Showing posts with label story ideas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story ideas. Show all posts

03 May 2022

Everything is Fodder

Things many people find difficult to do:

  • Lose weight
  • Follow directions
  • Not give unsolicited advice on Facebook 

You can count me among "many people" when it comes to the first item. But with the other two, I know about their prevalence because I have been a victim of them.

A victim, I say!

Yes, yes, I occasionally give unsolicited advice, but it's always with hesitation. An explanation for why I'm wading in. An apology even. Other people, I've found, don't have such qualms.

An example (one of many): About two years ago, in the height of 2020 pandemic madness, I posted on Facebook that I had a lot of broccoli in my house but the dressing I'd gotten in my last grocery pickup didn't taste good. I mentioned the three other condiments I had at home (salsa, ketchup, and butter) and asked my friends if any of them would work with broccoli, as I had my doubts. (I hadn't thought of melting the butter--once that option was pointed out, it was a doh moment.) At any rate, I also made clear that I don't cook and had no other ingredients in the house, so I requested that my friends not make alternate suggestions of condiments to use or ways to cook the broccoli. I thought I was pretty clear.

Then the following happened. The conversation has been greatly condensed since I received more than 300 responses. Names have been removed to protect the guilty.

Friend A

Roast it in the oven with olive oil and sprinkle some Parmesan cheese on top. It’s not hard. Or steam it and top with butter and a squeeze of lemon juice. 


Don't have olive oil, cheese, or lemon. 

Friend A

Ok—just steam and add butter. Do you have Italian dressing. You could use that as an olive oil substitute.


Nope, I don't.

As you can see, I was calm at this point, merely reminding Friend A that I didn't have some of the items she suggested I use.

Friend B

A nice, sweet balsamic vinegar. I like white balsamic.


I don't have vinegar (and I don't like it either). More for you!

See how pleasant I was? This was early going.

Friend C

I roast broccoli with garlic and chopped up bacon.


I have no garlic and I don't like bacon.

Friend D

Saute in some olive oil with garlic. Squeeze on some lemon before eating if you have some. Delicious. Or roast tossed in olive oil with a little garlic salt or sea salt or Goya adobo seasoning.


I don't have any olive oil or garlic. Or lemon. Or sea salt or adobo seasoning. And sauteing and roasting means cooking. I don't cook. 

Friend E

Add it to something you like ... or, as others have said, butter is good, and I'd add some seasoned salt. I like sprinkling blends from Penzeys Spices on various foods. Their Salad Elegant would be great on broccoli.


I don't have seasoned salt. I wasn't kidding about the only possible toppings I have in the house. Butter, salsa, and ketchup.

Friend F

The extent to which people cannot comprehend the state of your pantry is deeply hilarious to me.


I am less amused.

Friend F

Would definitely think twice about hiring your fb friends for a job that requires ability to follow instructions.

She (Friend F) wasn't kidding. But I steeled myself and kept reading the responses.

Friend G

I would boil some water, add a ton of salt, and blanch the broccoli for like 2-3 minutes. Then drain and chill.



Friend G

Extremely easy. [Lists a link for how to blanch.]  

Note to the reader: Not extremely easy.

Friend H

Really tasty: sliced zucchini or yellow squash, plus a red sweet pepper, sauteed in olive oil or butter with garlic and sweet red onion or green spring onions. Add a little basil for punch, but it isn't required.


[Mouth hanging open.]

At this point, I stopped responding to almost all the comments, most of which were suggestions of other things I should cook using food I didn't have in the house. Me. The person who doesn't cook and who certainly would not be going to the market for the suggested foods. (Add one picky eater who doesn't cook and the height of the pandemic and you got hell no.) 

Occasionally, though, I became so incensed, I did respond.

Friend I

Saute in a pan, with ginger, olive oil and garlic, 1 T corn starch, and 1/4 cup of water.



Friend G

This post has turned absurd, and I love it.


That makes one of us

Friend J

Two of us! Sorry, Barb.


It's like people are trying to give me a stroke at this point.

Can you feel the stress? It's two years later, and reading all these comments is aggravating me all over again.

