was a great hook but I wasn’t biting – take your afterlife preaching elsewhere. Once I’d dispatched the young lady, though, the storyteller in me took over. What if she wasn’t trying to start a conversation about God? Why else would someone ask that question? And two explanations sprung to my mind: what if it was a tentative warning, and she didn’t know how else to open the topic? Or what if they were canvassing for an area that could host a very particular kind of experiment?
I don’t know where those questions take you, but for me that’s two more novels.
Thinking about that process makes me recall the way my mind coped with a recent dog-walking incident. After a long walk with my dog off-lead on the beach, I discovered I no longer had my dog’s lead. I searched up and down the beach three or four times. I couldn’t carry Herbert all the way home, nor walk him on the road with no lead, putting me in a tricky situation. Then I found a long nylon strap, looped and tied at one end for a handle – like a makeshift dog lead. My first thought being: this would work in an emergency. My second thought being, why was such a perfectly situated thing lying there? The logical conclusion: some fiend had found my fallen lead and swapped it for this tragic paint-splattered strap.
As I made the sullen walk home with Herbert tied to a piece of beach-salvaged garbage, I pictured this man who’d wronged me. Tall and wiry with a mean dog made meaner by the sort of ne’er-do-well that would drag their dog along by a crude bit of nylon – stolen from a truck, where it’d been used to hold down scaffolding. This guy was the sort to walk with a stoop, talking in slurs and curses. The sort of man that would steal a dog’s lead. I started feeling a little sorry for him, poor Jimbo, struggling so hard to make ends meet that he needed to score a discarded dog lead on a beach to better his lot in life. Fair play, I thought, let him have it. God knows he needs it more than me.
When I got home and was untying Herbert from his crusty temporary strap, searching my pockets for the house-keys, I found my dog lead, impossibly hidden in a pocket I’d checked a dozen times. Jimbo never existed and had never stolen my lead. Perhaps no one had used that scrap of nylon to cart a dog around, before me. Except now I’ve got that man in my head, real as you like – and someone has walked a dog on a piece of beach junk.
This is where the germs of stories come from. Attempts to interpret the world, even when it doesn’t warrant interpretation. And that’s why I’ve got so many books I’m preparing to release, and so many more I’m still writing. It’s hard not to walk through life and see these stories.