By Wendy Hornsby
When I venture out wearing my guise as a writer to speak to groups of readers, by far the most frequently asked question I field is, Where do you get your ideas? The answer is, I look up. I hope that doesn’t sound snarky, because it’s the truth. Most published writers I know can make a story out of just about any situation. Maybe it takes a particular sort of imagination, or maybe it’s writerly conditioning, but there is story material lurking in the most ordinary situations and encounters.
For example, last night I was wool gathering, staring at my computer screen, supposedly working on a book proposal, lost to time, when I heard my husband walking toward the stairs that lead down into my work room. The clock said it was time to start thinking about what we were going to do for dinner, so that’s what he was coming down to talk about. I heard him step onto the top landing, and immediately he let loose with his rarely-deployed signature epithet, “God DAMN sonofabitch,” so I knew something dire had happened. Rising from my chair, I asked my usual question: “Is there blood?” He answered only, “Come.”
Because towels are useful in just about any calamity, I grabbed the towel I keep by the back door for muddy feet and raced for the stairwell. I found Paul standing above me holding two glasses of Cabernet, one a little less full than the other.
“Fabulous replication of arterial spray,” I said in appreciation when I saw what had happened. He’d made a misstep or hiccupped or something on his way down. Whatever he’d done had caused wine to shoot over the top of one of the glasses and out into the air above the narrow stairwell. It didn’t take very much more than a generous tablespoonful of wine, no more than two, to make a broad mess. Splotches of deep red dropped onto every one the eleven steps, coursed down the stair rail, and spritzed both yellow walls with a very decent vintage 2008 California red.
As I mopped my way up the stairs toward Paul, we talked, of course, about blood spatter and how tough it would be to clean up a crime scene in a hurry because of the extent of the spray and how quickly it stained. Paul, the stand-in for the perp, was himself a mess, dripping wine from wrist to elbow. We had several interesting crime scenarios worked through before we finished the clean up and started talking about dinner. I suppose there are people who would find the topic of the hour more than a little morbid, but after living with a mystery writer for many years, my husband has become accustomed to conversations of this sort.
Sometimes, stories begin to emerge when I look down. The seed for “The Legacy,” the story I contributed to the Jewish Noir anthology, edited by Ken Wishnia, from PM Press (October 2015), came up out of my garden one morning. I pulled up a weed, and tangled in its roots was a shiny red plastic bead, a little buried treasure left behind by someone who lived in the house before us.
I find all sorts of things the left behind by the children who once lived in the house: a deflated hacky-sack snagged in the thorny Oregon berry bushes, the remnants of sidewalk chalk under the wooden swing, corroded Hot Wheels, a dolly’s pink bottle, plastic soldiers, and, frequently, plastic beads. Someone must have had a big box or bag of beads that got spilled in the yard. A child might pretend they were real jewels. A writer would know they were. And have maybe three versions of how they might have been lost and how they were found again and the dangers inherent in possessing something coveted by others, all running amok through the imagination.
We live California’s Mother Lode, Gold Rush country, atop a mountain of gold. There are still people hunting for, and sometimes finding, glittering treasure among the rocks. For now, I’m perfectly happy discovering the occasional plastic bead or soldier or corroded toy car. Every discovery has a story, a treasure in its own way. If you just look up.