That has to be one of the most common question asked of any writer.  After a time, it becomes annoying.  I always try to reply courteously, but I know of several writers who have created standard ‘stupid question’ responses to that one.

The truth is that story ideas randomly and spontaneously generate in a writers’ brain just as flies marvelously hatch from rotten meat.  (Oh. They disproved that?  Well.  Just as flies were once thought to spontaneously generate from rotten meat.)  The problem for most writers I know isn’t to  think of an idea.  It’s to control the flood of ideas, winnow out the ones that will actually go somewhere, and then store the rest in such a way that they can be found again in the event that there is ever a dearth of story ideas in the brain.

On my computer, I have a file that is just called story ideas.  I also have on in my filing cabinet, filled with scraps of papers and scribbles.  They are the leftovers from the pre-computer era.  So far, I still haven’t had to access that emergency supply of story ideas.

Story  ideas are everywhere.  But one very predictable source is that people are always telling me stories.  Yesterday, I was pondering if it is something about me, or if people are always sharing stories with random strangers.  Here are two tales from yesterday’s catch.

I was at the grocery store, picking up a few odds and ends while my comforter was in the big washing machine at the laundromat.  As the cashier rang me up, she asked for my customer card.  You know, the card you present to get the sales prices.  I looked for it, could not find it, and shrugged.  She asked for my phone number, I gave it, and the machine gave me the savings. I laughed and told her that life was getting too complicated. Seems like every store I go to, I have to present my discount card to get my sales, and sometimes I just can’t locate the correct one. 

She proceeded to tell me a story.  A woman came up to have her groceries rung up.  The clerk asked the woman for her discount card. The woman responded that she had too many things in her purse to look for it; just ring up the order. So the cashier did.  "But then, I did what we sometimes do, and just put in a random customer number so she could get the sale prices.  When I gave her the receipt, I said, ‘look, you saved almost eleven dollars.’  The woman took the receipt, wiped her nose on it, and handed it back to me.  I was shocked.  How rude can you get?  I could understand if it I’d said, ‘you could have saved eleven dollars if  you’d used the card.’  But I’d actually given her the sale prices, to try to be nice and give a bit better service.’ 

I was shocked by her story, too.  I thanked her for going the extra mile to take my phone number to get me the sales prices, and assured her that most customers would appreciate what she did. And I returned to the laundromat, to ponder what could possibly have motivated that customer to be so surly?

Later that day, I went into a leather goods store to buy some leather and a stamping tool for a bookmark making project.  The woman there was extremely knowledgeable and helpful, and very talkative, in a pleasant way.  Somehow, she got on the topic of a nearby coffee stand.  It was one of those ‘naked barrista’ coffee kiosks.  Well, the girls aren’t really naked, but they wear skimpy bikinis or outfits that are semi-fetish . . . the lowcut, too short nurse uniform, the naughty school girl look . . . you get it.  Anyway, she told me about the one girl there who hadn’t had her breasts ‘done’ and how all the other women who worked there were urging her to get implants so she could get more tips.  ‘I told her, don’t you do that!  You just be happy being natural with what God gave you.’

As I drove home, I thought to myself that if I were writing about a character getting a ‘boob job’ , earning more tips as a barista would be one of the last motives I’d come up with.  Then I wondered exactly how much jiggly jugs would yield in tips.  Could it possibly make economic sense?  How many months would that woman have to work before the extra tips equalled or surpassed the cost of the plastic surgery?

So.  One day.  Two bizarre and totally true examples of human nature.  More grist for the writing mill. 

People are strange

7 Responses to

  1. I recently read a quote, but I can’t remember who said it. Something to the effect of, everyone has ideas, but only writers recognize them. I’m going to have to hunt that one down. Seems like I read it just after Worldcon this year.

  2. In my limited experience, non-writers are the people who say “I’ve got this great idea for a book!/movie!/play! I just haven’t gotten around to writing it yet!” While writers are the people who say “I’ve got this idea, and this other idea, and that idea, and this stupid idea, and this maybe not actually stupid idea, and oh wait there was that other thing… Crap! Slow down! I’m writing as fast I can! I don’t have enough time to write all of these ideas!” By the time it gets around to telling how you actually came up with an idea…Who the hell can remember?

  3. Ideas are lying on the street, all you have to do is pick them up and make them into something. < - that's my response if anyone asks me where I get my ideas from and your post just proved that ;)

  4. I found it very interesting to read the thought processes that you had upon hearing those stories. While it’s silly to ask an author where their ideas come from, it’s neat to see how the gears turn sometimes. 😉

  5. I agree, people are strange. I’m working in a shop so I know. One thing I didn’t til now was that they were constant too, Constant in their weirdness wherever they are. I wonder if I should find that reassuring or not.

    But I also agree that ideas can be found only when going out and mixing with people. People are stories.