With a Little Help From My Friends by Barb Goffman
Ah, the perennial question: Where do you get your ideas? Mine spring from all kinds of places. Newspaper articles. Overheard conversations. Advertisements. Sometimes they seemingly spring from nowhere, a random product of the weirdness that is my brain. But even those out-of-nowhere stories likely had some seed from which they grew—something I saw or heard or thought that stuck in my brain, waiting for me to realize its potential.
As the meme goes, everything is fodder. It’s why it’s good to read widely, to eavesdrop with abandon, and to always, always listen to your friends.
For instance, a few years ago I spent Thanksgiving with my dear friends Sherry and Bob Harris and their daughter, Elizabeth. (Yes, Sherry of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mysteries series.) Bob spent some of his formative years on a ranch out west. We ended up talking about his ranch days and somehow we got on the topic of exploding cows. (Lovely dinnertime conversation, no?) I’d heard of exploding cows, but I’d always thought they sounded like a myth. Why would a cow suddenly explode? God bless, Bob. He knew all about them. Why they explode. When they explode. How to try to keep them from exploding. If it hadn’t been for this unusual conversation, I never would have written “Till Murder Do Us Part,” which involves—as you can imagine—exploding cows. (You can read this murder-mystery story in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies. Wildside Press, 2018).
My friend Donna Andrews (yes, she of the Meg Langslow mystery series) has been a good source of inspiration, too. We used to live about two miles from each other, so we’ve driven together a number of times, often passing a Catholic Church near her home. One day as we drove Donna mentioned that the church used to be a nudist colony. If that weren’t enough for a conversation starter, she added this tidbit: In the 1940s, a murder happened there. Hello! Oh, the ideas that sprung from that. Where a nudist would hide a murder weapon was the question I kept coming back to. So I addressed it in my story “Murder a la Mode,” in which a proper young southern woman ends up having Thanksgiving at … you guessed it … a nudist colony and, of course, someone dies during dessert. (You can read this story in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping (Untreed Reads Publishing, 2012).
If you know Donna at all, you know she likes to talk about her twin nephews. They’re in high school now, but when they were much younger, she relayed a story of taking them to an ice cream shop that offered all kinds of toppings. The boys had finished their chosen toppings and wanted more, and they let this be known by yelling so the whole store (and maybe the whole state) heard: “Worms! We want more worms!” (Gummy worms, I’m told.) I filed that tidbit away in my memory bank, and when I sat down to write a story years later, those worms surfaced. What, I thought, if a Thanksgiving guest entered a home to hear the children clamoring for more worms. And my imagination took off from there, resulting in “Bug Appétit,” my short story currently nominated for the Agatha Award. (You can read it online here: https://www.elleryqueenmysterymagazine.com/assets/3/6/Goffman_Bug.pdf.)
So this all goes to show, author friends, pay attention to your friends and your surroundings. You never know when something interesting will cross your path … or your plate.
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Barb Goffman has won the Agatha, Macavity, and Silver Falchion awards for her short stories, and she’s been a finalist for national crime-writing awards twenty-three times, including a dozen Agatha Award nominations (a category record). Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others. Her book, Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, won the Silver Falchion for the best short-story collection of 2013. To support her short-story habit, Barb runs a freelance editing service, focusing on crime fiction. Learn more at www.barbgoffman.com.