Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spark My Story

Storytellers are often avid collectors; I think most of us have fairly hefty libraries so book collections are likely the most popular. Before he sold most of them author Larry McMurty had a personal library of 450,000 books. I'm trying to imagine just dusting them and I can't. My own book collection is much more modest -- it's holding steady at about 2K presently -- and I only collect certain authors, but have spent many happy years hunting down and acquiring their entire backlist.

Sometimes the things we writers collect can be a little odd, too. Watergate fascinated my grandmother the poet; in addition to buying every single book published about it she also obsessively collected magazine and newspaper articles written on the subject. Author and former D&D player China MiƩville is supposed to have a pretty amazing collection of role-playing game bestiaries. Edward Gorey was a huge fan of fur coats; he owned 21 of them and not only wore them but put many of his characters in furs, too (I've never owned a fur, and since I have much love for all furry things I'd rather see them on the original owners.)

I think probably the strangest writer collection I've ever heard of belongs to author Amy Sedaris, who collects plastic meats. Yes, plastic meats, as in toy play food.

Other than books, I collect art, music, handmade quilts and Victorian American photographs and ephemera. I also have a modest collection of story sparklers; these are what I call the small, random and sometimes mysterious objects the universe throws at me as inspiration on a regular basis. For something to make it into this collection it has to fill four qualifications:

1) It must be something small (if it's larger than a ping pong ball I take a photograph of it)
2) It possesses mysterious origins and/or qualities
3) It shows up unexpectedly
4) It instantly gives me one or more story ideas.

The most recent addition to my story sparkler collection is this little sketch I found this morning on my telephone message pad. Now I do know where this came from -- my daughter the artist, who can't resist drawing a pair of eyes or a face on the pad whenever she's in the kitchen or on the phone. And while I've collected most of her formal artworks over the years, I love these little thoughtless random sketches with a passion, so I save those, too -- but I don't write stories about them.

Why did this particular sketch throw a story spark at me? I'm not sure. It could be the expression, or the flowers in her hair. Because I didn't want to know, I didn't ask my daughter, either. Whatever it means to her, the moment I first glanced at it a character whirled into life in my head and started telling me her story. A minute later I was in the office looking at the sketch while I dictated the story idea it gave me to the computer. With most story sparklers it usually happens that fast, too. So when you see a character named Ivi show up in one of my books in the future, you can blame this sketch (and my kid) for her presence.

My love of all things vintage and the fact I'm constantly shipping things is responsible for this another recent addition to my sparkler collection: this slightly rusty key. I found it after coming home with a package; when I moved it from the car into the house it dropped from the bottom of the parcel onto my kitchen table.

I called my shipper to ask if they had lost a key, which they hadn't, and then I contacted the sender, who also said no. I examined the box, and found that one edge of some packing tape on the bottom of the box had rolled over. My working theory is that when the frayed cord attached to the key came in contact with that exposed adhesive it must have stuck.

Because it's small and pretty flimsy I'm fairly sure that it's something like a diary or old suitcase key. The shape of the top, however, intrigues me. I've never before seen a key with this odd triangular shape. There are some letters stamped in the metal on both sides, but rust covers all of them except a G and maybe a Y. At the moment I'm torn between wanting to clean it so I can read all the letters and leaving the lovely rusty look intact. I adore keys of all kinds, so finding this old beauty dropping (literally) into my life prompted me to revisit a story idea I had about a mystery key. Having the physical sparkler come into my hands in such an interesting manner added to the original idea, and now I have a working plot outline for the story.

Just how powerful can such random story sparklers be? Imagine you pick up some take-out from your favorite Chinese restaurant, and when you open your cookie to read the fortune you get this:

My guy did the other night when this fortune landed in his lap. Now he's not a writer, so he didn't get it, but the moment I saw it I thought, What if Elizabeth Moon likes Chinese, and collects the fortunes . . . ?


  1. Had to chime in that I think plastic/artificial foods are very cool. When we go to furniture stores I must check out all the fake food and drinks set out for display. (They are way too expensive to actually collect, however.)

    1. I like real food too much to understand the fake stuff, I guess, Robin -- but having a chef for a Dad will do that to you. :)

  2. The key is fascinating. I'm already imagining what it might open.

    And just out of curiosity where does one put 450,000 books? I think they'd more than fill my little house.

    1. There's an article with some pictures here of McMurry's carriage house where he stored 32K of his books; possibly after he whittled down his personal library. Imagine having an entire house filled with nothing but books. I'm getting chills, just thinking about it.

  3. What an amazing key! And to have it come to you in such an intriguing way...well, how could it not become a spark? The fortune cookie message was equally cool and sure beats any I've ever received. Either I'm not paying attention to the sparks, or you're getting all the good ones. ;D

    1. I'm a magnet for lost dogs and weird objects, that's for sure. :)

  4. These are nice little finds and hopefully they will inspire something good.

    I have a collection of random, mostly found, small objects sitting in a large mason jar in my hall. Every now and than I find something worth adding and remove the lid, shake the jar to make things settle better and add the new object. Children who come to visit stand and stare at it in awe, but that might be because the two most obvious objects in it are two doll heads and I remember finding disembodied doll heads incredibly creepy when I was little.
    Not being a writer, I don't use these objects for story inspiration, but when I finally have to stop adding stuff I am considering either putting the whole thing into a time capsule, or emptying it and sticking some of the stuff onto a wooden jewellery box as decoration and putting the rest inside the box and allowing my friends' kids to explore it when they visit.

  5. I love that little drawing and learning about all those collections. I've got upwards of 1000 books and I'm running out bookcase space again. I don't collect anything else really unless my half a dozen little dragons count as a collection.


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