Only because it’s happened to me three times in the last week am I moved to address something I’m sure many writers have to deal with, that moment when someone tells you a bit of interesting information or an intriguing anecdote and then says: “You should write that; that would make a great story.” (Though I’m also sure few of my friends speak with semicolons.) (But when they do, they’re used correctly.)
Usually the jot or tittle someone is offering you is less a story idea than a bit that, combined with other bits, might make a story if you could find the right other bits and then combine them in the right way. But most nonwriters probably don’t want to be involved in a long conversation about the exigencies of turning raw material into stories and so I’ve developed as noncommittal a polite response as I can manage.
My new response to would-be story matter experts is this: “I could use that.”
So in the spirit, in case you are a writer in search of something you can use, but something that is not in fact a story in and of itself, I offer you the following bits that have come across my ken recently:
- French fitness model killed by exploding whipped cream canister.
- Misplaced sparkler accidentally ignites fireworks in the back of an SUV.
- Man with record for longest life with bullet in his head dies at 103.
- Oregon State Asylum baseball team goes barnstorming.
- Vermont woman assassinates her own car with an assault rifle on Interstate 91.
What these individual bits lack, of course, is both the detail and backstory to turn them into stories. How exactly does a burning sparkler set off an entire compartment full of fireworks? What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does an asylum baseball team wear on the field? When it’s not on the field?
You can’t have a story without characters. Who be stupid enough to stand close enough to a load of fireworks with a burning sparkler? And why? Distracted? Under the influence? Suicidal? Or did someone toss the sparkler in there deliberately?
Who is this woman trying to kill her car and why did she do it? Did it fail to start one too many times while she was on her way to work at the strip club? Or is she a lapsed nun with PTSD?
How did the 103-year old man get a bullet in his head? Did his brother think he was a squirrel? Was it a war wound? Did he do it himself?
So you can tell your interlocutors that a bit is not a story until you apply some curiosity to it, the element that turns a fact or two into a tale worth telling. And it is the particular curiosity that a writer brings to his or her bits that makes the story. Which means the someone telling you what a good story something would make should write their own. I think we can agree that we should all write our own stories.
As horrible a tale as the whipped cream death is, I suspect the first reaction of many of my crime writer cohorts was: “Yup. I can use that.” It’s OK to fess up. We are not horrible people but we do lean toward the bizarre, especially if the bizarre happens to be fatal. And if you’ve got a good bit, we can use that. We don’t mind stealing. Just don’t try and tell us what is and isn’t a story . . .