Where Ideas Come From (or Things That Make You Go Hmmm)

Of all the questions writers are asked, the one many of us hear most is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I think I actually have a decent answer: Ideas come from everywhere if you only use your imagination.  (Hey, I said it was decent, not groundmaking!)

I’ve heard many writers talk about the “What if” process. You read a newspaper article or stumble on a little nugget of a thought and start to think, What if X had happened instead of A?  And then what if because of X, Y happened?  And then what if the reason Y happened was because of Z?  Before you know it, you have a plot that’s quite unrecognizable from its inspiration.

Ideas also come from characters, and, for me at least, characters come from watching the world with empathy.  I try not to wonder “What would I do in situation X, Y, or Z?”  Instead, I watch people in the world and wonder how they’d react, how they’d speak, and how they became the people they are today.

But not every story, and not every person, sends my imagination running.  There are stories, and people, who, in the once great words of C&C Music Factory, “make you go hmmm.

A couple weeks ago, I stumbled upon a little gem of a news story online about an Orange County woman who drove for months with the body of a dead homeless woman in her car. According to media coverage, a 57-year-old former real estate agent “befriended” the homeless woman at a neighborhood park in December and allowed her to sleep in the car overnight.  When the car’s owner found the woman dead, she was too scared to call the police, so simply continued to use the car while the body sat covered in clothes in the passenger seat.

Police broke a window to enter the car after first noticing a foul odor and then observing the dead woman’s exposed (and now mummified) leg beneath the pile of clothing.  They found a box of baking soda that the driver had placed inside to reduce the smell, although she told them that she had “gotten used to it.”

Comments posted online about the story tended to focus on the yuck factor.

Or to make jokes about the driver’s desperation to use California carpool lanes.  (Warning: Those of you who don’t like the course language or humor probably won’t enjoy this clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm…but the rest of you might.)

But yucks and yuks aside, this is the kind of story that made me go hmmm.  News reports indicate that police believe the driver, but that doesn’t mean a crime writer can’t go makin’ stuff up if she wants.  So what if the driver were lying?  What if she and the other woman weren’t just casual acquaintances from the neighborhood park but co-conspirators?  What were they planning?  And what went wrong?

But perhaps even more interestingly, let’s assume that the driver is telling the truth as all reports indicate.  Why did she offer her car to the other woman for sleep?  Might it be related to the fact that she is a “former” real estate agent who “once” lived in Corona del Mar, an affluent Newport Beach neighborhood, but is now experiencing “difficult financial times” and “staying with a friend” while she drives a 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis registered to her sick father?

And why was she so afraid to call the police when she found the body?  Did she do something she’s trying to hide, or is there something about her personality or experiences that makes her fear police generally?

And who was the poor dead homeless woman?  How did she come to be homeless in a park?  And how did the two women become friendly?  And how did she die?  Did she know it was happening?

I never know where these kinds of ruminations will take me.  I published a book earlier this year, 212, that involves women living dangerous double lives in New York City.  Many readers thought it was inspired by the so-called Craig’s List Killer case, where the victim was a New York woman who, unbeknownst to her friends and family, was using Craig’s List to book private massage sessions.

But I turned in the manuscript for 212 two weeks before that case occurred.  If I had to guess where the idea came from, I’d trace it back to a winter morning more than five years earlier.  I had just moved to the city and was staring out my little window in the east village, marveling that my Wichita-raised self was living in great big important Manhattan.

I noticed an attractive younger woman walking on Mercer.  She was tall, thin, well-dressed, gorgeous.  I wondered what it was like to be her.  She probably shopped at Barney’s, I figured.  Dated investment bankers.  Whizzed past the red velvet ropes outside the hot clubs she frequented long after the likes of me had fallen asleep.

And then she stopped at the corner trash can and looked in all four directions before pulling out a discarded pastry and eating it.

My fictional image of her life suddenly changed. The “character” I had momentarily created in my head was no longer cliche.  I had no idea she would reappear years later in the manuscript that became 212.

Human beings never stop surprising me.  I suspect that’s why I never stop watching them, thinking about them, and imagining their pasts and futures.  And that’s where my ideas come from.