TBT: The Christmas Someone Stole My Grandma’s Car and Other Stories

by admin on December 10, 2015

This week’s post is from Christmas past, about finding inspiration in everyday life. It’s from a December 2010 post I wrote for Storytellers Unplugged, a multiple-author blog about writing, publication, and the creative life.

You know that one question people seem to always ask writers? Not the one about how much money you make. I’m talking about the OTHER question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

It always amazes me that people think that writers have the inside track to story ideas. Like we have some source from which we score the best plots, the most carefully crafted sentences, the most interesting characters. We do, I guess. It’s called our imagination. But everyone has one (at least in theory), and as Spongebob Squarepants says, they just need to use it.

Every day, there are people we meet, places we go (even in our dreams – especially in our dreams), and opportunities galore to create some amazing stories, whether to share with others in person or on paper.

I work two part-time jobs, and in each, I encounter people and situations that make me laugh, shake my head, or humble me. My Starbucks job has proven to be the most fertile ground for character development. But you don’t have to be a barista to get the same results. Talking to people, listening to others (without being a total creeper), being open to what you hear, what you see, and most of all, what you feel, are all ways to mine your everyday life for the kind of characters and conflicts found in successful stories.

There’s a reason why authors like Jodi Picoult sell millions of books. Their plots ring true, because they’re usually taken from real life – bits and pieces of news stories, childhood memories, personal experiences, or someone else’s experiences, woven together to create a compelling narrative.

Of course, I wouldn’t recommend using your sister’s ugly divorce or your neighbor’s dirty laundry aired over the back fence as the basis for your book. And you shouldn’t need to. There are so many other opportunities for ideas, without compromising your relationships. (Unless you want to write a memoir, in which case, you’re on your own!)

Which brings me to Grandma’s story, perfect for this time of year. One Christmas Eve years ago, my family (Mom, Dad, my two sisters and me, plus my grandmother) came out of church to find that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Snow covered the cars and the wind made it hard to keep our eyes open as we skated across the parking lot to where my dad had already started my grandma’s big new Buick and was valiantly trying to chisel through several layers of ice on the windshield. I saw my dad duck his head inside the car for a moment, just before my mom opened the passenger-side door. There was a strange woman sitting in the front seat. I thought maybe we were giving her a ride home from church. How nice, I thought. After all, it was Christmas Eve. Just as we were about to get into the car, my dad yelled at us. “Get away from the car!” The stranger shut the door, and several seconds later, took off with my grandmother’s new car.

Thankfully, someone else – not a stranger – gave us a ride home, where presents took a back seat to the police questioning and my grandmother’s panic. Apparently, the strange woman in the church parking lot had climbed into the car while my dad was scraping the windshield. When he saw her, the woman said she had a gun and that my dad was going to drive her where she wanted to go. My dad told her she could drive herself, and yelled at my mom and me to get away from the car.

Eventually, we learned that the woman had started a fire in the trashcan at a nearby hospital where she was a patient in the psychiatric unit. She drove my grandmother’s car, complete with iced-over windshield, through one of the worst snowstorms ever, from St. Louis to Oklahoma City.

You can’t make this stuff up. Well, you could. But when real life offers you so many ideas – both in your waking life and in your dream life – why not start there, and see where you end up?

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