Using Your Travel Hallucinations for Story Ideas

And then I dreamed all the flesh was stripped off my bones, and …

I’ve been back a couple of weeks after a month-long housesit on a tiny island in the Caribbean. This was a vivid place, strikingly beautiful, and we had adventures, thrills and stresses in our time there—and equally so in getting there and coming back. But memory and travel are the oddest things: I was looking at photos yesterday and was struck by how much I’d already forgotten. Not the broad strokes and major events that happened, but the telling details: the shape of the harbor (which we saw almost daily), the color of a restaurant we’d been to (and the flavor of dishes we ate), the curve of a street.

The details are the things that should fix a place in memory, so I’m troubled by their fog. But I want to talk about an ancillary fog that happens after travel. That’s the stunned sense of being back in a familiar place, but having it seem strange or slightly tilted—“off,” but not off enough to pin the quality of oddness down.

Pieces of my mind and body, even given a full week to account for jet lag (and the space/time continuum) were still on the island, and the person who arrived here claiming to be me seemed to have a fake driver’s license.

A Bike Ride Pulls the Brain’s Curtains Back

But let’s get to the details, as noted above. I often ride my bike—with delight—on weekends here, so my first weekend back, I was eager to take one of my local rides, which for stretches take me along the Santa Cruz County coast. When I paused for a breather at an ocean overlook, I saw a breaching whale, fairly close to the shore. Not that of an unusual sight in Santa Cruz, but still, a whale, wow!

I felt energized by that, and hopped back on with spark, but just minutes later, and completely unprompted, I saw in my mind’s eye a jarring scene of my brother’s death. That played out enough so that I was crying a little. (By the way, my brother’s fine.) Just so you know that I’m one happy-go-lucky guy, as I was approaching my house at the end of my ride, I had a fantasy that my cat had been poisoned.

She’s fine too.

Maybe I was tired? Indeed, I was panting like a blacksmith’s bellows as I was riding, because it had been six weeks or so since I’d tackled these hills, but I think it was more that I was feeling dislocated in some way, and my mind was just clicking through a slide wheel of images. But who knows?

Putting Your Writer’s Mind to Work

However, one of the best things about being a writer is to be gifted with story ideas, and to play with them. I probably won’t do anything with these three isolated “incidents” that happened on my ride, but after I got home, I made each of them into a storyline in my mind, where these dustups happen.

The whale sighting I turned into a science-fiction prompt, where sentient whales start to take revenge on all the years of us killing them, and they develop great killing skills themselves, grouping up to take down big shipping vessels, causing damaging coastal waves, taking hostages.

My brother’s death I made into a literary fiction piece, kind of like the great Marilynne Robinson’s Home, which has an estranged brother return to a family. Except in my tale, a brother causes another brother’s death and runs away, and the family is forever changed. And then he returns, and things go from lousy to really lousy. Bestseller, eh?

As for the cat poisoning, a cat being poisoned would be the opening scene for a murder mystery, where before a person is murdered, a lot of animals connected to the deceased’s household, including lizards, guinea pigs and birds, are individually poisoned. Before the poisoner turns to murdering one of his fellow humans. Dastardly!

Anyway, the peculiar gyrations of the mind are kind of like aerobics classes for writers. So there are some benefits to the odd frazzling that happens after traveling—it seeds your mind with stories.

Oh, if you like the story ideas, go for them. Combine all of them in the same novel: murder mystery, sci-fi literary masterpiece. You have my blessing.

Writing Ideas Are Spring Flowers for the Plucking

North Flowery Trail

I’ve written before about how writing ideas are everywhere. It’s a commonplace that people ask writers how or where they get their ideas, as though there’s a shortage of the little buggers. Hugely the opposite: whether you are a fiction or nonfiction writer, or both (like me), ideas will rain down on you like monsoon waters—you only need to stick out an empty glass to have it filled.

One of the keys to filled glasses is to Think Like a Writer, which is why I titled my latest book such. Thinking like a writer means that when you see an interesting snippet of news in a magazine article, instead of mumbling to the cat, “That’s interesting,” you go and write down a note to research it further. Writing it down is key, particularly if you’ve reached my state of age-induced somnolence. Ideas are everywhere, but they are like a puffed dandelion’s seeds, which will all blow away unless you capture them.

Wait—Was That a Falling Idea?

This past week is a perfect example of ideas falling on my noggin and me catching them while the bumps were still rising on my head. My sister-in-law was visiting, after having gone to a Mission Day event at Mission San Antonio de Padua. She casually mentioned that she saw an exhibit there from a company called Access Adventures, which provides outdoor recreational opportunities for disabled people.

They provide free “therapeutic driving events” and other special opportunities to people with restricted mobility. The company was founded by Michael Muir, great-grandson of John Muir, and a person who has lived with MS since he was an adolescent. There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

My Name Is 409 (and I Don’t Do Windows)

My galpal Alice and I had a little dinner party the other night. One of our guests is an old car enthusiast, as am I. He was describing how he is having the 409 engine for a ’64 Chevy Impala SS rebuilt. The guy who is rebuilding it has worked on 409s for thirty years, and nothing but. His name is Jack, but they call him “409.” There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

Last, I was skimming through the annual typography issue of Communication Arts magazine. It’s a beautiful design magazine, and I’ve had a mild interest in typography for years. But combine that interest with the one I have for distilled spirits and you have a story knocking: there’s an article in the issue on a design firm (with wonderful images) that designs labels for craft spirits bottles. I write about spirits now and then, and love the labels shown in the article. That’s another potential article I can drink to.

Writing Ideas Not Acted Upon = Dead Ideas

Of course, these are just article ideas. I still have to research a good publication that would be a good fit and that would pay. I have to write the query letter and get it out there. And probably get several query letters out there. Then I have to be on the lookout for new ideas. But as I’m trying to make clear: you don’t have to look that hard, as long as you keep your writer’s eyes open.

This same mechanism of idea and story association works for fiction too. Seeing a face might trigger a story idea (or perhaps more often, a story scene), or seeing a dark doorway, reading an article or having a simple conversation. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it often provides the match to light the way of a story.

So get out there and look—and don’t get any paper cuts from picking up all those fallen ideas.