Birth of an Idea

Some authors hate the “where do you get your ideas?” question. I’ve never really figured out why. I can see why readers might be disappointed with the answers, since they’re much more mundane than they might hope. There is no communication with the muse, no blinding flash of insight, just a keen eye and brain that perpetually asks, “what if?” And the realization having a pen handy is almost always a good idea:

So in service of explaining how that works, I thought I’d describe the process I recently went through were a new story idea crystallized in my mind. It’s as good an example as any of the truth that inspiration is out there everywhere, if you know what to do with it.

Right now in my lawyer day job I have a case pending in the court of appeals where one of the issues involves whether my client had served too much time in prison and might be entitled to credit for that. In my brief I made a couple references to him “banking time.” When the Government responded, for some reason, it turned the word around and repeatedly referenced a “time bank,” which it argued didn’t really exit (it does).

Beyond the fury at the allegation I was making shit up, the phrase “time bank” got lodged in my brain. There was something about it that seemed absurd and specific in a way that “banking time” didn’t.

With “time bank” lodged in my brain like a stepped-on Lego, I went into brainstorming mode, which to my neighbors looks like mowing my yard. I do some of my best thinking about writing while I mow, since it’s not like my mind is taken up with other things. So I turned over this concept in my mind, over and over again – what, precisely is a “time bank”? And how would it differ from a memory bank?

I came up with three different ideas, one sort of modern science fictional, one utterly fantastical, and one kind of in between. Thinking them over I found myself drawn the first, the modern one, and began thinking about how characters might interact with this “time bank.”

The working title is “Down and Out at the Time Bank,” a tale of a poor schmuck who gets in way above his head, but probably comes out of it just fine. Short story or something longer? Don’t know yet, as I’ve got to put it on the back burner while I work on other things. But it’s there, lurking in my ideas file, waiting for me to come back to it.

So, thank you, unnamed Assistant United States Attorney. You’ll win the case in the end (‘cause y’all almost always do), but at least you gave me something worthwhile I can take away from it.

And that, ladies and gents, is where story ideas come from!

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