A World Filled With Ideas

I often have the opportunity present talks and workshops here in Texas, and recently a lady raised her hand when I asked for questions or comments. “So where do you get your ideas for these novels you’ve written?”

“They’re all around us. I draw from the news, recollections, personal experiences, stories I’ve heard, and people who are great story tellers.”

“I never see anything I could put in a book, even if I could write.”

I laughed and told her about the Florida experience below.

The story in a nutshell.

I flew to St. Petersburg a few years ago and while driving to Sarasota in my rent car, heard two angry men exchange words. Only a mile later, I came across a beached sailboat full of drunks who were arguing with other inebriated individuals who’d been enjoying a quiet day on the sand.

I took what I saw and added some imagination…and the following paragraphs are the result of that question.

After flying down to St. Petersburg for a writers conference a few years ago, I rented a cherry red convertible and joined hundreds of cars headed south to Sarasota along Highway 41. That gulf coast ribbon of highway was stiff with vehicles, forcing us to proceed at school zone speed.

Except for the bumper to bumper cars and trucks, it would have been a peaceful drive down the old highway. The flow of traffic passing colorful old buildings, neat little vintage 1950s trailer parks, and palm-ridden mid-century motels kept me locked into place from one red light to the next.

At still another red light under a bright blue sky, I was startled when an angry, red-faced guy with a head bald as a cue ball pointed his finger in my direction and shouted over his female companion and through her open window. “Hey, you dread-headed fool! Get off your phone and pay attention to the damned highway. You’re all over the lanes!”

Startled by his verbal attack I had to study on what he said. I hadn’t been on my phone, so I knew he wasn’t shouting at me. Oh, and I don’t have dreads anyway.

A voice from my right yelled through his own open window. “Shut the hell up!”

I turned right to see a man with long dreads responding with vigor.

“The Bible says the word fool is the worst insult you can use, fool! And besides, it’s a free country! You and your mama need to mind y’own dayum business.”

Incensed, the woman beside Bald Guy immediately became enraged. “I’m not his mama, I’m his wife!”

Thinking I was kinda right there with Dreads’ unfortunate observation, my eyebrows raised when Bald Guy yanked the handle of his car and roared from the vehicle like an attack dog. “This free country you’re talking about gives me the right to come over there and knock your #@&%ing head off!”

The light changed and I drove off from between the combatants, leaving them to their philosophical, observational, and constitutional discussions.

The road forked half a mile later and I took the two-lane hugging the beach lined with palm trees. It wasn’t five minutes before I came up on a sailboat full of tanked partygoers heeled over in the shallow water directly in front of a beach packed with young sunbathers.

Traffic slowed even more, as drivers tried to watch what was happening. The pace was so slow that an ambitious turtle could have passed us without breaking a sweat, giving me the opportunity to absorb the scene in its entirety.

An equally sloshed and obviously visually impaired young man sitting on the sand with his girlfriend pointed and shouted. “Get that damned boat out of here!”

The mast stuck out over the beach, and the vessel’s annoyed occupants milled around the deck on a thirty degree slant. Again, a red light brought me to a stop in the middle of two armies so mad they could spit at each other.

“Can’t you see I’m trying for God’s sake!” A guy on the tilted deck braced his feet on the rail. “Whatta ya’ want me to do, get out and drag the sonofabitch back into deep water?”

A young woman barely covered by three Dorito-size triangles of thin blue material stood on her towel as if afraid of getting sand on her feet. “I don’t care how the hell you do it! Just get it out of here, you’re ruining our view!”

One of the many young men on the sailboat tilted a liquor bottle to his lips and swallowed before verbalizing his own opinion of the situation. “The view ain’t half bad from here.”

“I’ll ruin your ass!” A young man in colorful jams charged the listing sailboat.

The boat’s passenger with the view chucked an unopened can of beer at his attacker but missed and hit a previously uninvolved guy sitting on the sand.

In response, the offended beachgoer picked up the beer, and for some confounding reason, opened it before firing it back at the boat like a rocket. It struck the cockpit coaming right beside a young female passenger, spraying her tiny bathing suit with foam.

The return fire angered one of her other companions who then heaved another full beer at the beachgoers. By the time the light turned green, the air was filled with a barrage of glittering cans arcing in the sun.

The last thing I saw as the light changed was a young man on the beach, throwing handfuls of ice at the shipwrecked crew that was returning the frozen salvo with empty liquor bottles.

A landlubber woman shrieked. “No glass on the beach for chrissakes!”

And the battle faded into my rearview mirror as I resumed my pleasant drive to Sarasota.

Where do plots, characters, and ideas come from?

They’re all around us. Authors simply need to grab one and ask themselves…what if, and expand on that two-word question.


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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

19 thoughts on “A World Filled With Ideas

  1. Great story, Rev. Ideas are everywhere. And, if we’re looking for conflict, the national and international scene is providing a cornucopia of strife. So “what if” should be tattooed on our arms and written on our shirts. “What if” on the front, and on the back of our shirt “Would you like to be part of my story?”

