Dorothy Cannell asks What if? and gets a story idea . . .

Dorothy Cannell: Where do you get your writing ideas?  This commonly asked question is frequently answered with:  “They’re not the problem.  Writers usually have more of them than they can ever use.”  But that has to leave the inquirer wanting to know how to develop a facility for achieving this state of riches.  What I’ve found works for me is not allowing something that touches a core in me – be it pathos, indignation, amusement, etc., to slide by unexamined, nor fail to press the what if button.

A delight in my life is that my sister and her husband have recently moved, not only to Maine, but into a house within half a mile of my husband, Julian, and me.  A couple of Friday evenings ago Jean and Philip invited me over for dinner and to watch a movie they thought I’d like.  Julian couldn’t go because he had to be at his job as desk clerk at a local motel.  After a lovely evening I left at ten, promising to phone as soon as I got home to let them know I was back safely.

My entry was greeted as if I’d put in an appearance after long being believed lost at sea not only by my dog Teddy but also his friend Sam who had come to spend a few days while his owners were away.  In the midst of woofs and skittering around my feet I dialed Jean and Philip’s number.  A male voice answered immediately.


“I’m back,” I said – my mind on the need to get the dogs outside.  “Thank you both for a wonderful evening.”

“We loved having you, responded the voice.”  The dogs made it a little difficult to hear clearly.

“Absolutely great.”

“That’s what we thought.”

“Well, thanks again!”

“Thank you!”

After letting the dogs out, I gave them each a treat.  Sam climbed into his basket and Teddy snuggled down beside me while I read my book.  Fifteen minutes later the phone rang.  It was Jean on the line.  “Oh, good!”  Her voice was breathless with relief.  “You’re alright!  We were worried when you didn’t phone.”

“But I did,” I said bewildered, “I rang as soon as I came in and spoke to Philip.”

“No,” equally puzzled, “he just said that if you didn’t answer we should come over to check on you.”
“Then Who?” I floundered did I talk to?  After we had stopped laughing I raised the question – why didn’t whoever he was say I had the wrong number?  I can’t say the question has haunted me, but it has continued to niggle.  The most straightforward answer would be that whoever was on the other end of the line had also had a guest over that evening and assumed me to be that person.  Or was he someone with a mischievous sense of humor?   Or had he just roused from a nap and in a fogged state – no, he’d sounded … was buoyant the word?  I opted for the devilishly humor.

Mmm, I thought.  What sort of character were we dealing with here?  The one that formed in my mind, despite his having made an idiot of me, was an engaging one; he given me an anecdote to tell and also he’d presented me with an opportunity to press the what if button.  What if speaking with Jean or Philip on the phone immediately after reaching home would have provided me with a vitally needed alibi had I found myself a chief suspect in a murder investigation.  These days calls can be traced, so having dialed the wrong number could have been verified.  But the series I am now working on (Murder At Mullings will be published in England in January and a few months later in the U.S.) is set in the early nineteen-thirties.  What if the person my character actually spoke with had reasons for not coming forward?  What if my female character was being blackmailed and had been itching to leave her sister and brother-in-law’s home, not out of concern for tending to the dogs, but because she had an appointment with her nemesis and on the drive home had gathered her courage and decided against keeping it?  What if the blackmailer lived a good half-hour drive away, meaning my character couldn’t have been the one to stab the evil one to death in the time frame?”

This is probably one of the ideas that I won’t ever use because of not being able to tie it into a particularly captivating plot, but I rarely say never.  I got the idea for Murder at Mullings, from a chance remark by a friend several years ago and tried to work it into Withering Heights, but it didn’t fit.  It needed an earlier time setting and there it was still lingering when I decided to begin my new series.  I used to think I needed to write ideas down as they came to me, but I came to realize that the most compelling of them didn’t fade from my mind; they continued to keep tapping at my head until they merged into a plot.  The rest aren’t wasted.  Pressing the what if Button is not only a helpful writing exercise but lots of fun.




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7 Responses to Dorothy Cannell asks What if? and gets a story idea . . .

  1. MCWriTers says:

    So much fun, Dorothy.

    I have had some odd “wrong number” calls in my life. Once a woman called and accused me of having an affair with her husband. Quite the WRONG number. But there would be a story there…about getting up your courage to confront the other woman and then calling the wrong person and making your accusation. She was unwilling to consider that she might have reached the wrong party.

    Once had a chat with a guy who had a wonderful voice. He sounded like he’d be fun to know, but he wasn’t who I’d meant to call. And back in the days of party lines, like we had when we were growing up, a person could have overheard a great many conversations.


  2. Lea Wait says:

    Gee. What great stories and plot lines! The most exciting wrong numbers we seem to get are for people trying to reach Morse’s Sauerkraut (an amazing tucked-away Maine deli and German restaurant.) Their telephone number is only one digit away from ours …

  3. Gram says:

    My number used to be one off from an oil company. I used to get calls in the middle of the night asking for a delivery as they were out of oil! Dee

  4. Barbara Ross says:

    At my grandparents house one summer when I was a teenager, we got a call from CBS News in New York wanting to know about the murder in our compound. Murder? Compound? It was a dead-end street with 5 houses on it, but hardly a compound. Anyway, they said one of our neighbors was dining out all over New York City telling the tale of finding a body in our house!

    I also once got a call from the Brookline police asking if I’d had an appointment with a certain hypnotherapist. She was missing and they said my name and number were the only things on her scatch pad. I have a common name, but my number? I’d never heard of her or been to see her.

  5. Great post, Dorothy and I love your picture with your sweet pup! My memory is the pits these days, so I generally write things down, either in a folder on the computer or in the Notes spot on my phone.
    I’ve never had the messed up phone experiences y’all have shared. Sure are some makings of good stories here. 🙂

  6. Molly Weston says:

    Dorothy, you’d make grocery lists into fun reading! Who’s the publisher of your new series? I’ll beg them for an ARC.

  7. Dorothy says:


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