You may be wondering why I'm sharing all of this with you, other than for your amusement. It's because of something I often say: Everything is fodder. If you're looking for a story idea, mining current events or events in your own life is often a good place to start. I took this condiment conversation and my associated aggravation and put it to good use when the fine folks at Malice Domestic put out a call for short stories for their anthology titled Malice Domestic 16: Mystery Most Diabolical.

What if, I thought, a low-earning spendthrift without any morals is the only living relative of a rich elderly woman. He decides to friend her on Facebook, aiming to drive her crazy with unsolicited advice so she'll have a heart attack and die and he can inherit all her money. That sounded pretty diabolical to me. 

Five thousand words later, the idea became my newest short story, "Go Big or Go Home," which is the lead story in Mystery Most Diabolical. The book was released about ten days ago. I had a lot of fun writing the story. I hope readers will enjoy it just as much. And yes, it has Facebook conversations just like the one above.

Mystery Most Diabolical is out in trade paperback and hardcover. (Click here to buy from Amazon. Or, to buy directly from the publisher, click here (for paperback) or here (for hardback).) The ebook doesn't seem to be for sale yet, but I'm sure it's coming soon. The anthology has 32 stories, including one from fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken. I welcome the other authors in the book to share what their diabolical stories are about in the comments.

But before that ...

Congratulations to fellow SleuthSayer R.T. Lawton for winning the Edgar Award last week! And congratulations to Michael Bracken for winning the Derringer Award a few days ago!

And, for those of you in the Dallas, Texas, area, here's an event worth your time. Next Wednesday, May 11th, the Sisters in Crime North Dallas chapter will be hosting an in-person event for its recent inaugural anthology, Malice in Dallas: Metroplex Mysteries Volume 1! Books will be available for purchase, and authors with stories in the book will be on hand to sign copies. There also will be a scavenger hunt, drawings for prizes, and more! (What's the "more"? You have to go to find out!) The festivities will be at the J. Theodore Restaurant & Bar in Frisco, Texas, starting at 4:30 p.m. Central Time. Click here to learn more about the event and to RSVP.

Why am I telling you about Malice in Dallas? Because I had the pleasure of editing it. It has ten crime stories, including one by fellow SleuthSayer Mark Thielman. The tales will bring you to various locations throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area, including Little Mexico, Lake Ray Hubbard, the downtown Dallas pedestrian tunnels, and Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy was shot. We've got historicals, police procedurals, and amateur-sleuth mysteries. Some of the stories are humorous. Others are dark. All, I hope you'll agree, are good. If you can't make it to the event, you can still buy the book by clicking here.

18 October 2021

Seeds of a Writer

Every story you write is merely a fictionalized piece of autobiography. We spend our lives trying to make bad stuff better, good stuff perfect, and maybe make sense of it all.

During my senior year of high school, a former swimming coach was arrested for running a "Summer Camp" where he photographed boys naked and forced some of them into sexual acts. I changed all the details, but that scandal inspired Postcards of the Hanging, which I finally self-published in 2014. I started writing it in 1972 and submitted several revised versions before it became my sixth-year project at Wesleyan University in 1980. Between then and my self-publishing, it gathered dozens of rejections under various titles and uncountable rewrites. 

Other experiences have inspired stories, too, but only one of them has far.

After my freshman year of college, I needed a mental break. I'd worked retail in a drug store the previous summer, which was convenient becasue it was within walking distance of my house. But it only paid minimum wage and I wanted more.

Early in May, the local labor council told me a company was hiring college students at $2.25 an hour, a whole dollar above minimum wage. I found myself working in a pickle processing plant (say that five times fast). They told me to wear a hat to protect my hair, and after one night (six PM to five AM), I understood why.

Dozens of women from their late teens to considerably older and mostly Mexican, stood a floor above me as a conveyer belt carried pickles by their stations. They sorted them and dorpped them down chutes to dozens of wheelbarrows below, where I waited along with four other "college students." Then we trundled those loaded barrows out through the warehouse to vats of brine. There were different vats for different kinds of pickles. 

They wanted college students because college freshman were 18, so there was no legal limit on how much we could be told to lift. A full wheelbarrow of saturated pickles weighs about 130 pounds, and we each moved about 200 per night. The salt brine filled the air; by break time at ten, my eyes burned like I'd been reading barbed wire and I had blisters the size of dimes at the base of all my fingers. 

