I'm on a walk, pushing my son ahead of me in the stroller. At barely a year old, he doesn't say much, and I don't feel guilty about not talking to him. After spending his entire life inside our house, just seeing the trees and houses, the spring flowers and the cars passing by, is quite enough stimulation for him.
I've left my headphones at home. The baby only slept for 30 minutes and, naptime being my only guaranteed work time, I feel compelled to do something with my brain as I walk rather than passively consuming a podcast or audiobook or even some chilled-out music.
I do this sometimes. It's something I started in my early days as a teacher. Burnt out from a dozen hours in front of a computer or my spiral-bound lesson planning book or a group of enthusiastic five-year-olds who all spoke my second language, I'd close up the book, power down the computer, and pack my materials into my backpack. "I'll think about this on the drive," I'd tell myself, or "I'll figure it out while I swim." The habit quickly became unhealthy, interrupting my sleep and leaving me unable to truly enjoy my relationships for a couple years. I managed to rein it in with a combination of therapy, growing into a better teacher, and a shift in expectations.
But I don't idle well, and sometimes it comes back.
As I'm driving to visit my parents, I think through the backstory to a book I'm writing. On my bike ride, I outline an article or think of metaphors that would make good poetry. Today, as I walk, I'm not sure what I'm looking for. Inspiration, I guess. I keep my eyes open and let my thoughts drift and rush, climbing over each other and surfacing, then sinking to the bottom again.
To my right is tree like I've never seen before. It stretches tall and straight, its canopy beginning high above the house behind it. The entire trunk is covered from bottom to tip-top with a thick cushion of ivy. I keep walking.
Ahead of me a woman walks on the grass next to the curb. She holds a baby, a warm bundle wrapped in a soft yellow blanket. Next to her, a toddler - older than my son, but not by much - weaves from side to side. A blue SUV approaches. The little girl reaches the curb and when her mother calls out, she angles herself toward the grass before taking a sharp turn and wading back into the street. The woman rushes over and reaches down awkwardly, squeezing the girl's elbow through the puffy purple coat and pulling her back up onto the grass. "Sorry!" she mouths at the driver of the SUV as it crawls past her. The driver smiles and waves at the mother, then curls her fingers and waves at the little girl. I keep walking.
At one house, there is a collection of ride-on toys lined up neatly along the edge of a driveway and a half-dozen brightly-patterned cups sitting abandoned on the front landing. A few steps ahead, an older woman and a little boy of about two peer over the edge of the road into a creek trickling below. I keep walking.
Between noticing all these details, I begin to ask myself questions. I begin to find my inspiration.
What if the tree were home to a little gnome? What if it were larger and some kids made a clubhouse inside? What if the ivy were a creature whose job it was to protect the tree and the property upon which it sits?
What if the driver of that SUV had been checking her phone, or tuning the radio, and she hadn't slowed when the little girl stumbled out into the street? Or what if, instead of smiling and waving, the driver had yelled at the woman, or at the child? What if she'd swerved into a light pole?
What if the children belonging to those ride-along toys and colorful cups had just disappeared as they played? What if they were transported to a magical dimension with cotton-candy grass and trees with licorice trunks? What if they were given to new families, in some other dimension, or on some other planet? What if the woman and child, who appeared so innocent craning their necks to observe the creek, had something to do with it?
For me, this is where inspiration comes from: A series of questions. What if this? What if that? If this happened, what might have caused it? What would happen as a consequence? In effect, this is how my stories are made. With few exceptions, all my fiction ideas come from this place. The answers to these questions build the world and tell the story.
When The Other Women gets closer to publication, I'll share with the cool kids what questions went into creating the story and what questions I'm asking as I start outlining the sequel. (Yes, you read that right!) Are you a cool kid? If not, be sure to use the form on this page to sign up! You'll get a free deleted scene the second you subscribe, but you'll also be first in line for a ton of other goodies and fun stuff.
What are some what-if questions you think would make a good story? Let me know in the comments!