Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Free Association (or How Writers Think)

By Beth Terrell

"Where do you get your ideas?" people ask. I know I've written about this before, but last night I discovered a prime example of how a writer's mind works.

Last night, my husband, Mike, and I were watching an Animal Planet show about people who keep dangerous exotic animals as pets. One woman was admitted to the hospital suffering from the bite of a poisonous snake. Despite doctors' attempts to save her, the woman died. When police went to her home, one turned over a basket he saw in the living room; there was a live cobra beneath it. A moment later, they realized that there were almost a dozen poisonous snakes roaming freely through the house. Since discretion is the better part of valor, they carefully backed out of the house and called in specialists. I don't know where you find venomous-snake-removal experts, but apparently they're out there. All I know is, I couldn't find one in the Yellow Pages.

The second story on the show was about a man who had a house full of monitor lizards, some of which were six or seven feet long. Again, the animals were roaming freely through the house. You probably know that lizards carry salmonella and that the saliva of monitors harbors bacteria that is potentially deadly to humans. Komodo dragons are the deadliest, but even the bites of smaller lizards can carry deadly infections. This man had been bitten multiple times by his lizards and failed to seek medical attention for his injuries. Instead, he waited until he started to feel sick, then took some antibiotics he had in the medicine cabinets. By then it was too late. Weakened by his illness, he collapsed on his living room floor, where the pets he loved so much...ate him. Or parts of him.

These stories reminded me a panel I attended at a Bouchercon several years ago. It was a conversation with John Connolly and Lee Child, two of my favorite authors. I don't remember everything they said, because I spent more time than I should probably admit swooning over their accents and thinking, My gosh. I'm breathing the same air as JOHN CONNOLLY!!!!!" I did my best, though, which is why I remember that one of the moderator's questions led to a discussion of cat mysteries.

"I never quite got cat mysteries," Connolly said. "If you were going to have an animal solve a mystery, why not pick something that might actually care that someone had been murdered? Like, say, a golden retriever? Why pick an animal that, if it were to find its owner lying dead on the kitchen floor, would probably feed on the soft bits?" (Not OUR cat, of course. Edgar, would be above such base instincts.)

Anyway, that memory led me to think about how dangerous and exotic reptiles might be used in a mystery. There's the obvious answer, of course--that a deadly snake or monitor lizard could be used as a murder weapon--but how about other possibilities? What about a guy who collects or studies these animals? I can't see a Komodo Dragon being as engaging as Rita Mae Brown's feline sleuth, Sneaky Pie Brown, but my quirky side finds the idea appealing. Our detective would have to be an eccentric fellow, probably something of a loner, so what sort of crime would it take to engage him in the plot? Well, what if a half-eaten body were found in his lizard enclosure, and police were convinced that his lizards were to blame for the death? Our reluctant hero would have to find proof that someone else killed the victim and dumped him in the enclosure.

I'll probably never write a book about this guy (though he's beginning to appeal to me, so I may end up writing a short story about him--or her), but I think going through the thought process exercises my writing muscles. Ideas beget ideas; creation begets creation.

Where do you get your ideas?


Jean Henry Mead said...


I'm not sure where my own ideas come from, but I met a writer online who had five pet rattlesnakes that she kept in plastic boxes in her closet. The Phoenix police department would call her to capture rattlers that escaped from their owners. (It gives me cold chills just thinking about it.)

Mark W. Danielson said...

Hmm, Snakes on a Plane or Lassie Come Home? I think I'll take Lassie. In fact, today I saw an account of a dog leading police to an Alaska home that was on fire with its injured owner inside. I'm sure Connelly would like that one.

As for ideas, it matters not whether I'm talking short story or novel, they come from daily life, just as you described. The news, people in malls, and idiot that cut you off on the road all inspire stories.

Eeleen Lee said...

its not so much a specific place but waiting to receive ideas from something