Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where Writers Get Their Ideas

Inspiration comes from many places.

Today we had our annual parish meeting at Saint Andrews. Father Townley told us he had been talking to a colleague or two about the financial struggles the church faces, the struggles most churches face in the modern day.

One of his colleagues pointed out to him that St. Andrews is an aging parish. She meant this not in the sense that the church has been standing on the corner of York and Main for 130 years (it has), but in the sense that most of us in the pews are getting old and gray.

Another colleague advised more internet exposure. Tweet on Twitter, he said. Establish a presence on Facebook. Launch into the blogosphere. Maintain the web page. That ought to pull 'em in.

Putting these two concepts together--the old, gray parishioners with their fountain pens and Underwoods, versus the new forms of communication--tickled me. Behold the geezers grappling with modern technology for the glory of God, snarking on Twitter, oversharing on Facebook, fighting tooth and toenail for a higher rating on Google for their web page. I could write a short story. It would be a simple matter to work out a story arc, bang out a handful of pages and sell it to a magazine that prints charming, fluffy fiction. But, wait. There aren't any magazines like that anymore.

All right, then. I have another idea. On Friday I was lunching at Sneddon's with Harold and we got to talking about what he's been reading lately, a succession of grim-jawed men's thrillers that are wildly popular with modern readers. Heavy enough to hold the door open in a stiff breeze, these tomes, though penned by a number of different grim-jawed men, have certain elements in common. Besides the length. It should be possible to use these common elements to whip up a thrilling grim-jawed men's potboiler.

The adventures of Butch Bammer, for instance. Former CIA agent Bammer fights for freedom and justice against the forces of the evil federal government/evil Democratic party/evil Hunterdon County sheriff. Homeless, he keeps a stash of weapons and clean underwear in every major U. S. city. His superpower is the secret knowledge of the time and location of every AA meeting in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston.

As our story opens, Bammer stands in a public shower, admiring his hair and muscles and washing somebody else's blood off himself.

It's true that I have difficulty writing anything longer than 60,000 words. How to make it long enough? Here's yet another idea. We could get every member of the parish to write a chapter. It would be swell. We could sell it to Simon and Schuster or somebody, publicize it on the internet, tweet about it, make the New York Times best-seller list. We could get the sprinkler system installed, the gutters fixed. Think of it.

Next Sunday I'll mention it to Father.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Infrequent Flyer

Last week I flew to Houston and back to see my sister. I tried to do this without spending inordinate amounts of money. For those of you who don't travel by air very often, I thought it would be good if I shared some crumbs of flying knowledge I picked up in my travels.

First of all, air travel is not what it used to be. I'm sure you've heard this, if you haven't experienced it first hand, but I'm going to talk about it anyway. The first time our mother and father flew anywhere it was so long ago that the airplane had propellers and flew in and out of Chicago without any problems. They came home with airline goodies. Presents from the airline. It might have been TWA. There were cocktail napkins and fancy stirrers, and I think there was a cardboard sign that said "occupied" or "do not disturb" or some such thing. The exact use of such a sign escaped me; the "occupied" sign was supposed to be left on your seat when you went to the loo, I guess; the "do not disturb" sign could be balanced on top of your hat if you wanted to pull it down and take a nap.

Years later I had a boyfriend who flew frequently. He used to bring me silver envelopes containing the most divinely seasoned almonds. But that was then, this is now. Remember airline food? Whether you thought it was good or not, at least they fed you. In the twenty-first century we get one little silver envelope of pretzels for lunch, washed down with a few ounces of ginger ale. Almonds, schmalmonds.

And the boarding process. Ah, the boarding process. Not that long ago, families with small children used to be invited to board before anyone else. No more. Big strong executives and executive-ettes swagger onto the plane first, while mothers of three-under-three wait patiently, screaming babies hanging in their hair. This is what business class is all about. If your ticket is paid for by an international corporation, you get to board the airplane ahead of the suffering peasants.

So what? you say. That's what I thought, too. I can be patient. You have no idea how patient I can be. But there are consequences for being last, as I was to discover.

After the golden few in business class take their seats, zone one gets to board, and then two and so forth. Silly me. I thought the zones were geographical. They are not geographical, folks. They are hierarchical. The higher your zone number, the more the airline gets to crap all over you. Zones have nothing to do with seat numbers, or with efficient boarding practices, or whether you'll be in people's way when they are trying to get settled.

My boarding pass said Zone 7. As I straggled down the boarding ramp behind all the other passengers, a flight attendant announced that the overhead bins were all full. I was forced to surrender my roll-on before I got on the plane. They smiled and gave me a tiny yellow ticket in exchange for it. So much for my plan to bypass the baggage pick-up process. It was one of those wrenching moments. I was supposed to change planes in Atlanta. I thought, "I'll never see that bag again."

"I'll never see that bag again," I said to the woman in the seat next to mine, in row 17, not so far back in the plane or so far in the front that I would have to be in zone 7. She reassured me that the airline seldom lost bags. "What zone are you?" I said. She said, "Zone one."

"How is this possible? My ticket says zone 7, and I'm sitting right next to you."

"We paid an extra ten dollars when we reserved the seats online."

Ah. Money.

So now I know something I didn't know before, and I pass it on to you, in case you're as unsophisticated as I am about flying. Sooner or later I'll figure out how to game the system, if I fly often enough. Maybe I'll even fork over the ten dollars.

You'll be happy to know that my roll-on made it safely to Philadelphia.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Candy from Strangers

I was sitting in Madison Square Park, watching the dogs come and go with their owners, counting the instances of red-soled Christian Louboutin pumps, and enjoying the Manhattan experience generally while I waited for six o'clock to come. At that hour the November meeting of the New York Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America was to begin. It was a pleasant afternoon. Nothing seemed amiss.

As I sat on my bench, loafing and resting my feet, two young people came up to me with a clipboard. "Do you have five minutes to fill out a questionnaire?" the girl said, in lightly accented English. "We are German students, and we are doing a survey."

"Certainly," I said. "I can give you half an hour." I was way early for the meeting.

She handed me the clipboard, stacked with filled-out questionnaires. It seemed the survey had to do with attitudes about 9/11. I remember that one of the questions on the front of the sheet was, "Do you have a conspiracy theory about 9/11? If so, what is it?"

That one was easy. Al Qaida planned and executed the attacks under the direction of Osama Bin Laden. If that isn't a conspiracy I don't know what is. I wrote it down.

Then they wanted to know whether I knew anybody who died in the attacks, and the answer was no. I turned the sheet over. Had my behavior changed since 9/11, and if so, how?

Of course it has. I didn't know how, exactly, except to say that I no longer open my mail on the dining table. That's because of the anthrax attack. That mail went through my post office.

So I filled out the last of their questions and handed the clipboard back to the girl. The two smiled and thanked me. She handed me a cellophane packet of German gummi bears. Here's a picture of it.

They went off down the path, looking for another subject. I gazed after them for a while, and then looked down at the candy in my hand. I started to laugh.

Did they honestly think I was going to eat that?