I quit after one night, but I used that job for a story that won Honorable Mention in the Al Blanchard Story Award several years ago and appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine: The Girl in the Red Bandanna.

While my hands healed, I turned down an invitation to work at the drug store again. A week later, I found a job in a sheet metal plant. On my first day, the foreman said they were adding a small night shift and asked if I was interested. There was a five percent bonus, so I said yes.

I became half the team running a two-man sheer, a beast with a ten-foot blade that dropped with 15 tons of force to cut sheet metal. Al, who drove a '58 Ford, was missing three front teeth, and chain-smoked Chesterfields, teamed with me to cut roughly 3000 sheets of 18-gauge galvanized steel per night into smaller pieces for various farming implements. We worked from 5:30 pm to 5 am, with a ten-minute break at 9, another at 3, and a half-hour for lunch at midnight. Friday was 3:30 to midnight with supper at 6. It sounds awful, doesn't it? Believe me, it was wonderful.

I was one of nine people on the entire shift, three of us college kids, and four welders. One of the welders added a piece of scrap metal to the back of my putter to give it more weight and help my golf game. When things were slow (rarely), another sheet metal guy taught me to drive a fork lift. 

 Friday, the foreman, a cousin of Detroit Tigers outfielder Jim Northrop, ordered takeout fish or chicken for our supper. A good humor truck saw us hanging out on the loading dock and started coming by so we could get ice cream for dessert. I returned home late Friday night as if I'd been on a date, so my weekend was a "normal" schedule.

Weekdays, I slept until about noon and played golf in the afternoon. Between lugging four-by-eight sheets of galvanized steel and wearing steel-toed shoes, I worked into the best physical condition of my life, and my golf game benefitted from it. I added about 40 yards to my drives and broke 80 a dozen times over the next few months, many of them during competitive play in a summer weekend league.

I lived with my parents and drove my mother's car to work. That work week was 52 weeks, which meant 12 hours of overtime. My living expenses consisted of keeping gas in the car and buying my own groceries. That summer before my sophomore year, I earned the money to pay for the rest of my undergraduate education. 

Yes, my social life was non-existent. The girls I knew weren't up at midnight to take a phone call for a possible date. All the metal in the building interfered with radio reception, so we could only get WSGW, which had a transmission tower two miles away. At midnight, they put a stack of singles on the spindle, played them, read the news, then played the same stack again. Between midnight at five, we heard those songs a dozen times in the same order.

But what a great summer for rock. "Paperback Writer" and "Rain." "Paint It, Black." "96 Tears" by our own local ? & the Mysterians. "Dirty Water," "Bus Stop," "Monday, Monday," "Hanky Panky," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," California Dreamin'," "Wild Thing," "Summer in the City," "Sunshine Superman." Local versions of "Farmer John," "The Kids Are Alright (another one of my novel titles),"

and my introduction to the 13th-Floor Elevators, "You're Gonna Miss Me." That was the last summer where singles ruled. The following year would begin the shift toward albums that finally took hold about 1969-70. The Monkees premiered on TV two weeks after I quit that job. 

I've never figured out how to use that job for another mystery, but I'm still trying. I got hired because the previous operator of that sheer got careless and lost three fingers. I quit just as I was losing fear of the machine, which seemed prudent. I dated a few times before returning to college. I had my heart broken for the very first time by a girl I'd known in high school. I haven't lived in Michigan outside of a dormitory since 1967 and she and I haven't attended the same reunions. There are definitely stories here, but maybe I remember the details so clearly I don't know how to tweak them. If they were still fresh and not history, maybe I could do more. 

I still have a few short stories that come from the next couple of years in college. They all involve music, which shouldn't surprise anyone who reads my stuff. Someday, I'll find a home for them, too.

What's in your garden?

05 January 2021

Birthplace of a Story

Most anyone who's had their fiction published has likely been asked this question: Where do you get your ideas? It's a common enough question that it's spawned a standard joke answer: The Plot Store. My real answer most of the time is, I have no idea. Ideas just pop into my head. I expect that's true with many (perhaps most, maybe all) writers. But sometimes I can point to a story's inspiration.

