What’s the first question people ask writers? Judging from my experiences, I’d say it’s “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s probably partly because people are fascinated by the creative process, partly because they wonder how a harmless-looking person like me ended up writing so many stories about murder and other crimes. But mostly, I suspect, it’s because so many people are interested in writing, and they want to know where they can find ideas of their own.
I think ideas are everywhere. They hide in slivers of experience, in conversations we overhear and observations we make, in things we read, in anecdotes our friends share. These things don’t have to be dramatic. They usually won’t be. The crucial thing, I think, is to be alert to possibilities and to be ready to combine whatever fragments you find with plenty of imagination. If you do that, your notebook will fill with ideas so quickly you probably won’t be able to write fast enough to turn all of them into finished stories or novels.
I’ll give you three examples from my short story collection, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, recently published by Wildside Press. Years ago, an acquaintance at work told a group of us that once, when she’d gotten careless while shopping, her purse was stolen. Angry and frustrated, she reported the theft and then headed home. When she opened her mailbox, she found the reading glasses that had been in her purse. Glad as she was to have her glasses back, she was also frightened—after all, the thief had her keys, too, and might be waiting in her house. So she called the police, and they checked the house. All was safe. For the next few weeks, the woman waited nervously to see if the thief would return anything else or try to make contact with her in some other way. Nothing ever happened. Presumably, the thief felt bad about stealing an expensive item he or she couldn’t use, and decided to risk a quick stop at the woman’s house to return the glasses. Maybe the thief got an extra thrill from doing that, or thought it would be funny.
That’s an unusual experience, but it wouldn’t make much of a mystery story—not by itself. When my acquaintance told us about her experience, I jotted a quick description in my notebook, in case I could think of a way to use it some day. Eventually, I came across the description again and asked the crucial question: What if? What if the thief (I made it a burglar who broke into a librarian’s house) does return more stolen items? What if he becomes obsessed with the librarian and starts leaving her messages, at the library and at her home? What if two strange men start showing up at the library day after day, and the librarian feels sure one of them must be the burglar? What if she sets out to determine which one it is? What if the burglar breaks into her house again one night, and there’s a confrontation? That’s how the idea for the story called “The Shopper” took shape.
Another story began with an experience so undramatic it barely qualifies as an experience at all. One night, my husband and I were in
and had dinner at a restaurant that looked as if it had seen better
days—everything seemed faded, and most tables were empty. I noticed a man
sitting alone at a nearby table. He looked about seventy, and he seemed faded,
too—a sagging sweater worn at the elbows, baggy trousers. He drew my attention
because he was going through a strange little ritual with his martini and his
glass of water. He took a sip of the martini, then splashed a little water into
his martini glass. Another sip, another splash—he kept it up until both glasses
were empty. A waitress brought him a bowl of soup, a roll, and a basket of
crackers. He ate the soup and all the crackers but wrapped the roll in a napkin
and put it in his pocket. The manager stopped by to chat with him. The waitress
brought him a sandwich and a cup of coffee, and she stayed a while to chat,
too. The man wrapped the sandwich up in another napkin and stuffed it in his
pocket, drank his coffee slowly, and asked for a refill. He was still drinking
coffee and looking around the room vacantly when my husband and I left. Toledo, Ohio
In the days that followed, I found myself thinking about that man, and about the restaurant. That ritual with the martini and the water—was he stretching out his time in the restaurant, giving himself an excuse to linger? He seemed to know the manager and the waitress well—did he eat at the restaurant often, perhaps every night? Why did he wrap up so much of the food he ordered? There must be a story there, I thought. So I made one up. Since I write mysteries, it’s a story that involves dark secrets, devious schemes, and murder. “Table for None” was first published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 2008 and now appears again in Her Infinite Variety.
The last story I’ll describe here began decades ago. One of my professors always introduced his wife by saying, “And this is my first wife, Joan.” It was clearly a joke—she was his first and only wife, and he obviously adored her. But I couldn’t help wondering if Joan enjoyed the joke as much as her husband did. Many years later—I’d started writing mysteries by then—I read an alumni bulletin and learned the professor had passed away (yes, still married to Joan). I remembered the joke and jotted it down in a notebook, but I didn’t yet see how to make a story out of it. For some time, I’d also been playing around with ideas for a story based on a relationship in one of my favorite novels, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. An aging scholar wins the love of a beautiful, idealistic young woman. He marries her, but instead of enjoying his good fortune, he can’t help suspecting her, making her miserable, and driving her away from him. I was fascinated by the relationship, wondered if I could use some version of it in a story, and took notes about it from time to time. But the idea never seemed to go anywhere. One day, when I was looking through my notebooks, it occurred to me that I might be able to combine those two bits of ideas—my professor’s joke and the relationship in Middlemarch. A title and a closing line came to me, and after all those years, “Thea’s First Husband” came together fairly quickly. It was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 2012 and nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards; it also made the list of “Other Distinguished Stories” in Best American Mystery Stories 2013. I was happy to include it in Her Infinite Variety.
You don’t have to live a glamorous life filled with adventure and danger to use your own experiences as the basis for your fiction. The key, I think, is best summed up in a sentence from “The Art of Fiction,” an 1884 essay by Henry James: “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” Don’t let any hint of a story escape you. Whether you’re chatting with a friend, dealing with a client, or taking your dog for a walk, be on the lookout for possibilities. If you hear about a situation that seemed potentially exciting but fizzled into nothing, ask yourself what might have happened if it hadn’t fizzled out. If you observe something odd, come up with an explanation for it. And always look for ways to bring scattered bits of experience and observation together. If you do all that, I don’t think you’ll ever run out of ideas for stories.
Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime
Wildside Press, 2016
Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime includes eleven stories of various lengths, types, and tones, from humorous novella-length whodunits to a dark flash fiction suspense story. Most were first published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Some of the women featured in these stories are detectives, and some are victims; some inspire crimes, and some commit them. Sometimes we sympathize with these women, and sometimes they appall us. Sometimes, we may not be sure of how to feel. The women’s ages vary, and so do their professions—librarian, administrative assistant, housewife, trophy wife, personnel director, college professor. Romance is an element in some stories, but never the primary one. Always, the stories focus sharply on the various entanglements of women and crime.
“These finely crafted stories have it all — psychological heft, suspense, subtle humor — and the author’s notes on each story are especially illuminating. A treat for lovers of the short story form and students of the craft of writing.” –Linda Landrigan, Editor, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine
Available in paperback and e-book format from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wildside Press, and other vendors
B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens writes mysteries, both novels and short stories. Her most recent release, from Wildside Press, is Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, a collection of eleven of her previously published stories. Some of those stories have been nominated for Agatha, Macavity, and Derringer awards; another won first place in a national suspense-writing contest judged by Mary Higgins Clark. B.K.’s first novel, Interpretation of Murder, published by Black Opal Books, is a traditional whodunit offering readers insights into deaf culture and sign-language interpreting. Her second novel, Fighting Chance, is a martial arts mystery for young adults, published by Poisoned Pen Press. It was an Agatha finalist and is now an Anthony finalist. Most of the more than fifty short stories B.K. has published appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Others appeared in Woman’s World, Family Circle, and various anthologies. She blogs at SleuthSayers and also hosts The First Two Pages. B.K. and her husband live in
and have two grown daughters. Website: http://www.bkstevensmysteries.com.