So the other day I was sitting in my living room, taking a short break from the keyboard. I think I was putting on some shoes. I don’t wear shoes if I can avoid it. For me, flip flops are a form of dressing up.
And then boom.
I mean, a literal boom, contemporaneous with a slight shaking of the house.
Having grown up in L.A., and been shaken and stirred many times, my immediate thought was that we were having a small earthquake. But what was that boom? It sounded like an over-caffeinated UPS guy trying to get me to the front door.
I sat and listened and waited. No more shakes. No more booms. A quick look out the window. No UPS guy.
Back to work. Half an hour later my wife comes home and says that the major street near us is completely blocked off, with cop cars and fire trucks all over the place. She asked me if I knew what happened.
I reported the boom and said, “Let’s go see.”
We walked around the corner and found yellow police tape across the intersection and a traffic cop diverting cars. We walked to the opposite side of the street and down to where all the action was. Somebody said a house had caught on fire.
I went up to an LAPD officer and told him about the boom. He took my statement. Then a news van pulled up at the corner and a reporter with her camera guy comes striding toward me.
“Do you know what’s going on?” she says.
I told her about the boom and the shake.
“Can I put you on camera?” she asked.
Twist my arm. It took her camera guy about fifteen seconds to set up. And then it was a go. She asked, “Tell me what you heard.”
I said, “Well, I was sitting at home working on my latest James Scott Bell bestselling thriller, when …”
Uh, no. I let that opportunity slip away. I merely reported the facts.
What had happened was that a detached garage blew up and caught on fire. They pulled out two charred bodies. Which had me thinking meth lab or some other illicit activity gone bad. But there were no immediate answers.
That evening I was on the news. You can catch my five seconds of fame here:
Two days later Cindy and I decided to walk past the scene from the alley, where the garage door faced. There we encountered a man in boots and heavy gloves, raking the debris. We introduced ourselves to Tom Pierce, an independent fire investigator with about forty years experience. He was most friendly, and when I subtly mentioned I was a thriller writer, he gave us a little seminar on his investigatory techniques.
Turns out the victims were a mother and son, Guatemalan. She was in her seventies, he in his thirties. The arson team didn’t find enough butane or propane for a drug lab, but there was a heavy smell of gasoline. One theory is that the guy was cleaning something with gasoline and the fumes built up and someone struck a match. Whatever it was, there was instant conflagration, and the two residents didn’t have a chance.
This sad scenario is obviously fodder for the thriller mind. So were the details that Mr. Pierce shared with me—burn patterns, how he breaks up the scene into quadrants, the possible sources of ignition. All now safely packed away in my mental filing cabinet.
Because, for a writer, all of life is material. And it doesn’t have to be something as big as an explosion in your own neighborhood. It could be as small as a bit of snagged conversation, or the curious way one person is looking at another.
- Waste nothing
Everything you encounter can lead to ideas, plots, characters, scenes, bits, beginnings, endings. Keeping your mind in an open and unlocked position is easy once you get into the habit.
- Add What if to anything that sparks
When you see something that lights a little fire in your imagination, add some wood to it (I can’t seem to get away from fire metaphors). The wood is What if? Let it burn.
- Have no fear
When you’re in this creative state, let yourself go. Turn off your “inner editor.” Even more, push yourself off a cliff and grow wings on your way down (a favorite recipe of the late, great Ray Bradbury). Some of your best stuff will be found on that marvelous trajectory.
Finally, remember this bit of advice from Ann Lamott: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
So what about you? How often does “real life” play into your fiction? Your creativity?