When I tell people I'm a writer, I inveitably get asked how I come up with my story ideas. The joke of it is that my ridiculously overactive imagination needs very little to get going, and last night is an excellent example.
I woke up at 2:40 and had just been laying there when my cell phone rang. The readout said "Private number" which usually means my parents or one of my few friends with a private listing. I quickly pick up and say hello, and am met with...well, not exactly silence, because there was plenty of noise, but it's the kind of noise you hear on the phone when the person you're talking to puts down the receiver, shuffles it from one hand to another, etc. After saying hello about 4 times and getting no response, I hung up, and the plot-growing questions began.
-Who was this person? Obviously someone who had me on either speed dial or redial, which means someone I know was up at 2:55,holding their phone, and apparently oblivious to the fact that they were pressing the call button.
-Why were they carrying a phone around? Typically you don't haul a house phone around just for the heck of it. (I'm assuming it's a house phone because I don't think you can block cell phone numbers from showing up on caller ID or have them listed as private.) So they're either waiting for an important call (at 3 in the morning?!) or cleaning up the house (at 3 in the morning?!).
-Why are they up at 3 in the morning? I can honestly think of only two people who call me regularly and have a private listing: my parents and the Cummings. Now, while it's possible that one of my parents was up in the middle of the night, it doesn't make sense to me that they'd be dragging the phone around with them, because half the time they can't find the thing in the first place, and second of all, at 3 in the morning, I can asure you my parents are not cleaning the house. Having a little snack, maybe; watching some TV because they can't sleep, possibly. But not cleaning. So it must be the Cummings. But they have two kids--one is 6 months and the other is 2.5 years--and when you've got kids that small you're only giving up sleep because one of them is sick or you're feeding the baby--and again, you're not playing with the phone.
Now, I'm in the middle of sorting through all these questions when the phone rings again. I answer and hear nothing but that shuffling sound--and then a toilet flushing. This brings us to a whole new set of questions!
-Why do they have a phone in their bathroom? Neither my parents or the Cummings have a phone actually installed in there, meaning they brought the cordless in. But why?
-Again, why are you up at 3 in the morning? If you're just up to use the bathroom, which is completely normal, then you wouldn't be holding the phone at the same time. Which means you're up for something else. But what? And why?
"Why," to me, is the most important question when writing a story. It helps you to investigate nooks and crannies of the action that you might have left alone otherwise, and uncovers the motivation of even the most minor of characters. Without action and motivation, you don't have much of a story. The character hates her husband--why? Because he belittles her in front of her friends--why? Because he secretly fears her superior intelligence--why? just keep asking the question and you get to all sorts of interesting new places which ultimately serve to give your story believability and depth.
Seconds later the phone rings again. By now I have silenced the ringer because the sound is too jarring to take in the dead of night, but the thing vibrates on the table, making a whole new weird noise to be bothered by. I wrap it in the sofa's armrest cover to muffle the sound and start listening to my hypnobirthing on my iPod in an attempt to go back to sleep, but when it rings five minutes later the vibrating can be heard through the calming voice of the hypnobirth lady, and I finally turn the blasted thing off. But can I sleep? Nooooo. Because these blasted questions are pinballing around my cranium and I'm desperate for answers. (I'm also extremely nosy and really, really want to know who it is.)
But, despite the fact that I never got any answers, and probably never will, I do have to admit I've got all sorts of interesting story starters to play with next time I need a plot:
-A woman sits at her kitchen table, wrapped in her robe and the darkness of night, clutching her cordless phone with such strength that her knuckles are white. The only light in the room eminates from the television, which she's turned up to drown out the silence that terrifies her so. Why is she awake? Why is she afraid? And why is she clutching the phone so hard that she accidentally presses the redial button--without realizing it--and why is she alone when her husband is sleeping peacefully in the room down the hall?
-A man frantically races around his house, cleaning as thought Martha Stewart herself were coming to critique him. He's wired on Red Bull and a little speed, and he keeps picking things up and forgetting to put them down again. One of them, the cordless phone, remains in his hand as he gulps another Red Bull and then relieves himself in the bathroom. Why is he cleaning in the middle of the night? Why is he so frantic about it? Why did he take the speed? And why is he so distracted that he keeps holding onto things instead of putting them away like he intends to?
-A toddler sits in his mother's lap, clutching his bottle and blankie. Mom fell asleep trying to get him back to sleep, and now he's not only wide awake, but bored. He slips from her lap and abandons the bottle once he hits the floor and crawls out of the room. He finds himself in the living room, which is lit by the nightlight in the corner, and his eyes are attracted to the glint of something on the couch. Pulling himself upright, he grabs for the shiny thing and begins to gum it with all his toddler might. The object--a cordless phone--suddenly beeps and begins to ring, which causes no end of delight for the child. Suddenly a voice, sounding both far away and right next to him, says, "Hello?" He stops chewing and stares, trying to determine where this person is. 'Hello?" He realizes the object is talking to him, but then it stops, so he chews again in the hopes it will resume. Why was the phone left off the cradle all night? Why is the mother so tired that she fell that deeply asleep? Why isn't the baby afraid of the dark?
Are these scenarios going to provide me with the action for an entire book? No, not necessarily, but they're the beginnings, the stepping stones that you hop on to get to the giant plot rock on which you can build your story. And it's all thanks to someone I apparently know who called me at least 5 times last night without even knowing it.
And so we come to the end…
1 month ago