That's the case with one of the stories I had published in December, "A Family Matter." While driving a few years ago, I passed a house with a clothesline. They certainly aren't uncommon, but for whatever reason it made me remember a story my mom once told about moving into the neighborhood where I grew up. This was in 1962, years before I was born. One day shortly after my parents and siblings moved in, my mom was in the backyard hanging up the laundry on a clothesline when one of the next-door neighbors hurried over to tell my mom that drying laundry on a clothesline just wasn't done there. My mom needed to get a dryer to fit in. I don't know if this story is true or not (my mom sometimes told tales), but seeing that clothesline evoked that memory, from which grew "A Family Matter," a story set in 1962 suburbia about what happens when new neighbors violate the unwritten social code. The story is published in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

That story isn't the first one to spring from me mining my memories. An elementary-school teacher who humiliated me in an attempt to get me to be a better public speaker was the impetus for my story "The Wrong Girl." (If you've read that story, you'll know never to tell me I speak too quickly--even if I do.) "Stepmonster" sprung from anger over my father's perhaps preventable death. "Whose Wine is it Anyway" was the result of my incredulous comment to a work colleague: "I have to plan my own goodbye party?!" An elementary school librarian calling me "an evil little girl" resulted in the story named, no surprise, "Evil Little Girl." And my first published story, "Murder at Sleuthfest," is about a mystery writer who has a ring stolen at a mystery conference, which is just what happened to me. I vowed to make something good come from that bad event, and I did.

The other main source of my story ideas (when I can figure out the source) is the news. It feels bad to say that I hear about someone else's misfortune and think: I can use that! But I'm sure I'm not the only author who does it. "Compulsive Bubba" grew out of a terrible accidental death in which someone waited in a car while it warmed up, not knowing the car's exhaust pipe was covered with snow and the carbon monoxide was backing up into the car. I got the idea for "Ulterior Motives" after reading about an Oregon county whose residents voted down a bond referendum to fund the police department, which resulted in them having police only part time. "Have Gun, Won't Travel" came about after reading about an Ansel Adams print worth a lot of money that sold at a garage sale for practically nothing because the seller didn't realize who created it. (The story was later debunked, but it gave me my idea nonetheless.) "Alex's Choice" was prompted by the horrific death of a family after one of them went into the ocean to save their dog, and when that person didn't come out, the next person went in to save him, and it went from there.

I have other published stories I could add to the sparked-by-the-news list, but since those events figure into story twists, I'm not going to mention them lest someone out there hasn't read those stories yet.

A side effect of admitting you used a real-life event as a story springboard is having people ask if everything in the story really happened. That's a big no. That's why it's called fiction. But just in case you're wondering:

I never tried to kill my fifth-grade teacher.

I never tried to get revenge on the person who found and kept the ring I lost at Sleuthfest (the fact that I don't know who it was is irrelevant, I assure you).

I never tried to kill the woman who was dating my father when he died.

I never tried to kill my boss (none of them, really).

Nothing in "A Family Matter" is based on real life except that clothesline incident (in case anyone has read the story and is wondering).

And I really was not an evil little girl, despite what that school librarian thought. But if you think otherwise, well, it might be best not to tell me. It's always better to be safe than sorry. After all, you wouldn't want to end up on the news, giving someone else a good story idea, would you?


If you want to read any of the stories I mentioned above, you can find them listed on my website, along with where they were published. Just click here. And in case you missed my last post, I had three stories published recently: "A Family Matter," discussed above, in the January/February AHMM; "That Poor Woman," a flash story in the January/February Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine; and "Second Chance" in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir.

Happy reading!

29 October 2014

Seventeen minutes

by Robert Lopresti

A few nights ago I was having a typically pointless dream -- something about listening to the Star Spangled Banner at a golf tournament, if you must know -- when suddenly things shifted and I had a story idea.  I mean I dreamed I had one, but also I really did.  And then the alarm went off.

I'm sure you have had the experience of percolating a brilliant idea in your sleep, only to see it vanish when you wake.  You may have also had that experience's more humbling twin: remembering the dazzling insight and realizing it was nothing of the kind.  One night in college I scrambled for a notebook at 3 AM and write down my lightbulb flash.  In the morning I found that notebook page and read, quote:

           A warehouse.

