The Question Every Writer Asks

Authors know—once you begin writing, there’s no turning back. You’ll never read a book again without noticing stuff like dialogue tags, metaphors, and plot structure. You’ll never meet someone new without, in the back of your mind, filing away certain physical characteristics and mannerisms for future use. You’ll never read printed material without wielding your metaphorical red pencil. And you’ll certainly never observe life around you without asking the question, “What if…?”

Last week my husband and I traveled to Orlando for a trade show. Here are three “what ifs” I’ve brought home with me:

  • Before our work began, we spent a day at Disney’s Epcot, just for fun. While standing in line to see one of the newest attractions, I noticed a woman—late seventies or early eighties was my guess. She had vivid red hair with buzzed sides and a long topknot. Full-sleeve tattoos. Earplugs. Clothes a cool, slightly rebellious teenage girl might wear. Now I’m not judging her—she can present herself any way she wishes—but I couldn’t help wondering “what if…?” What if she really was a teenage girl who woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and saw an eighty-year-old face staring back at her? How might that have happened? Would she be doomed to stay that way, or would there be some way to get back to her normal life? Some secret to learn? Some task to perform? Some person to meet? Sounds like a YA novel to me.

  • At a business dinner a few nights later, I met a woman whose husband runs a deep-sea fishing and diving business in California. They’ve been invited to join a group of friends on a chartered boat for a week of sailing and diving in August. Sounds like fun, right? But then, I thought, what if something were to go horribly wrong? Like someone’s dive tank not filled properly—or a faulty breathing mechanism?  What if one of the guests vanishes during the night? The boat is far from land. Did he fall overboard? Why didn’t he call for help? Maybe it’s because I recently read The Hunting Party and The Guest List by Lucy Foley, but the trip sounded like a locked-room mystery to me. Think about it. Husbands and wives, tensions bubbling beneath the surface, secrets from the past. Perfect domestic suspense.

  • Speaking of bubbling, after a full day of work, my husband and I decided to relax in the hotel hot tub. Two men, an uncle and his nephew, both ex-Israeli soldiers, were already there. The older of the two had lost part of one leg in a bombing. Now he runs an organization that provides support and prosthetic limbs for other injured soldiers. What we thought would be fifteen minutes basking in the warm water before bed turned out to be something totally unexpected. We stayed in the hot tub, the four of us, until one in the morning. We were sipping wine. They were slowly polishing off a bottle of Scotch. I think we might have solved a few of the world’s thornier problems—if only I could remember the solutions. But as the evening progressed, we became aware that something deeper was at play than the bubbles on the surface. Both men, to some degree, were dealing with personal crises, and they weren’t on vacation. What if, I thought, a chance meeting in a hotel hot tub got us sucked into some international intrigue? What if we learned a dangerous secret that night that made us targets of an international gang of terrorists? What if one of the men were found dead the next morning, floating in that hot tub? Would my husband and I be suspects? International intrigue. High stakes. A thriller.

Okay, I do have an overactive imagination. But I’d be willing to bet that every writer experiences the same sense of “what if?” All it takes is a curious sight, an unexpected turn of events, an interesting or unusual person, a single anomaly, and a story begins to spin out in our imaginations. I, for one, am thankful they do.

Fellow writers, where do you find your inspiration? Do you ask “what if…?”

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  1. Connie,
    In the old days, before Covid, when I used to write in cafes, I often reacted the same way to conversations I overheard or interactions I observed. These days I rarely go out so I don’t have casual interactions with strangers that spur “what ifs.”
    Though I’m relatively isolated, reading the newspaper or a novel, watching a movie or observing people on the street often triggers thoughts of murder and mayhem. It’s the writer’s curse/gift.
    The imagination is a wonderful thing. Just reading your “what ifs” got me thinking about some possible short stories. Thank you

  2. Catherine, write those stories!! And I want to hear the backstory–what inspired them. Honestly, there are curious and intriguing people and events all around us, if we have the eyes to see them and ears to hear them!

  3. Fun post, Connie! I would’ve loved to sip wine in a hot tub with Israeli veterans. How fascinating.

    One of my favorite “what if’s” came out of my newbie author paranoia back in 2012. I started wondering what would happen if it turned out my recently released debut novel was similar to someone else’s story, and I was accused of plagiarism. How would I combat that? How does one prove a negative?

    Next thing I know I’ve got an 80-year-old character (not me, I’m not quite that old), a famous romance writer, who is accused of plagiarism and the next day her accuser turns up dead. That was the premise of my second book!

  4. I spent a lot of years on the seamier side, job jumping, trying to keep my children fed and housed, avoiding entangling alliances with other deadbeats. I went from farm kid, to street rat, to having both feet again, firmly planted in the sod. I find lately, I bring up some of those not-quite-nice memories and twist them two ways. First to the dark-side, then to being my own hero. Or maybe dating the hero. It helps me cope with my own fallibilities, and to remember everyone has a small bitchy stink kicking them in the ankle.

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