Thursday, April 12, 2007

Staring into Space

Staring Into Space (April 12th)

I was curled into my favorite chair on the sun porch the other night when my husband suddenly appeared with a curious expression on his face. “Why are you always staring into space?” he asked, as if he hasn’t lived with me for, lo, these many years.
“I’m working,” I said, as if patiently explaining some mystery of the universe, “on the new book.” It takes time. Lots of daydreaming.
This is one problem with being a writer. Nobody seems to think you’re really getting anything done (and of course, sometimes I’m not but have a neat excuse). Yet this staring into space is a necessary part of the creative process in all its magical permutations.
But where do ideas come from in the first place? Sorry, but who knows?
I once heard an editor say that any given idea seems to circulate in space, and a number of writers grab the same premise, for instance, as it floats past. On the other hand, that may be a result of everyone watching the same newscasts, reading the same magazines, absorbing the same episode of “Oprah” as they—in my case—grind away on the treadmill.
Sometimes inspiration can come from eavesdropping on a conversation, the touch of a hand, a familiar scent, a remembered taste, even an unexpected observation. The senses can be a great starting point.
Two examples: One steamy afternoon on vacation in Louisiana, I saw a brief exchange between the local guide for a bayou tour and a darkly handsome guy in city clothes who lent a hand to tie up the boat. Muscles bulged. In the docking process these two taunted each other as men do with rough humor and a few Cajun epithets (I assumed) thrown in for good measure. The well-dressed guy’s voice was like dark velvet.
All at once, in a heartbeat, I had the hero of a new book. After all, he’d just saved me from drifting back out into the impenetrable bayou. My mind went spinning. This guy had grown up tough, maybe without a father—but he’d made it out somehow. Let’s say he escaped to New Orleans and became a homicide detective. He has a problem now returning to his roots. Voila, a character was born.
And off I went.
Songs can be very evocative too. I’ve always loved “Danny Boy,” its heartfelt lyrics. But what if Danny is a bull rider who yearns to win the world championship? What if he’s still clinging to that dream when he should be hanging up his rope? What if he’s estranged from the more pragmatic wife he loves—and left behind on a Montana ranch?
Still, any idea is just the start. I don’t pretend to understand what happens after that. Taking that germ of a premise or character, however it first appears, letting it percolate, then making it into something wonderful, deep and rich and textured, perhaps even funny and wise, is where the real work begins.
That’s where the lots of time comes in, and all that staring into space.
Excuse me. Gotta get back to the sun porch now.
Yesterday I read a quote from Dr. Joyce Brothers: “The best proof of love is trust.” Synchronicity. That’s what my newest heroine needs to learn!
Oh. No. I just gave away the ending…

Leigh Riker

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