Steal This Idea!


An escaped lobsterman’s glove, tangled in a rope. But doesn’t it look like more than that?

Kate Flora: Yesterday, Maureen Milliken wrote a post about the value of conversation to a writer. She’s so right. It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of talking to people in the know when you’re writing in a genre that requires detailed knowledge about the world of crime. As Maureen wrote, there are a lot of things we need to research in order to get them right, and we work in a genre where our readers are sharp, and quick to call us on it when we don’t do our research.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, though, you will know how I like to harp (oh, is that too negative a word or does harp put you in mind of lovely music?) on the subject of imagination. I’ve even taken my interest in prodding writers to use their imaginations as far as teaching a class for Grub Street from time to time called, “Imagine This.” Any student who has ever taken a class with me knows how often I urge those with a desire to write to pull out their earbuds, turn off their screens, and look at the world—and the people—around them to see the fabulous story ideas that are happening all around them all the time.

Once, years ago, I got the assignment to write the Afterword for a magazine. I decided to write about imagination, and since I was at one of those very cool parties that happen at conventions, with a room full of A-list writers, I decided to ask random people what came to mind when I used the word: Imagination. Far too many people reacted like it was a trick question, instead of saying: what we use all the time when we are writing.

This past weekend, I spent far too much time in my car dashing from one writerly event

The goofy blue chair I just finished putting together.

The goofy blue chair I just finished putting together.

to another—events that were great fun, but which took me away from my writing desk, and the work that is calling to me. While I was driving, I was listening to NPR, and heard some interviews with E.L Doctorow, including this quote:

The thing about writing is that you use your imagination a good deal of the time and you can usually work out things by thinking about them and imagining them. That’s the whole game – to get into people’s skins, to pretend to be someone you’re not, to have experiences you’ve never had and to represent them truly to render them. E.L. Doctorow in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR

One of the things that happens when we look around, and let the things we see prod our imaginations, is we begin to ask the question: What is that about? Who is that about? What happened just before this? What is going to happen next?

For example, what is driving that chubby, heavily tattooed man in the diner in Falmouth to want to wear that ratty-looking semi-automatic weapon on his belt?

How did a folding chair, a sleeping bag, a beach towel, and assorted other gear come to be rolling around in the road just north of Portland and how will the owners feel when they realize it is gone?

What is the significance of that wreath of plastic flowers and a helium balloon tied to the corpse of a dead porcupine? Is it just to make people like me wonder? An exercise of whimsical imagination?

It’s a fact. The world is full of marvelous, slightly off-beat things that prompt our questions. But just as Maureen reminds us we need to be talking to people, I’m here today to remind you to look around, see what’s there, and let it prompt your imagination IMG_2762to think about the story it might tell. You don’t need a book of writing prompts, though of course they can be helpful. But you do need to look. And you need to wonder.

Tomorrow, I am off to Union to pick blueberries in the 18-acre field my husband gave me for my 55th birthday. And on Wednesday? Happy Birthday to me.




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9 Responses to Steal This Idea!

  1. Jewel Hanley says:

    Another Leo, imagine that.
    And the photo of the glove looks like a rotting hand. I wonder where the rest of the body is? What happened to it? And who helped it get there?

  2. Karla says:

    A tribute and celebration of imagination! A perfect wake-up call. Happy Birthday Kate.

  3. Gram says:

    Happy Birthday – Wednesday! 🙂
    Enjoy the pie…

  4. Lovely post, Kate, and a nice reminder to keep my eyes and ears open, and then let my brain run wild with what I see and hear.

  5. Lea Wait says:

    Of course — Happy Birthday! (Imagine that!)
    And — I want that blue chair. Fantastic!
    Onward to the great beyond that only exists in our minds …

  6. Loved the picture. I wondered why the spider was upside-down on its thread…Here’s a trick I learned in, of all places, high school chemistry class. Observe an object–in class it was a candle flame–and describe in it as much detail as you possibly can. Then figure out how it got there and what it means. Observation + imagination=story.

  7. Barb Ross says:

    I love that Doctorow quote! What is important is not that as writers we get things “right.” What’s important is that we believe and therefore can persuade our readers to believe. I often feel a lot of my research is for the purpose of gaining me enough background and confidence to sell the lie.

  8. Belated congrats on your award, your birthday and the blueberries. I received a boat on my 80ieth. Have done nothing with my mystery in a year. Too many family problems. I’m not giving up. Imagination? My mother would greet me at the door home from kdg. “Why who’s little girl are you?” I would reply that I was an orphan and on the game went. Some days she opened the door to a tiger! or a bear! and fed me my lunch through the bars of a wicker table. Sadly, too many kids today lack this. I blame TV.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Love this game, Georgia! Sorry about the family troubles. I liked your book a lot. And now you’ll be distracted by a boat? Oh well. There’s always winter.

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