Three years ago I found myself driving back to Detroit from New York City where I’d been visiting my daughter. Not being a big fan of roadside motels, I’d taken my camping gear with me and pitched my tent that night at a campground somewhere in Pennsylvania. I had just finished off a couple of hot dogs and it was starting to get dark when a couple of good-sized, late model pick-ups roared up to the cabin at the next site over. A guy stepped out of one and a gal stepped out of the other. Both middle-aged, both wearing checked-flannel shirts and jeans.
The gal, Cindy, raised her hand and gave me a nice ‘howdy neighbor’ and, of course, I howdeed them right back.
As you might know, most campers are very friendly and it doesn’t take much to get a conversation started. Over a good campfire and a few beers and, in the morning, over a cup of strong coffee, I got to know a little bit about Cindy and her good buddy Charlie.
Together, they worked as a pilot car team escorting oversized loads cross-country. They had a lot of stories to tell about the huge trucks and huge loads and eccentric truckers that they’d worked with. They even had a photo album to go along with those stories. At the time I ran into them, they were waiting around the campground for a new assignment from their dispatcher.
It was mid-morning when I said good-bye to them. I wished them well and got back on I-80 heading west. It didn’t take me too many miles before I started dreaming up a story about a mysterious oversized load and a guy with a pick-up hired to escort it from Miami to Tucson.
That story became The Scientist’s Accomplice.
Now of course I was just lucky to run into Cindy and Charlie because I’m sure that such a story line would never have occurred to me otherwise. Then again, if I hadn’t met them, maybe I would have met some other people that night in which case the story I ended up with would have been totally different—maybe better, maybe worse. The main point here is that, for me at least, the best story ideas, and the best character profiles too, come from real life and real people. No, I’m not proposing that to write a good murder-mystery you have to know an actual murderer (although I’ll bet it would help—think, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood). What I am proposing is the notion that the greater the collection of real world experiences an aspiring fiction writer has, the more likely it is that his or her stories will be good ones and that they’ll ring true to the reader.
So, if you think that all the great story ideas have already been taken, think again. There are, what, 9 billion people in the world? Every one of them possesses a unique story. Get out there and talk to some of them!
Oh, and thanks to Cindy and Charlie wherever you are.