Story Nuggets: Where Does a Writer Find Them?

by Jayne Ormerod

Jane Ormerod author

VL: When I invited the four authors who have stories in To Fetch a Thief to contribute something to my blog page—interview, blog, rant, whatever—I was hoping for diversity. And they are coming through!


I’m a writer. I write cozy mysteries. When I’m not huddled in my writing hut, I’m out and about, either physically or cyber-ly, mingling with readers. The number one question I am asked is “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer: I collect “story nuggets” everywhere I go and in everything I do and all the crazy stuff I see in the news. All it takes is a teeny tiny event  and my imagination is off and running. It’s no secret I am particularly influenced by things in my life and events that occur in my coastal community.

For my most recent publication, I was challenged to write a novella (about 15,000 words) that involved a dog, a theft, and a murder. Two years later, a book was born. To Fetch a Thief is a collection of four novellas. My story is titled “It’s a Dog Gone Shame!”

Fortunately, I had a cache of “story nuggets” at the ready.

Jane Ormerod

The “dog” part of the story was easy. Although dog-less at the time, we’d been lucky enough to have been adopted by four wonderful rescues over the years. I knew how to write “dog.”

The “theft” part of the story was a snap. We have a wonderful place in our neighborhood to honor dogs that have crossed the rainbow bridge. It’s called The Dog Gone Garden. A local artist paints a colorful rock to represent each dog as it passes. The rocks are huddled under the shade of a Crepe Myrtle tree. Our own Norwegian Elkhound, Jamaica, has a rock there. One summer’s day all of the rocks disappeared! Just gone! Nobody knows where or why or how. (There were a lot of them so it was a heavy load!) Aha! my mystery-writer self said. A theft! I tucked that into my carton of story nuggets. (Although I solve this little mystery in my story, the real rock theft remains on the loose.)

dog gone garden

The murder part? We live on the Chesapeake Bay. It is a semi-annual occurrence for a body to wash ashore. Mostly they are traced back to a drug gang further up the bay. Sometimes it’s a result of too much drink and too little sense when a person climbs aboard their trawler to sleep it off. One misstep and they splash in the bay and end up sleeping with the fishes. The beauty of being a cozy writer is the amateur sleuth only has to discover a dead body. We don’t have to know how to kill. Interviewing neighbors who’ve discovered the “floaters” has given me enough “nuggets” for a dozen mysteries.

To answer the perennial question, “Where do you get your ideas?”; I get them from life. Once the “story nugget” is planted, I turn it over to my imagination. I then stand back and watch the words fly! (Most end up on the cutting room floor, but that’s another story for another day.)

VL: Big thank you to Jayne Ormerod! No doubt readers have enjoyed this peek into your writing process—and some may decide to emulate you! To read more about the stories in To Fetch a Thief and the writers who wrote them, check out www.MuttMysteries.com 


About Jayne Ormerod:  Jayne Ormerod grew up in a small Ohio town then went on to a small-town Ohio college. Upon earning her degree in accountancy, she became a CIA (that’s not a sexy spy thing, but a Certified Internal Auditor.) She married a naval officer and off they sailed to see the world. After nineteen moves, they, along with their two rescue dogs Tiller and Scout, have settled into a cozy cottage by the sea. Jayne has penned over a dozen novels/novellas/short mysteries.

Website: www.JayneOrmerod.com

Blog: www.JayneOrmerod.blogspot.com

Whiplashed: A.K.A., an Eventful Week

whiplashed eventful week
Last Saturday I participated in a memorial service for my beloved friend. It was one of the best celebrations of a life I have ever attended, so perfectly reflecting the accomplished, funny, strong, loving woman I remember. I first came to know Rita through writing classes—maybe 15 years ago? In years, I was one of the people there who knew her least. But through writing, we quickly came to realize we were more than classmates. She and I joined with 3 other women writers to form the Pentadames. A few times a year we would get together for a few days in the mountains, on the Bay, or at the Outerbanks. We talked writing, of course—and reading—but also families, personal histories, health. And we laughed a lot!

