Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Where Do You Get Your Material?

By Martha Reed

People who read my fiction look at me differently once they’re done. I’ve noticed it on more than one occasion especially if it’s someone I work with during the day. You see, my 9-5 job is in financial services and it’s very focused on a specific product. My associates see the Me in the suit – that’s the Me they’ve come to know and then they read one of my horror stories or my mystery novel and then they ask: Hey, Marth? Where do you get this stuff from?

1)    I get it from reading. Honestly, I read everything I can get my hands on because you never know where an idea will lead you. I can remember the first time I tried to weave three unrelated items together to create an entirely new story and I was amazed when it held up and took on a life of its own. I’ve even taken this cool tool one step further and I can now identify something going on in the new that I will probably circle back to later to use in a future story. I already know that I will probably be using some version of the kidnapped child/sex slave kept in the backyard at some future time.

2)    I get it from listening. You never know what you will hear. It’s the only reason I like riding the bus – I overhear massive amounts of private conversation. For instance, one morning I was heading into town when an obviously upset middle-aged woman climbed aboard. You could tell she was just dying to find someone to talk to and luckily, she did. She plopped down and started complaining that her mother-in-law had called her because the basement was flooding and she (the mother-in-law) wanted her son to come home from the union hall to help her get stuff up out of the water. The daughter-in-law/woman on the bus then called down to the hall to get her husband Donny to go help his mother but the receptionist told her that Donny wasn’t there just then he was over at his girlfriend’s house.

Bam. You could have heard a pin drop and I wasn’t the only one who rode that bus every morning for a solid week waiting for the follow up. We never got it. I even read the paper every day looking for a domestic disturbance or homicide notice but the story went cold. I didn’t get discouraged, though – that’s where fiction can step in. Someday I may need a character like Donny’s First Wife and there she is, already neatly in hand.

3)    I keep my eyes open. Characters are out walking our streets. Since we’re coming up on Halloween, I’ll tell you a spooky one. There’s a character in my first novel, Addie Simpson, a heavy-set fifty year old woman who sports a goatee. Addie is a complete fabrication although I did give that character a lot of thought when I was starting out since Addie was a pivotal character. Years later, I was standing in the A&P on Nantucket with my niece who was admiring the lobster tank when I looked up and damn if Addie Simpson wasn’t standing there in the chip aisle grinning at me. The woman had it down to the dirty navy peacoat she was wearing. I stood there, conflicted – I couldn’t leave my niece alone but all I wanted to do was run up to the woman and touch her to see if she was real.

Which brings me to the question of the day: Where Do You Get Your Material? Please post your answers. Inquiring minds want to know.


Annette said...

I've gotten characters from newspaper articles...I think small town papers are best for that. They don't simply print the shootings and murders. They print the stories about someone's pumpkins being stolen from their yard.

Right now, a lot of my characters are coming from my youth. You know how you wonder "what ever happened to so-and-so? I've been doing a little creative age progression on some folks and plopping them in my stories. It's kind of therapeutic...

Martha Reed said...

HI, Annette, the past is a great gold mine. I used it in my first book.

I had this really horrible boss at work - a savage bully and I felt helpless and stuck because I needed the job. After I left that firm I started writing this story and I used him as my antogonist - mostly because he brought up so many hard feelings they helped me hate the character. I had my revenge, though because when the mss was complete I went back in and changed everything about the character - name, description, everything so he'd never be able to recognize himself in case he ever read my work.

Now I look back on it and laugh - I should thank him. He pissed me off so badly I got a good book out of it!

Joyce said...

The simple answer is everywhere.

I've found beginnings of stories in newspapers, in the grocery store, at the mall--you name it. I have a folder of ideas I've either clipped from the paper, printed from the internet, or written on sticky notes.

I've used bits of overheard conversations and expanded on them, too. I figure writing gives me the perfect excuse to eavesdrop!

Martha Reed said...

Hey, Joyce.

I forgot to mention using the stack of magazines in the beauty salon whenever I go for a haircut. They're usually ones I never see: Madamoiselle, Glamor, Elle, and the stories have a different slant to my usual reads. I've found some material there.

PatRemick said...

I like the news for finding interesting twists on things but sometimes I follow Jodi Picoult's maxim of writing about your worst fears -- and hoping by doing so, they will never come true for your family and friends. I won an award for a story about the aftermath of the death of a policeman -- even before my son entered the police academy.

Gina said...

I get ideas from so many places that they're hard to trace back to the source. Some characters are me, or aspects of me at a younger age. Some characters are friends, family members, co-workers, pets, strangers glimpsed in an ER or on a bus.

Situations grow out of real life experience and, yes, overheard conversations. I love to eavesdrop.

Some ideas are transmutations of reality. I got the idea for one paranormal novel (unpublished) that features a dangerously protective doll passed down for generations in one family when I took a job with an electric utility company. The company owned nuclear power plants at that time, and I got to wondering what happens when something powerful, created for a benevolent purpose, outlives the person who could control it.

I wrote another unpublished novel (sigh) after a bad house fire and dealing with the restoration company. in that book, a mysterious character offers to restore what was lost in a fire, for a price.

Yet another unpublished novel (do we detect a trend?) was partially inspired by my work with a small law firm and a particular car crash case.

Then there's the first (unpublished) manuscript I completed. That was inspired by a past life regression. While my own remembered past lives were mundane, my protagonist recalls a sword and sorcery existence in an exotic medieval setting.

Oh, and the (unpublished) novel partially set in Huntington, West Virginia, where my best friend from college lived for several years. In fact, I used her house as a setting. That story, involving repressed memories, was inspired by news stories about the unreliability of repressed memories (although the ones in my book are, of course, true memories of a crime).

One (unpublished) short story came to me when I saw a squirrel walking across an overhead wire.

I could go on and on. LIke I said. I get ideas everywhere. My problem is selling them once they're written.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great post...I've tweeted it!

I get my material much the same way you do--being an observer. Staying just a little bit detached and picking up interesting ideas from conversation, the web, the news, etc.

Mystery Writing is Murder