Where do you get your ideas? This is the most common question I get asked as a writer. Allow me to share a day I recently experienced to show you.
I had to appear in Boston at the Supreme Judicial Court on what I hope will be one of my last appearances as a lawyer. While I cherish the satisfaction my legal career has given me for forty years, I am ready to devote my entire focus on writing. I took the train into Boston on a damp cranky spring day and saw stories everywhere.
A train ride can be voyeuristic. If you can convince yourself to shut off your phone, you are invited into the backyards of those who live and work along the tracks. As the train slows while we approach a station in a rural neighborhood, I see a huge yard filled with raised beds already blooming with early crops. There is a sense of order and joy. Containers adorn a deck extending from the house. I am ready to leap from the train and visit what I am sure is a happy, hopeful home. Could this be the house of a young couple who are starting their lives together? Are they folks who are committed to a sustainable earth and grow their own food? Or is it the home of a newly woman who is determined to succeed on her own in a house she had bought after a divorce?
I wonder what’s wrong with the lives of the people who live next door. There is debris scattered around the neglected lawn, which is a collection of bare brown spots and weedy patches. Although there is also a deck off this decaying house, it is piled with mysterious objects covered by blue tarps that are blowing loosely in the windy mist. What’s going on here? I think the property may once have been more like the one next door but consider if the occupants have fallen on hard times. Maybe an older couple lives here and one of them has fallen ill while the other is consumed with providing care for their spouse and unable to tend to the luxury of lawn keeping. Do their neighbors share the bounty they are growing next door?
As the train travels closer to Boston, I am treated to the view of apartment houses in neighborhoods scattered with double and triple-deck houses with porches layered like tiers of a cake. I love wondering about who lives in the apartment buildings. Do the inhabitants like living with so many other people, smelling the various dinners being prepared as they approach their own unit? Hmmm, Italian, no wait, now a strong whiff of fish. How do people decide what to eat for dinner after walking down a corridor that resembles a food court in a mall?
What about the family that lives at the top of a three-decker as they are called in Boston? It looks wobbly to me. How do the parents keep their three-year-old from getting too close to the edge? Has anyone even fallen from there? Is there an absent wealthy landlord who only cares about getting rich on the overpriced rent he charges his less fortunate tenant? What if they have a dispute and the father of young children who lives on the top floor shoves his landlord who is later found dead on the train tracks?
And who is that man I see walking across the train tracks as we near South Station in Boston, our final destination? It looks like he is carrying a lunch pail as he traverses the tracks and the uneven gravel with trash scattered everywhere. Why is he walking home this way, along a route that is obviously unsafe? Did he work all night and is too exhausted to take the longer, safer route? His shoulders are hunched, and he seems defeated to me. I think his is a sad story. What is it?
My Uber driver has his own story. He’s from Algeria but has lived in Boston for twenty-five years. He came to be an actor, a comedian he tells me, but ended up driving a cab and now Uber. Our brief ride to the courthouse cut our conversation short, but I was left wondering about why he came to Boston and what he thinks about the stories he hears from his passengers every day. I wanted to know more but know as a writer, I can make up the rest and cast him in a story of my own.
At the courthouse, I enter through massive polished wooden doors. Before I am treated to the majesty of one of Boston’s oldest historical buildings, I am greeted by a court officer who is prepared to examine the contents of my bag until I show him my bar card, identifying me as an attorney. I feel a rush of familiarity. I know this story because I wrote it. In Oh Danny Girl, my protagonist has entered the same doors, but under an older rule when lawyers were not exempt from having their bags examined. Danny’s unfortunately contains a gun, which she has no idea how it got there and which turns out to be the murder weapon in a the murder of a policeman. I got the idea for Oh Danny Girl on a day long ago when I entered those doors and took a moment to ask, “what if?”
Once in the hushed courtroom, as I sit waiting for the panel of judges to enter, I look around at the spectators. I am reminded of the old practice at weddings where an usher asks if you are a friend of the bride or the groom before escorting you down the aisle to a seat assigned for each. One side of the courtroom is filled with supporters for the opposing side. The other side and behind me sit those supporting our position. How do each of these people come to their seats? What has happened in their lives to support a particular position? I have long recognized that a court case can be simply seen as a story told from different points of view, but the number of spectators in this courtroom suggested that there are as many stories as there are people in a courtroom.
Where do ideas come from? Where does a writer discover the seeds of a story? May I suggest the answer is to develop a sense of hypervigilance about what is happening around you. Don’t just stand impatiently in the cashier line at the store fuming over prices. Look at what’s in the carriage ahead of you. Is it all price organic produce and grass-fed products? Or is it filled with cheaper generic cans of beans and no-name cereal? Maybe you’re behind the man at Home Depot who is buying caustic commercial cleaning items and tarps and he turns out to be Brian Walshe, who allegedly murdered his wife and destroyed her remains? There is a story in every grocery cart, mundane or murderous. You simply have to open your eyes and ask questions.
Because everyone has a story. A writer’s job begins with finding it first, and then telling it.
C. Michele Dorsey is the author of Oh Danny Girl and the Sabrina Salter series, including No Virgin Island, Permanent Sunset, Tropical Depression, and Salt Water Wounds. Her latest novel, Gone But Not Forgotten will be published by Severn House in July 2023. Michele is a lawyer, mediator, former adjunct law professor and nurse, who didn’t know she could be a writer when she grew up. Now that she does, Michele writes constantly, whether on St John, outer Cape Cod, or anywhere within a mile of the ocean.
Exactly. Stories are whizzing past you all day long. The difference is that writers pay attention. I think I’m misquoting Neil Gaiman.
Ps and eavesdropping in bars or cafes is a good mine.
Oh, I love eavesdropping. Delicious!
What an excellent piece for writers, Michele. Such great and easy examples. Keeping one’s eyes open for that interesting character appearance, snatch of grabbed dialogue, or intriguing setting are all keys for any writer looking for a story idea.
My son was a police officer for five years and would often remind me to be hyper vigilant of my surroundings. And I would respond “ I already am.”
Traveling around with a tour group in England is a fantastic source of stories. I’m always touched by what people are willing to share (though I try to be respectful about what I steal. 🙂 )
But, Susan, do tell!
Love this post Michele.
Thank you, Catherine!
Very thoughtful and inspiring article to reflect on…thank you!
Great post, Michelle. I too love taking the train and catching glimpses into all those unknown lives.