 

I don’t remember death dates. I choose not to. Instead, I remember and celebrate special people on their birthdays. I do this by having food that she often prepared or that he especially liked. Rita shared her birthday with another of the Pentadame, now also deceased. On March 29, I shall remember them both with a lentil/vegetable stew, a meal Pentadames often shared.
whiplashed eventful week
On Sunday I made real progress on a fantasy short story I have promised my granddaughter. It’s about hanahaki disease. You can look it up!
 
In the creative nonfiction class on Monday, one of the timed writings was to use a piece of art as a prompt. I chose the displays of artists’ collections on the first floor of the VMFA Studio School.
whiplashed eventful week
I wrote a rather lackluster bit about my many collections: rocks, dictionaries, cookbooks, napkin rings, placemats, Depression glass measuring cups, tableware, and drinking glasses…  I didn’t even remember to include the (approx.) 450 carved wood Santas, dozens of mah jong sets, or skull jewelry. Looking back on that bit of writing, I am struck that food and eating are strong themes in my collections.

 

whiplashed eventful week
Tuesday included new (to me) insights into Thomas Jefferson. Travis McDonald has been the director of architectural restoration at Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest, for nearly 30 years.  He’s articulate and incredibly knowledgeable.

 

whiplashed eventful week
We had lunch together after the talk. (Always food!) I came away from it with a much enhanced admiration for Jefferson as a mathematician and an architect. And not to put too fine a point on it, he well might have been OCD: while president, he sent incredibly detailed instructions to those working on the Poplar Forest house, and he came down from DC to help lay the brickwork foundation for the octagonal house to make sure the workmen got it right.

 

I went from lunch to Core Basics to a meeting of the Ashland Women’s Club, where a friend of mine presented a paper on oystering. It wasn’t a topic I would have gravitated to on my own, but it was a pleasing blend of science, history, and humor. In the course of the talk, the speaker quoted M.F.K. Fisher’s book, Consider the Oyster. 
 
whiplashed eventful week
“An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrow of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean, smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger. He—but why make him a he, except for clarity? Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she, and may start at any moment after the first year, to lay eggs where before he spent his sexual energies in being exceptionally masculine. If he is a she, her energies are equally feminine, so that in a single summer, if all goes well, and the temperature of water is somewhere around or above seventy degrees, she may spawn several hundred million eggs, fifteen to one hundred million at a time, with commendable pride.”
whiplashed eventful week
The quote reminded me of what is (arguably) my favorite M.F.K. Fisher book, How to Cook a Wolf. This book was first published in 1942, when WWII shortages were at their worst. In the opening chapter, Fisher says, “Wise men forever have known that a nation lives on what its body assimilates, as well as on what its mind acquires as knowledge. Now, when the hideous necessity of the war machine takes steel and cotton and humanity, our own private personal secret mechanism must be stronger, for selfish comfort as well as for the good of the ideals we believe we believe in.”

 

Although Fisher’s books are dated in some ways (she makes no mention of microwaves, to mention only one) her recipes, philosophy, and stories are timeless.

 

whiplashed eventful week
In browsing my M.F.K. Fisher books, I was touched to realize that my mother gave me With Bold Knife and Fork—as a second-hand book published thirty years earlier—the year before she died.

 

So, come Wednesday, a fellow writer who knows I’m a John McPhee fan sent a link: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1972/05/13/the-conching-rooms.

 

whiplashed eventful week
Remembering the incredible conch salads made before my eyes in the Bahamas many years ago, I was thinking mollusks. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the article dealt with the making of chocolate!