    Love your stories.

  2. Thanks for an entertaining start to my Saturday.
    I think “where do you get your ideas?” is the most frequently asked question authors get.
    My quick response is that I pick them from the idea tree I have growing in my yard.

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a book idea from real life. My stories pop into my head fully formed, characters, situation, beginning and end, rattling around, scenes forming and building on one another. After my first book was published, at book signings and when I was invited to speak for various groups, this was the most asked question. You know, I’d say, the stories in your head. This was the first time I realized not everyone has these. In most of the letters I received, it was the same. But where do you get your ideas, people would write, as though if only they knew, they could become authors.

    What I’ve learned is that having dozens of stories does not an author make. I’ve written five books, started a dozen more, have titles and storylines for still more, and though yes, I’m a published author (Berkeley Penguin Putnam at that time), I’m not a successful writer like those of you who write on this blog. It’s no longer a matter of writing the book, sending it to an editor, doing the requested revisions, and then showing up for the signings and interviews. The work you all talk about in your publishing careers is daunting, far harder than getting an idea and writing a book. I’ve also learned that, for me, the idea has to be my own. Many people have said, “You should write a book about…” but I’ve never been able to make anything of those ideas. I guess my mind doesn’t work on the ‘what if’ scenario.

  4. “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Yogi Berra. So obvious, so true.

    While we are on the subject of “obvious”…Rev, you are a hell of a writer. I felt as though I was in the car next to you.

    Have a great weekend, Rev. Please keep writing.

  5. “Where do you get your ideas?” someone asked Harlan Ellison.

    “Schenectady,” he replied. “There’s a swell idea service in Schenectady. Every week I send them twenty-five bucks, and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”

    The someone asked Ellison where he could get the contact information of this place. Ellison told him, ahem, where to go.

  6. I’ve always thought ideas are like fireflies. Any kid knows you have to catch them and put them in a mason jar or they’re gone in the morning. When it’s getting toward dark is when you see them best.

    But Florida. What a place.

  7. Your writing put me in the car seat beside you, Rev, as the craziness unfolded. Terrific example of how to find story prompts wherever you look. Coming from “Keep Portland Weird,” Oregon, I have plenty of examples here. I think that’s true nearly anywhere, if a writer only looks around with a sharp eye, like you did here.

    Thanks for getting our Saturdays off to a fine storytelling start with this. Have a wonderful weekend!

  8. Local drug gangs will shoot anyone anywhere, and the local kids have taken notice, and they are trigger happy, too. At funerals, at children’s birthday parties, at a granny’s house filled with toddlers, at a mall commons filled with parents with young kids. No sane person around here says anything angry to anyone if they want to stay alive.

    As to where ideas come from, one romance author answered this ubiquitous question with “The Dollar Store. They have a bin with four for a dollar.” My favorite snarky answer to that question. I always said that ideas were easy. Having the time to use all of them is hard.

    Yesterday, I meant to mention that “Atlas Obscura” is offering an online course on writing crossword puzzles. If you haven’t subscribed to their newsletter, I highly recommend it. Lots of story ideas and joy for those of us who are knowledge and history nerds. SyFy Wire is also a great place for info on new technologies and all the science, astronomy, and dino news anyone can hope for. New dinosaurs are being announced weekly. It’s the Golden Age of Dinosaurs for dino nerds.

  9. Loved the entire post (what a lot of discord in those Florida examples!), but I admit I was so flabbergasted by the concept that a person NEVER sees ideas around them that it floored me! My life is pretty boring compared to many folks but even so, you can’t help but periodically get story ideas from what you observe in life. Most of my ideas come from reading and research (and the occasional dream), but do sometimes crop up while observing people.

    I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to NOT have story ideas crop up from time to time while looking around you. It’d be interesting to hear from this person down the road and see if, after listening to your talk, it triggers something in her to be more observant of people and situations and see if that changes her powers of observation and initiates any creative moves. I think she’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  10. In the neighborhood I grew up in, one resident across the street was the head of the L.A. Mafia. When one of his sons tore the grille off the side of our house (to create a place to hide?) my father delivered the bill to Mrs. Dragna. So there’s that. I haven’t even got to the pederast, the sociopath, or the child molester, yet. Or how my mom met Sgt Ray Hopkinson. Or the scrawled poison pen letter initialed JMJ, or the crazy woman who accused a neighbor lady of…Oh, but I can’t possibly mention THAT!
    (ᴬᴸᴸ ᵀᴿᵁᴱ)

  11. Ha! I was born and grew up in Florida. And, were it not for the heat, humidity, bugs, snakes, gators, hurricanes, traffic, sink-holes, crime, and politics… I might return.
    But so true that ideas are all around. So many can be developed just from the news that you could stay busy for the rest of your life. (Loved the stories, by the way)

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