TV Commercials as Inspiration

I can see you scratching your heads as you read that title. Inspiration from television commercials? Surely you jest! But the truth of the matter is that the strangest things can spark an “ah-ha!” moment. Sometimes the idea is a big one, concerning a major plot point, but more often, at least for me, a visual image gives me a little push in developing a character or a situation in one of my mystery novels.

Take Birdie Googins. For those of you not in Maine, Birdie is a character created by Maine humorist, actress, and playwright Karmo Sanders. Some years back, Birdie also became the spokesperson for Marden’s, a surplus store here in Maine. Their slogan is “I should have bought it when I saw it at Marden’s.” That little jingle has turned into an earworm for many, but Birdie’s character, the frantic Marden’s customer, is even more enduring.

So what did Birdie inspire? It was back when I was writing the first Liss MacCrimmon mystery, Kilt Dead. I wanted to make the retired schoolteacher who lives next door to Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium an eccentric older woman who is a little overwhelming and a lot snoopy. I knew she’d sound like an old-time Mainer and that I could play with that way of speaking for comic effect as long as I didn’t overdo it. It didn’t really come as a surprise that when I started writing her dialogue, she sounded exactly like Birdie Googins, with a hint of the woman in a Central Maine Power Company commercial thrown in for good measure. I toned “Mrs. Norris” down a bit, but Birdie was definitely the inspiration for her character.

More recently, an important detail of the cold case Liss will solve in the book I’m working on now (#8) also came from something I saw on television, one of the many Allstate Insurance commercials featuring a character called “Mayhem,” portrayed by actor Dean Winters. In each of them, some sort of disaster ensues that would be covered if only the people in the commercial had been insured by Allstate. The one that caught my eye featured Mayhem as a Christmas tree, netted and loaded on top of a car. Of course, the “tree” falls off and causes all sorts of damage.

At our Christmas tree farm, we net trees for customers. The netter, being big enough to get a tree through, is also big enough for a person. So, in keeping with the best of the “what a great place to hide the body” moments mystery authors experience, I immediately saw the potential in this situation. If a murderer wanted to keep the body from being found for a week or two, why not ship it off in a load of Christmas trees headed out of state for sale in tree lots somewhere far away?

The problem with this kind of eureka moment is that it then takes a lot of thinking to figure out why someone would go to all that trouble when it would be far simpler just to dispose of the body in the woods. Keep in mind that I write slightly wacky cozy mysteries. Murder is a serious matter, but the characters affected by it in mystery fiction need not be. So, as I write this, I believe I’ve come up with a viable plot. I know who dunnit and why, and who the victim was. Now I just have to write the book.

I join fellow Maine Crime Writers Lea Wait and Barb Ross in having a September 1st deadline. Wish me luck.

If you want to see an interview with Birdie, here’s the link:

And the Mayham commercial is here:

I hope you’ll come back after you’ve viewed them and leave a comment.

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3 Responses to TV Commercials as Inspiration

  1. Deanna says:

    Where in ME is Marden’s? I’d love to go there because of the ads and that wonderfully crazy lady!!! The Allstate one is o.k. for an idea, but the ad leaves much to be desired!!! Dee

  2. John Clark says:

    Deana, there are Mardens all over the state, S. Portland, Lewiston, Waterville, Brewer and Calais and probably a couple I haven’t hit.. Kaitlin, I know what you mean about commercials sticking. Who can forget Clara Peller and I still quote from very early Narragansett beer commercials. In my first Wizard book, I had Berek talk about ‘taking a bite out of crime’ to the complete consternation of his non-earth companions, attributing it to something a dog in a trenchcoat once said halfway across the universe. As for the body disposal, how about hiding it in a load of trees heading from the local transfer station to a pellet mill. It could then be described as a heartwarming experience.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Ouch, John! And I, too, love, love, love those Mardens commercials! Unfortunately I don’t live near enough to one of the actual stores to shop at one. I have to content myself with Renys, another Maine adventure. (One of my readers wrote and criticized my protagonist, Maggie Summer, for shopping at LL Bean instead of Renys in Shadows of a Down East Summer. She forgot Maggie actually comes from New Jersey and probably didn’t know any better.) (Loved the post, Kaitlyn!)

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