So far, I have not found a way to monetize that flash of genius.

But getting back to my recent experience, when the alarm went off I was still in possession of the story idea, and, to repeat, it really was a story idea.  Which meant that the clock was ticking.

My memory is that R. Buckminster Fuller said: From the moment you have an idea you have seventeen minutes to do something with it.  If not, you lose it. I can't find those words on the Internet, so maybe I have it garbled, but I find it good advice anyway.

Write it down.  Hum it.  Tie a string around your finger.  Do something physical to get that elusive thought into a second part of your brain.  Seventeen minutes.  The clock is ticking.

My father, by the way, had his own way of dealing with this.  When he was at work and needed to remember something he would tear off a sliver of paper and put it in his shirt pocket.  When he got home he would find the scrap and remember why he had put it there.  I know that if I tried that I wouldn't even remember that there had been a reason.  "What the hell is this here for?" I would say before carefully dropping the reminder into the recycling bin.

And speaking of remembering things, we were talking about my recent morning.  It would have been great if I could have turned on a light and written down my idea immediately, but my wife, long-suffering as she, would not have been pleased to have her last half-hour of sleep interrupted.  Besides, my audience was waiting for me.

You see, we have cats.  Six thousand of them.

All right, really there are just four.  I like to say that we have two pet cats and each of them has one pet cat.  Share the guilt.

But my first duty when I stagger out of bed is to fill two water bowls, one dry food bowl, and three wet food plates, scattered on two floors.

All the time I was opening cans and bags I was trying to keep my story idea front and center in my skull (fortunately feeding the beasts doesn't require a lot of intellectual activity).

When all the critters were temporarily sated I was at last able to sit down with a pen and notebook and write down what i had: the title, the premise and the last sentence.  Now all I need to do is grow a plot around those three points.  It may happen; it may not.  But by God, I didn't lose this one. 

Have any stories about saving/losing ideas, especially in the early hours?  Put 'em in the comments.

Oh, from top to bottom: Jaffa with friend, Blackie, Chloe, and Charlie.

09 April 2014

Cold Case

by David Edgerley Gates

This is a Where Do You Get Your Ideas? post. Generally speaking, I think this is a dumb question, and demonstrates that somebody knows next to nothing about the actual process of writing. Ideas, in fact, are floating around in the zeitgeist, and we pluck them out of the air.

The movie critic Robert Warshow once famously remarked that there were only half a dozen basic plots to the Western. You might not entirely agree, but can tell where he's headed. The stranger rides into town, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, say, and trouble follows. You can ring a lot of changes from that set-up, even if the conventions are pretty rigorous. In other words, it's not the what, where, or when that matters, but the how.

In this particular instance, I saw an article in my local newspaper, the Santa Fe NEW MEXICAN, about a cold case that had gotten new legs. Sixty years ago, a woman disappears. Everything points to murder. The cops like her husband for it, but they can't pin it on him. For openers, there's no body, and the guy doesn't crack, under interrogation. Some time later, he dies. End of story. Unsolved. Cut to the present day. All these years later, somebody else owns the house where these people lived, and they're remodeling the garage. Digging up the floor, they find human remains. Is it possible, using modern forensics, DNA from her kids, to identify Inez Garcia? Could you finally lay the crime to rest, and give the dead woman, and her family, both justice and closure?

Photo Credit Luis Sanchez Saturno SFNM

It's not the case itself, so much, that caught my attention. It was the gap. Sixty years is a long time. And it occurred to me, what if you framed two parallel narrative lines, the original investigation, and the new one? I've already got the characters waiting in the wings. Benny Salvador, sheriff of Rio Arriba county, back in the day, and Pete Montoya, the New Mexico state cop, in the here and now. Pete could be looking at Benny's old notes, the murder book, the physical evidence, which might even point to a different suspect. That's as far as my thinking takes me, at this point. It's in my peripheral vision.

You probably see where I'm going. The newspaper article didn't give me an original idea. What it did was suggest a way to tell the story, which is half the battle. Not just P.O.V., but voice. A way in, and a way out. Something you can hang your hat on, a shape that casts a shadow.

Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.