Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Nickles and a Ball Cap

by Deborah LeBlanc

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’d be able to buy the Taj Mahal—well, at least on the lay-away plan. Depending on my mood, my automatic response to the question is either, “Walmart,” or “Everywhere.” I usually get a chuckle from the first answer, but the second, although the true answer never seems to quite sink in. You can see it in their eyes, that lost but searching, “Huh?” even after a half hour’s worth of explanation. That’s always bugged me. I’m a storyteller doggone it, which means I should be able to give them a bit more clarity with words. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered I’d been using the wrong words all along . . .

A couple weeks ago I did a keynote address at a writers’ conference and when the address was over, a few people, all aspiring authors, came over to chat. One of them was an elderly woman dressed in purple stretch pants, a black t-shirt with pink letters that read, GIRLY GIRL across the front, and brown sandals. She had short white, every-which-way hair that gave new meaning to the word bed-head and the brightest, most beautiful smile I’d ever seen. After a short introduction, (I’ll call her Mildred) and the exchange of a few pleasantries, Mildred said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Not at all.”

“Where do you get your ideas?”

For a second, I was taken aback by the question. Not because I figured most writers knew the answer but because I was looking a story idea right in her face. (Can you imagine the adventures that might revolve around a character like Mildred?!) I already knew my standard answer, ‘Everywhere,’ was inadequate, so I tried a little experiment….

“What do you write?” I asked.


“Okay—romance . . .” I glanced around the room.

The conference was being held in an old school building, circa 1920, that had been refurbished and now served as the city’s Arts Council facility. We were gathered in what used to be the school cafeteria, so I considered the location for setting. then scanned the room for a main character. It took only a moment to find him—a bow-backed old gentleman, standing by the snack table. He stood barely five feet tall and wore a faded blue suit, white shirt and tie, and a dark blue ball cap with WWII VETERAN stitched in gold on the front.

I put a hand on Mildred’s shoulder and as inconspicuously as possible, pointed him out. “See that man over there near the table? The one in the ball cap?”


“Look carefully at how he stands, the fit of his clothes, the shape of his hands, the look on his face. See how he’s fidgeting?”

Mildred glanced up at me like I’d grown a second nose. “What about it? He might have Parkinson’s.”

“Maybe . . . but suppose he doesn’t? Suppose he’s nervous?”

“What would he be nervous about?”

“Think about where you are—an old school building, right?”


“Well, what if . . . he was attending a high school reunion, only not his own. He found out about this place and event accidentally and after decades of searching for someone.”

Mildred let out a little gasp of excitement. “You mean like a long lost love?”

“Could be. But what if he’s here expecting to see another woman? One he’s never seen before—like his daughter?”

That was all it took to get Mildred off and running. Within minutes she had twisted the ‘what if’ every which way but loose and couldn’t wait to get home and start a new story, all of it based on the old man in the ball cap.

That little experiment not only gave me a new way to answer an old question, it once again proved something I’ve heard time and time again as a writer . . . it’s always better to show than tell.

Discovering these gems, these story catalysts, is my favorite part of the writing process. I love seeing where the seed of an idea will lead me, what unique twists and turns will present themselves in the story.

Now, once that story's told, and I sigh with satisfaction and relief while typing THE END, I try to freeze frame that moment in my head. I know that the only time I'll feel like this again is when I complete my next novel, which is great, except for what always comes between this book and the next. The dreaded---for me anyway--rewrite, edit, rewrite, edit. Sigh.... That process is my least favorite thing about writing!

1 comment:

  1. That's a great story Deborah--I've been wondering how I can introduce my new book in January and now I have a terrific idea, thanks to you. Show don't tell! (Duh:)