I don’t know where you find your stories, but I find mine everywhere. All I need is a little prompt – an object, a smell, a look from a stranger. Some of my favorite stories are inspired by listening to the words people don’t say.
Here, I’ll show you what I mean. I’m sitting in a Panera restaurant. I have a window seat. It’s just after the lunch rush. I’m going to look around and eavesdrop and see what stories appear. I’m sure I could find a hundred, given time, but I’ll limit myself to the first five that appear. And so you can see how my brain works (don’t look too closely), I’ll put the inspiration for the story idea in brackets. Keep in mind these are just seeds of bigger ideas (or possibly suited only for a short story), but you gotta start somewhere, right?
Waiting – Barry is a busboy at a busy chain restaurant in a Chicago suburb. Most customers ignore him or offer fake, polite smiles that Barry recognizes as the kind someone offers a person they think is mentally handicapped. He’s not. He’s just quiet. He’s also rich. He inherited seven million dollars two years ago, but he hasn’t touched a penny of it. He’s waiting to fall in love first. He wants to be loved for who he is, not for his money. On a particularly rainy Wednesday, a woman who is clearly annoyed by the young man she is enduring lunch with smiles at him with a different kind of smile. The kind that sets his heart to beating fast. She looks vaguely familiar, but he tells himself this is because she’s eaten there before. He’s wrong.
[A busboy was Hoovering, and hovering, near my table.]
Barriers – When Jerry Kincaid is stuck in I-40 traffic on the August afternoon following the worst day of his life (his girlfriend left him for a state trooper), his attention is drawn to the orange safety barriers – the ones they fill with sand or water or something to keep drivers from killing themselves should they drift off the highway into the median. He reads the manufacturing information and notices the model name is appended with “Mark 3.” A strange curiosity compels him to find out what happened to the “Mark 1” and “Mark 2” models. The next day, on the way to the manufacturing plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into the median. A year later, the “Mark 4” is introduced.
[There’s sidewalk construction going on across the way, complete with orange safety cones.]
Every Thursday for a Lifetime – Father Karcher has lived a long and mostly uncomplicated life. He’s weathered more than his portion of the global disdain for the sins of his ilk with quiet humility, nodding and sighing and even tearing up at just the right moments to absorb the anger meant for evil men who have damaged so many young lives. But despite his own bitterness toward the wrong-minded priests, he never points an accusing finger. “God’s fingers are better suited,” he says if anyone asks. Every Thursday he sits in the small coffee shop at the very same table, sipping hot Passion tea (an inside joke, but not the one his parishoners might expect, particularly around Easter) and waiting, hoping, longing for a few moments of shared secret silence with the dark-haired woman who’s been coming every week for years.
[An aging priest sat alone at a corner table. He looked wistful.]
A Trail of Crumbs – She almost always can be smelled before she is seen – the middle-aged woman with the clothes that are much too big and the dog that is much too small (they didn’t even see him the first three times, hidden as he was in her suitcase purse). She comes at the end of the day, just before the doors close, and asks for whatever bread they’re planning on throwing away. Kelly is the only manager who breaks the rules and gives her some. Just a loaf or two. One evening, when Kelly is feeling paradoxically depressed and adventurous, she follows the woman. After a few dozen twists and turns through unmarked doors and down unlit stairwells, she finds herself in an underground city. It is a world unto itself. Not the stronghold of criminals and ne’er-do-wells, nor the trash-riddled sewer of sad lives and sadder stories she expected to find, but a bright and beautiful community that always smells like a summer rain; a place where the only currency is love.
[Saw stacks of bread behind the counter. Wondered where it all ended up.]
Listening – Matt and Joanne have been struggling lately. He calls it the “eleven year itch” and she calls it “that damn golf channel.” Following a particularly nasty disagreement on the relative merits of marital counseling, they agree on a more unique approach to sorting through their mess. They decide to interview long-married couples in search of practical wisdom. Secretly, they’re each hoping to find evidence to support the opposite result – they don’t think the marriage is salvageable. At first, they get their wish – these long-married couples don’t seem the least bit happy. But as they delve deeper and deeper into the strange (and sometimes disturbing) love lives of strangers, they find themselves growing closer instead.
[A young couple was sharing a table with a much older couple. There was something in the way the young couple was sitting (as far apart as the booth seat allowed) that prompted the story idea.]