Friday, March 11, 2011

Bits and Pieces

Rick’s blog earlier this week about the story he could never write because it involves real people and a real tragedy reminded me (Frankie) of a conversation I had recently -- a much more light-hearted exchange, bur relevant. During lunch with two women that I was meeting for the first time, our conversation turned from day jobs to other activities. One of the women smiled and said she hoped I wouldn’t mind if she asked me a question. With that lead-in, I was bracing myself. What she said was, “As a writer, where do you get your ideas?” Not wanting to monopolize the conversation, I gave her the 25 words or less version. I said, it was a matter of bits and pieces – something catches my attention here, something else there. I carry these random ideas around in my head, I told her, until I find a connection.

She still looked a little puzzled. I could have mentioned reading newspapers, watching old movies, going for walks, taking showers, sitting in malls, listening to conversations in coffee shops, trains, and other public places where nowadays people will talk about bad breakups and jobs in jeopardy and lies told, often on a cell phone.

Or, sometimes, in the middle of my own conversations, I get an idea.
I have a friend who introduces me to people at gatherings in her home by telling them that I write mysteries and to be careful what they say because it could end up in one of my books. Actually, the only spoken words I ever use with minimum editing are the fleeting exchanges I overhear between strangers. But my friend is well aware of my bits and pieces approach to writing. I did once ask her daughter-in-law if she would mind if I gave a character the white streak in her baby girl’s dark hair (a genetic trait shared by three generations of women).

And then there was the tree. One summer day, as we were driving up to her family cabin (“camp”) in the Adirondacks, my friend told me this story. She had been standing on the porch of the cabin, admiring an ancient tree by the lake and wondering how long it had been there. The phone rang, and she stepped inside to answer it. A sudden wind storm blew up. When she looked out the window, the tree had been ripped up by its roots. She told me this story with a kind of wonder and a touch of superstition about the power of thoughts. I asked if I could use it in the book I was working on.

The tree in my book was struck by lightning. But my friend still remembers that it was her tree by the edge of a lake in the Adirondacks that inspired my character’s tree in a backyard in Kentucky.

I can talk about it here because I always mention in my acknowledgments the occasional bits and pieces of her life that my friend contributes to my writing. But it is sometimes unsettling to realize that even when you don’t intend to file it away, a joke, a turn of phrase, an observation becomes fodder. It’s even more unsettling to be in the midst of an event in your own life and realize you are thinking about how you can use it – whatever “it” is.

For example, on Tuesday, a day after rain/ snow/sleet, the sun was shining and I was on my way to work. I went into my garage through the side door, put my tote bag in the car, and touched the remote on the wall that should have opened the outer door. Instead, the metal device attached to the outer door ripped off and swung backward, narrowly missing the rear window of my car. Since the rope that was supposed to allow me to open the door manually had been attached to that device, my car was now stuck in the garage.

In a brilliant Sherlockian deduction, I concluded that the garage door must have frozen to the pavement. The next thoughts that flitted through my mind were, “I didn’t know that could happen. What if I had been running for my life, trying to escape a killer and that happened? Would I be able to back the car through the garage door?”

No, I didn’t try to back the car through the door. I didn’t think my insurance companies – home or car -- would appreciate the experiment.
And it did occur to me that I still needed to get to work. That meant I should go into the house and find the name of the company that had installed the garage door opener. But this practical response to the situation occurred only after I had paused to file this comic moment in my life away for future use in a much more frightening fictional scenario.

There is something to be said for this writer’s habit. Instead of pacing the floor until the technician arrived to free my car, I went on the Internet to look for posts about frozen garage doors.

But (returning to Rick’s thoughtful comments), I too believe I need to make ethical choices about what I use from my life and the lives of others. My choice is to use only the bits and pieces, to mix and disguise and to ask permission when appropriate. And still, particularly because I study real-life crime, I do now and then worry about becoming an “objective” observer who forgets to feel. My way of resolving this is to try not to create disposable victims in my mysteries and to have my characters ask thought-provoking questions even if neither they nor I can provide the answers.


Irene Bennett Brown said...

WOW. Great post.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Irene. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Vicki Delany said...

Love the story of the garage door. I've had that happen and found that if I poured boiling water along the rim of the door it would melt the ice and you can manually lift the door. Don't put the door back down again, or you'll really find it frozen next time.

Hannah Dennison said...

This is a great post! Yes! The bits and pieces of our lives ignite a spark that becomes a story - so very true!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

The garage door was frozen so solid, Vicki,I ended up sprinkling de-icing salt along the edge. The technician was able to get it open. Then he put down more salt. But, yes, I'm hearing hot water -- or, just put a broom handle underneath to keep it from coming down all the way. Or WD-40 along the rubber rim to prevent the freezing in the first place. I'm hoping with temperatures now in the 30s/40s and the snow melting, I might be okay until next winter.

Thanks, Hannah. If not for the bits and the pieces, I would spend a lot of time staring at a blank screen.