 

I visited Hershey’s Chocolate World last December. Now the tour isn’t of the actual working factory, and I didn’t see chocolate actually being conched. So McPhee’s essay was interesting—as always—and it’s about food, so that thread of the week continued. And FYI: Hershey chocolate contains minute traces of New England granite from the conching machines. Who knew?
whiplashed eventful week
We had 4” of snow Wednesday, allowing me to mouse around the house in comfy fleece and let one cookbook lead me to another. Somewhere along the line, M.F.K. Fisher mentioned 19th century cookbooks. I pulled out my oldest. It isn’t in good shape—as might be expected given it was printed in 1843.

 

But there are several interesting aspects. First, recipes are presented in paragraphs. For example, this recipe for BEEF CAKES. “Take some cold roast beef that has been under-done, and mince it very fine. Mix with it grated bread crumbs, and a little chopped onion and parsley. Season it with pepper and salt, and moisten it with some beef-dripping and a little walnut or onion pickle. Some scraped cold tongue or ham will be found an improvement. Make it into broad flat cakes, and spread a coat of mashed potato thinly on the top and bottom of each. Lay a small bit of butter on the top of every cake, and set them in an oven to warm and brown. Beef cakes are frequently a breakfast dish.”

 

Then, too, there is an entire section on perfumery. And an interesting list of equivalents and measures.
whiplashed eventful week
Thursday, we re-ordered canned goods in the pantry to use the oldest first and I continued to dip into my cookbooks. By 1880 and 1887, Miss Parloa was something of a household authority on everything from kitchen equipment to marketing and the layout of the ideal kitchen, but by far the bulk of the content was recipes.

 

whiplashed eventful week
Over the course of the week, I realized that I like reading food writing almost as much as I like savoring new recipes. I like cookbooks with personality—of whatever vintage!

 

whiplashed eventful week
This essay may seem pretty tangential to a blog for writers, about writing—but bear with me! I now realize that the best food writing is, indeed, excellent creative nonfiction. M.F.K. Fisher lives!
 
whiplashed eventful week
So, the week started with fantasy, wended its way through history and food, and will end tomorrow with Mysterypalooza!

 

mysterypalooza vivian lawry
There will be a panel discussion on paths to publication and book signings by local authors. Come on down! I’ll be wearing skull jewelry.

 

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James Haddon as a Metaphor for Writers

james haddon metaphor writers
 
James Haddon is a wood carver. He came to my attention as a carver of Santas in particular—which I collect. His work is graceful, and each carving has character. These are characteristics true of good writing as well.
 
But my main point today is variations on a theme.  I was incredibly impressed with the breadth of his imagination when I noticed that he had carved both of these Santas.
Having noticed his range, I started looking for his work. Now that I have several of his pieces, I’m impressed with how his approach to the concept of Santa parallels what a lot of writers do with concepts crucial to them.

 

Many writers and teachers of writing say write what you know, or write your obsessions, or write your shadow (i.e., the dark side you usually hide). So, does that mean you write the same story again and again? Yes and no. Suppose your issue is abandonment—or poverty, crisis of faith, sibling rivalry, fear of failure, sexism, parent/child relationships—whatever. This will come up in your work again and again. The skill is to make it come up in different ways!
james haddon metaphor writers (10)
James Haddon’s concept of Santa is not unilateral! He looks at it from many perspectives. Sometimes, you need to change the entire shape of your presentation. A different genre, perhaps?
james haddon metaphor writers
Sometimes, Haddon just tweaks the externals. For writers, this might mean changing the gender or ethnic heritage of the protagonist. The internal conflicts, concerns, struggles, or aspirations could remain the same but present a new perspective.
james haddon metaphor writers
One can’t really change Santa’s age, but Haddon changes size sometimes, which I say is close enough. The point here for writers is, consider presenting your passion with a much younger or much older protagonist.
 
james haddon metaphor writers
 
Sometime changing the context—putting your character into an unexpected setting—makes the message fresh.  Consider what James Haddon did with these two unusual Santas.
Last but not least, consider going back in time (or forward). These two “old world” Santas are good examples. The concept is still clear!
james haddon metaphor writers
Bottom line: Take James Haddon as inspiration and let your imagination go!