Monday, January 25, 2010

Catching Fireflies: The Place Where Ideas Come From

I've been asked, on more than one occasion, where I get my ideas. Every writer gets this, and the question never gets easier to answer. I've never come up with what I consider a decent answer to the question, either. An earnest fan or budding writer will corner me at a con or drop me an email and hit me with the idea question. Typically, my response is kind of flip. I'll shrug my shoulders and say, "I don't know, magic?" See? Not very satisfying. So, I want to take a minute to talk about ideas and inspiration here. For today's example, I'll use my constant and reliable muse, the great City of Detroit.

For those of you who don't know, Detroit is pretty awesome. Seriously, don't believe the hype. Okay, now that you've stopped laughing I'll continue. Despite its problems, and believe me, Detroit has its problems, there's a lot of good here. See, I grew up in and around Rust Belt, blue collar towns like Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Youngstown, and places like that are rife with ready ideas. They're old cities, full of triumph and loss and calamity, and their memories are long. You walk the streets of Cleveland's Ohio City or Pittsburgh's Polish Hill and you can feel the history come up through the soles of your shoes and settle in your spine. It's there in the old churches and the tightly packed homes of the neighborhoods and the soaring, square shouldered, workmanlike skyscrapers and comfortably run-down parks. Detroit is no different. It has all of this, and it has it in spades.

In a city as old and, frankly, as weird as Detroit, there's a lot to draw inspiration from. Antoine Cadillac, Detroit's founder, is said to have had his life destroyed after he attacked an evil spirit called "Le Nain Rouge" or the Red Dwarf, a harbinger of doom that people in the city continue to see to this day. The city burned to the ground twice, once in the 1700s when it was Fort Pontchartrain and once in 1805, and was completely rebuilt. Ghostly horrors are often reported on Belle Isle. The whole of the city is soaked in the blood of 309 years of Indian Wars, revolutions, riots and labor protests. If there ever was a haunted city it's Detroit, especially now with its vast swaths of land returning to urban prairie, burgeoning populations of  pheasant and coyote, its abandoned automobile factories and its gap-toothed, empty-windowed storefronts along Woodward Avenue.

As an example, let me tell you about a series of convention games I run called Precinct 13. The Pct. 13 games are modern horror games centered around a group of Detroit police officers and detectives tasked with investigating and controlling supernatural phenomena within the metro area. A few years ago I was in the middle of gearing up for con season when I heard the following story regarding a serious building renovation downtown:

We have a famous hotel here called the Book-Cadillac. For twenty years this historic building sat empty and suffered the predation of scavs and looters, avoided demolition numerous times and stood as an ugly reminder of Detroit's lost and storied past. Then, after a number of false starts, the old girl was purchased by the Westin Hotel group and slated for renovation. During the process of the renovation, it was discovered that the sub-basements were full of water. tens of thousands of gallons of brackish, ancient water full of asbestos, lead and, well, God knows what else thirty feet deep. So the contractors set to pumping all of this water out so they could get to the foundations. They got a good deal of the water out the first week, failed to uncover any cthonic horrors, then called it a day on Friday and went home.

When they came back on Monday, all of the water was back. So they went at it again, this time sending workers down into the freezing sub-basements (did I mention this was January?) in hazmat suits with high-powered lights to find out where the water was coming from. After a bit of digging around the engineers found the source all right, an open, eight-inch water main just pouring city water into the basement. For twenty years. Oh, and they couldn't find any record of this main anywhere on the water map.

So that got me thinking. For decades a secret watery lair sat undiscovered and continually refreshed right in the center of downtown Detroit. Creepy, eh? Creepy indeed. Then I got to thinking well, what lives in the water? Snakes? Nature spirits? Water spirits? Bingo! Off to the internet I went to find everything I could on common water spirits and you know what I found? Naiads. There was my supernatural phenomena right there. A naiad lived in the basement of the Book-Cadillac. A naiad who had gotten trapped in the building's basement after coming through that water main and whose quiet, comfortable, watery home had been destroyed by these, these things! These arrogant, careless and above all dry humans with their machines and their pumps and their incessant clamor. They took the water away. They took all the water away and sealed it up with pipes and hoses and valves. Well, that's enough to make anyone angry.

I ran with it and ended up with the game "Hazardous Conditions", wherein our naiad is now reduced to living in the hotel's pipes, is incredibly pissed and has taken to pushing construction workers out of windows or finding creative ways of combining water with power tools in an ultimately misguided attempt to get her home back. I've run the game probably a half dozen times, with frightening and hilarious results, and I consider it one of my more successful games.

I guess I told you that story to say that, well, ideas come from everywhere. They come mostly unbidden out of thin air and you have to catch them and nurture them like fireflies. You can find them in your newspaper, on the street downtown, in the sound of music from a passing car or a snippet of overheard conversation down at the corner bar. Hell, I've even gotten a lot of narrative miles out of my grandfather's service in the Navy in World War II. You never know when they'll show up, and you have to be ready, always ready, when they do. That means keeping your eyes, ears and, most importantly, your mind open. Observe your surroundings, watch people, stay alert, listen, read like a starved man eats and the ideas will come. Sometimes all at once and sometimes in a trickle, but they'll come. So, there's your answer. Where do the ideas come from? Everywhere, kid. Everywhere.

1 comment:

Citizen Lazlo said...

Jason ... Brother ... that just made me very homesick and full of pride for where I come from.