Thursday, June 11, 2009

Maybe you know the drill. Been in this situation. Bought the t-shirt.

You attend a reunion party.

A few people ask you what you've been up to in recent years. One person actually has heard about your book. A few more old friends circle around to ask questions. Oh, you think. This party is going to be swell.

But then your old friend says, “I can’t believe that story came out of your brain! How did you think up that idea?"

Now, this comment could be interpreted several ways, but I chose to be flattered. In fact, I think that’s the best review I’ve ever received. (Of course, this comes after the internal “Mwah, ha, hah, hah…I wrote an actual book and you just thought I was kidding about that way back in the 80s when my shoulder pads were huge, my brows were questionable and a tweet was still a sound a bird makes!”)

I think most writers secretly wish that those who know them are surprised by their ideas. If you're like me, there’s no one answer to the question "where do your ideas come from." But when I was ironing the other day, a “what if” idea popped into my head that is starting to feel like it might become a novel.

Here’s what happened.

I was ironing a shirt for my daughter. For some reason, my brain receives good ideas while I’m ironing or blow drying my hair. Must be the heat. Anyway, I’m doing the back and forth thing, zoning out, skimming over my mental calendar. I think about my hubby’s upcoming 4-Wheel Bronco trip. (He’s an off-road enthusiast with a SWEET rebuilt Bronco.) I think about how fun it might be if he invites our next door neighbor’s 12 year-old son to go along with him. He’s a Boy Scout and the prospect of charging over giant granite rocks inside a vehicle with tires that are more than half his size would be right up his alley. Then the mamma bear in me thinks, well, what if he got hurt? I would feel terrible. His mother is one of my best friends.

Then, the magical story palette appears and I start choosing colors.

What if a man took his neighbor’s son on a trip and he was accidentally killed or injured? What would that do the relationship of the neighbors – particularly as they watched their other kids grow up? Could they still be friends? Would someone have to move? Would both women carry different versions of Mom Guilt with them forever? What would it take to heal? What if the mom who didn’t lose a child was somehow more damaged as a result of this event while the mom who lost her son achieved peace?

Suddenly, I was very interested in the human drama that would play out between these two families in a Jacquelyn Mitchardesque kind of way.

After I finished ironing, I made a few notes about the questions I would have if I were the Gladys Kravitz neighbor across the street. You member Gladys, don’t you? She was the busybody neighbor on the TV show Bewitched and it’s my experience that every neighborhood has some version of this nosy character. If I was Gladys, peaking out from behind my window curtain at the houses of these two neighbors, what would I want to know? What questions would I ask? These questions are making me so curious that I'm now writing answers. This could be the genesis of a potential story.

How about you? Do you get asked the question, “where do your ideas come from?” If so, how do you respond?


Karen Harrington is the author of Janeology
What did Jane do and why?
Read an excerpt at
Visit her blog –

1 comment:

Julie Kibler said...

I think most of our ideas must come from at least a kernel of our real lives. Writers just have a way of bouncing off those what ifs in a big, spectacular way!

Your story idea reminds me a little of A Map of the World (Jane Hamilton). It's a great book/movie. Wrenching. Might be interesting to think of it from the fathers' perspectives.