Where do writers get their ideas? Try right outside your door

As anyone who reads this blog, or anything written by any writers anywhere, knows, one of the top questions for fiction writers is… wait for it…

“Where do you get your ideas?”

We’ve discussed this before. You know we have. The answers are many and varied. But it starts with imagination. Honest to god, I can’t tell you where to get that. I’m lucky, I guess, that I’ve got plenty of imagination. Imagination to spare. I’m never bored, at least when I’m in control of where I am and what I’m doing (as opposed to, say, a work meeting). Sometimes it’s a curse — for instance right now every time I see one of the MANY out-of- state cars driving through my town, all I can see is bright neon COVID-19 dripping from the bumpers and blowing out the windows.

Sorry folks. Not judging. Just saying. But I digress.

Almost anything can spark imagination. Once, when I lived in New Hampshire, I was driving to work through the heart of Manchester and saw a little boy standing on a corner holding what looked like a box of cupcakes and crying. By the time I got to work I had a whole story about that kid in my head. I mean, how could I not?

Anyone who’s read my book NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS knows what I did with the horrific scene I witnessed of a family of ducks that had the misfortune to try to cross Route 27 north of Augusta one day on the way to work. Sorry folks. But not sorry. Because book. Writing.

I had to skip over to the south east end of Augusta yesterday to shoot some snaps for work (work again!) and it was close to a spot that has sparked my imagination from the time my family moved to Augusta when I was 12.

The old Augusta Mental Health Institute campus, which is now state offices, still is an eerie place. Even on a warm sun-splashed May afternoon, the Stone Building evokes so much … imagination.

Many of the buildings on the sprawling campus have been refitted for state offices, but I believe the Stone Building, its main portion nearly 200 years old, is empty. Really, how could anyone work in there?

Pro tip: It’s easy to socially distance once you’re down by the Stone Building (named for a person, though the building lives it out), even when the state workers are there in full force. And it’s a beautiful spot.

The vestiges of the attempts to make it seem like something it wasn’t are still there. A gazebo in good need of a paint job. A large octagonal base, probably 15 feet across, that, looking at old photos, was part of an elaborate flower garden.

But come on, who were they kidding?

AMHI is directly across the river from the Maine State House. [In the photo above, the smokestack in the distance marks AMHI, with the Stone Building to the right.] The story is that the porch on the second floor of the State House was deliberately put directly facing AMHI so the legislators would remember who they were there for — the most vulnerable and needy, because if you can take care of them, then you are taking care of everyone else.

I wonder how many of Maine’s elected officials think about that when they stand out on that beautiful porch?

Rhetorical question. Everybody loves a good story.

I more think of it from the point of view of those sad inmates of the Stone Building. How it must’ve been to be in there, basically a prison back in the day. Despite the beauty of the spot, I can see the despair billowing from the Stone Building as clearly as I can see the COVID-19 coming out of those cars from Massachusetts and New York and Connecticut…

They could look out on the lush beautiful river valley, across the Kennebec to the State House. Think about what lay beyond the lawn and trees.

It all probably felt just as far away as the mental hospital felt to the legislators.

About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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4 Responses to Where do writers get their ideas? Try right outside your door

  1. Having worked at AMHI for 27 years, I could tell you stories that would curl your hair.

    • Maureen Milliken says:

      I bet! I heard stories and I didn’t even work there! We used to go ride our bikes around there a lot, as well as the arsenal, which I may take up next post.

    • Carla says:

      I would love to hear some stories, I was there this weekend and so intrigued about the history and the stories of AMHI.

  2. Anne Cass says:

    Always enjoy your posts! Thanks.

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