I went on a mission trip a few years ago with a group of college kids. To pass the time, they played a couple games that I found infuriating…until I learned the secret. One was called the drummer game. One person would say “I can play the drummer game,” then pat their hands around in some sort of beat and point to someone else saying, “Can you?” That person would then try it and pass it along. When it got to me, I said the words, drummed a beat, and pointed at someone. “Nope,” they said. “You can’t play the drummer game.” Frustrated, I tried a few more times then settled in to watch others and learn the trick. Another, the triangle game, was similar. Someone would say “I draw a triangle between myself, John, and Mary. Who’s the triangle pointed at?” and you had to figure it out. Eventually, they would draw a triangle from the Empire State Building, to the Eiffel Tower, to the Brooklyn Bridge, or something absurd like that, and it would always be pointed at someone in the room. If you don’t know the rules, I’m not going to give away the trick to either game so you experience my initial frustration (that’s half the fun of the game). Just know there is no math involved in either (yay!). (If you’re really just dying to know, you can leave a comment and I’ll message you or something).
These games especially irritated me because I hate being out of the loop. Hate. It. I want to be in the know. Sometimes, I feel like published authors have their own version of the drummer and triangle games. For instance, one of the most common questions I read in author interviews is “where do you get your ideas?” The answers are usually the same: vague and unsatisfying. You know what I mean, right? They all say, “from everywhere,” or “they just come to me,” etc. Sure, some give more specifics, but it’s like there’s some big secret they’ve all conspired to keep.
I think that’s one reason I love “Lisey’s Story” by Stephen King so much. Hear me out. People who don’t read King are usually immediately turned off by his name, but horror stuff aside, he writes some really amazing stories (“The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption” for instance). If you’re not familiar with “Lisey’s Story” (first of all there’s a link on my Books You Really Must Read page so you can buy it, haha), the basic story is this: Lisey’s writer husband dies and Lisey is reflecting on their lives together. Her husband would frequently disappear when writing, to his study, etc. After his death, Lisey discovers where he went and it’s not what she expected. He went to another world. A place he called Boo’ya Moon and got his ideas from a pool there. To fully understand her husband and the demons that plagued him, she has to travel to Boo’ya Moon.
It’s beautiful really. And it was the first thing I’d read that described where I felt my stories came from. It’s like Steve was writing me (yeah, we’re on a nickname basis…although he doesn’t necessarily know that…). I’d mentioned something similar to my husband before when he asked about the source of my own story ideas. Steve’s image perfectly captures what happens to writers when we write. We recede within ourselves and visit a place of ideas, then we transplant those ideas to the page.
But that’s not the most satisfying answer as to where ideas come from, is it? Nor is it particularly honest. Sure, there is a pool of stories inside me begging to bubble out, but something inspired them.
It hit me yesterday while I was, of all things, cooking dinner. Hubby and I had just finished weeding and mulching a flower bed. We were covered in soft, black dirt and our hands were stained dark brown by the damp mulch. The air smelled like Spring: light and cool with a hint of grass and flowers and earth and rain. Our growling stomachs told us the time, so we moved to the back yard to plant a couple blueberry bushes and fix supper. The dog bounced around our ankles as I soaked the roots in a pail of water and Hubby dug the hole. I went inside to cut up fresh yellow summer squash and zucchini and smoked sausage for grilling. It reminded me of Springs and Summers as a little girl, picking fresh vegetables and shelling peas with my grandmother. As the sausage and veggies sizzled on the grill, and my husband watered the newly planted bushes, I glanced around my yard (our property backs onto a nature preserve) and thought “there’s a story here.” Not so much a story though, but a description, and, for me at least, the best stories grow from a great description.
I could see two teenage guys, Yankees, visiting one of their grandmother’s in the South for the Summer. The air hangs around them like a wet blanket. Blueberry bushes and muscadine vines run along the chain link fence that separates the cultivated yard, full of flowers and herbs, from the expanse of pasture full of cows. Crickets chirp and lightning bugs flash as the sun sinks, casting a faint bluish gray hue over the world. Somewhere, a bug zapper buzzes to life and fries mosquitoes before they can suck the boys’ blood, leaving red, itchy welts. Dogs bark and the cows low and chain creaks as the boys sit on a wooden porch swing, waiting for supper. The soft drawl of the grandmother stands out, sweet and slow, against the harsh tones of the boys as she calls for them to wash up. Butter slides down cornbread, hot in its iron skillet, and fresh fried okra fills a small kitchen with a greasy, yet mouth-watering aroma. In the house, the air is still and warm, the only relief coming from a soft breeze blowing through the screen door and open windows. I knew that one of the boys was named Henry and the local guys called him Hank the Yank. I don’t know what the boys are doing there yet, or what their story is, but I know the feel and the tone, and that’s where it all starts.
This morning on the way to work I found an old cd I burned in college. Scratched though it was, it still played well enough. As I listened to “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, I really thought about the feel of the song, especially the beginning. Janis portrays the imagery so well. “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train, and I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans.” From that one sentence you know exactly where she is, what she’s doing, how she feels and how she looks. It inspired me. Maybe it will weave itself into the story that popped in my head last night, or maybe it will evolve into something new. It doesn’t matter. The seed is there. It’s in the bottom of my pool, and one day when I need it, a plant will rise to the surface for me to pick and use in a story, like fresh herbs pulled from the garden for supper.
That’s the trick to my personal triangle game and I have a feeling it’s the way it works for other writers as well. But, then again, I’m not published (yet), so maybe there is some big secret all published authors have conspired to keep. What do you think? Where do you get your inspiration?