Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Stranger Than Fiction

By David E. Sharp

Sometimes I am asked, "Where do you come up with this stuff?" You've probably heard this question as well. Depending on the inflection, it can sound like a compliment (you're so creative) or the opposite of a compliment (I'd prefer you didn't stand too close to me).

Either way, I've never had a good answer. But I do think everyday life gives us no shortage of idea material to work with.

Some things are just too
weird to be made up.
I've said many times of a real-life situation that if I'd read it in a book, I would have criticized it as not being believable. Only, how do you argue with facts? Sometimes, the events we witness are so astounding they outperform our fictions.

Here are a few examples from my own life:

-The Librarian I knew whose last name was Shakespeare. I begged her to keep it when she got married, but alas… "You don't understand, Jennifer! These things don't happen in real life. When they do, we must not waste them!"

Ghost car will find you.
And she has some serious road rage.
-The day my Ford Taurus died on the way to purchase a new car. It's like she knew! I had to park her in front of a nearby Walmart and call a cab. Sometimes, people walking late at night claim to see the phantom glow of headlights in the empty parking space where she revved her last.

-The time I had two consecutive flat tires. What do you do? Give them each half a spare? I still blame the poltergeist of my Taurus. She was vindictive like that.

-The day a reality TV star became the president. I mean, whatever your political affiliations, that just sounds far-fetched. If I'd told you ten years ago that was going to happen, you wouldn't have believed me.

You get the idea. Story fodder is all around us. Life is full of mind-bending surprises. History too.

...And as if that stuffy basement isn't enough,
I didn't even get to see how the play ended.
For instance, did you know Abraham Lincoln's body was removed from its grave and hidden in a basement for several years so it couldn't be stolen and held for ransom? Have you heard of the Siege of Weinsberg in which Conrad III granted that the besieged women would be allowed to leave in peace before the final assault with anything they could carry?

The women of Weinsberg left the city with their husbands on their shoulders. Sounds like a great book, right? You could also read about the adventures of Cabeza de Vaca or check out Louis Zamperini's story in Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. Both are incredible true stories of survival.

The older I get, the less prone I am to say, "Yeah, but that wouldn’t really happen." We tend to gauge what we believe is possible by our day-to-day experience. It's an easy habit to fall into, but it's not logical. Just because a thing doesn't happen frequently, doesn't mean it can't happen or that it won't happen.

What will the world look like in a hundred years? How many of the institutions that seem so permanent to us now will still exist then? How many tropes of science fiction will have become reality in that time? It's hard to say.

If you're stuck for a new idea, just take a look around. There's plenty of astonishing story nuggets if you can train yourself to see them. Diana Gabaldon mentioned at an event last year that she likes to peruse the non-fiction shelves at a library and let serendipity guide her to something she can use. I warn you, it's a dangerous technique. You might lose more time than you budgeted. 

I'll leave you with one last true story:

Behold! The coveted rangoons
of destiny!
About a decade ago, I was on a date at a Chinese food restaurant. We were both broke, but taking comfort in one another over a shared plate of lo mein. To my left, a well-to-do couple had ordered a full three-course meal with appetizers and desserts. They picked at their plates, barely spoke to one another and left behind twice as much food as they ate.

A stemmed tray held untouched crab rangoons a foot above the decadent remains of their meal. We looked at those rangoons enviously, but were too classy to snatch them from the abandoned table even if they had been completely undefiled. We'll take our famished dignity, thank you. Still, it seemed an awful waste of some perfectly good rangoons. When I opened my fortune cookie, it said, "It will be up to you to make the first move." I showed it to my date, and we laughed. She opened hers. It said, "When the time comes, take the one on the left."

These blogs get read by hundreds of people, but most of you are shy and don't comment. Forget your reservations for this once. Tell me about an entirely unlikely story from your own life. The kind of thing that most people wouldn't believe actually happened.

I look forward to seeing them in the comments. 


Patricia Stoltey said...

I'll bet we all have stories of stranger than fiction moments! I once borrowed a friend's VW bug while my van was in the shop, not realizing that when the gas gauge hit empty on the bug, the tank really was empty. I was accustomed to the van which still had a good ten gallons in the tank when the gas gauge sat on E. So I was out and about, taking kids to school, running errands, and then returned home, pulled to the curb in front of my house, and the car died. Out of gas! It could have happened anywhere in town...even the middle of an intersection...

Ronda Simmons said...

So I was volunteering at the book fair at my children's school with another mom, Sarah Roberts, and somehow we discovered that we were both writers. One of my main characters was a chemist. Sarah has a PhD in chemistry. Her main character was a geologist. My PhD is in geology. We became writing partners on the spot and have been meeting regularly for four or maybe five years now. She was the one who told me about this weird group called NCW. Without that chance meeting during a slow time slot at the book fair I would probably have given up on writing by now and NCW would mean "National Collegiate Wrestling" to me.

April Moore said...

Many years ago, I was shopping for dresses at a department store and the section I was in happened to be right next to the prom dresses. Several prom dress-clad mannequins were lined up on a platform and surrounded by several overloaded racks of dresses. Somehow, one of the racks tipped over, creating a domino effect--myself and several other shoppers watched rack after rack tip over. Cascades of tulle and sequins were in piles everywhere and one of the mannequins got bumped by a rack and then one by one, the mannequins (about 5 of them) fell over. It took at least 10 minutes before an employee came over. I later added a scaled-down version of this in the book I had been writing and my critique group said it was too far fetched and couldn't really happen. I edited it out of the final draft.

Laura Mahal said...

I once met "The Kissing Bandit"--Richard Dawson--in an elevator in LA. I was just about to ask, "Are you . . ." when he held up his hand to stop me, then leaned in close. Naturally, I prepared to be kissed. Dawson whispered urgently, pointing to the young man who stood a few feet away. "That's my grandson," he explained. "He doesn't know about all the women I've kissed." I smiled and nodded, and we both went our merry way. I felt like I still received a dose of Dawson's famous Love and Luck, glad to see that parenting / grandparenting humanizes us all.

David Sharp said...

Pardon for the late reply, my apartment flooded shortly after I posted this blog, and I had to move on very short notice. But these are some amazing stories, and I had to come revisit them.

Patricia, I've had near misses like that, and they just about make your heart stop. Your brain goes to all the worst what-if scenarios, and it haunts you for days.

Ronda, I'm so glad you had such a serendipitous encounter that led you to the NCW. It's been wonderful having you! I had a similarly odd encounter that led me to my eccentric critique group.

April, I only wish I could have seen that. The only thing that could have made that story better is if you'd just pulled a dress off the overloaded rack that had been part of the counterweight keeping it stable. Then, holding the dress in the middle of all the rubble, I can see you saying, "Actually, I think I prefer the other one." Hilarious!

Laura, what a crazy meeting! Just the kind of thing that's so hard to believe, it must be true. Amazing!

Thanks to all of you for sharing. These are all great stories. I hope you've each found places for them in your fiction. (April, you already said you did.)

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