Where Do the Stories Come From?
January 7, 2013
Where do the stories come from?
Those who don’t write never quite understand.
Those who do write wonder why it’s such a mystery.
Novels, as a rule, have one major plot. Novels almost always have a handful of subplots. But what makes a really good novel are all of the fascinating little stories that are woven throughout the 60,000 words.
And that’s what readers want to know. Where do those stories come from?
Every writer is different, but I’ve never had to go out and look for good stories. I just hang around one town and then another, keep my eyes open, stay on the move, meet every new stranger I run across, eavesdrop on a lot of conversations, and those little insignificant stories just suddenly show up when they’re least expected.
Take for example the afternoon I spent in the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth. An old cowboy from some ranch in far West Texas was standing there looking at one of Charlie Russell’s great bronze sculpture of an Indian riding hard into a buffalo herd.
Two socialites walked up beside him. They were trying to impress each other. They were trying to impress him.
One of the socialites turned to the cowboy and said, “Just look at the Indian. Don’t you believe that he, more than any other creature, symbolizes the noble spirit and courage of the human soul?”
The cowboy shrugged and said, “I don’t know, ma ‘am. But he’s ridin’ a damn good horse.”
Or perhaps it was that early evening on a back road in northern Mississippi. The sun was hanging low beyond the cypress trees, and the light was fading. We came around a sharp turn not long after a traffic accident had occurred.
The man had obviously been driving too fast, probably drinking too hard, missed the turn, plowed through a barbed wire fence, and landed in a stock tank. The water had risen up past the door, and the car was sinking fast.
He was crawling out the window and climbing onto the top of his vehicle as the police car, sirens screaming, slid to a stop beside the ditch. A policeman hurried toward the pond, yelling. “What the hell just happened?”
The man on top of his car shrugged apologetically, and said, “I have no idea, officer. I just got here myself.”
Back when I was working the police beat for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, we had a sainted little lady come in one afternoon, walk over to the only detective still on duty in the squad room, and tell him the saddest story I had ever heard about her worthless husband. Drank too much. Chased younger women. Beat her up last night, and she still had the bruises, mostly in places where he didn’t want to look.
“What can I do about it?” she asked.
The detective was in charge of auto theft and had no interest in domestic squabbles. He glanced up from his newspaper, and in his typical gruff voice said, “If it was me, I would shoot the sonovabitch.”
She walked out without a word.
She was back in an hour.
The sainted little lady placed a .45 caliber pistol, with one bullet missing, on his desk and said, “What do I do now?”
As Stephen Woodfin likes to say, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
So don’t even try. The stories are all around us. You don’t have to look for them. Give a good story a chance and a little time, and it will chase you down.