My son in Bellevue, Washington frequently e-mails articles or links to articles to me. He’s a computer engineer and I have a science background so scientific and technical topics are favourites. But we’re also keen on subjects that are off-beat and obscure which explains the recent arrival of items like The Woman with the Bionic Eye (The Atlantic), Photographer Turns the Table on His Subject by Getting Naked to Take Their Portraits (Business Insider), and US Trained Alaskans as Secret ‘Stay-Behind’ Agents (Associated Press). See what I mean?
Most times, I read the article online, but if it is especially intriguing, I print it and pop it into my ‘futures box’ – a holding tank of sorts that I dip into periodically for inspiration. The futures box has been a godsend many times. Not only a hotbed of research material, it’s also a source for wild and weird ideas – the kind of extreme stuff kids, particularly boys, love.
It’s easy to trace how such ideas influence choices when writing non-fiction since there’s a direct relationship between research material and final product. But what about fiction? Where do those ideas come from – the plot twists, intriguing characters, and sizzling themes that make fiction work?
Now that I’m in the final throes of my first middle-grade novel, Missing in Paradise, I’d like to know. Figuring out what gets creative juices flowing should take me a step closer to harnessing them in the future, right?. Well, that’s my rationale, anyway. Here’s what I found.
Missing in Paradise is a mystery, adventure story about two boys, 14 year old Nate and 12 year old Simon who, after discovering a box of odd items at a garage sale, embark on a search for lost shipment of gold, certain they are fulfilling the ghostly request of Nate’s recently deceased grandfather.What kid doesn’t like a treasure hunt? As a kid, I did. I wasted many a glorious afternoon, digging in the family garden, convinced I’d find pirate treasure between rows of tomatoes. So the storyline comes from those experiences, right?
Probably, but I can also draw a direct line to several Futures Box items
- A truck driver, making a road stop in 1998, discovered a box of clothes abandoned in a rickety shack in Nevada. Among the items inside – a grimy, tattered pair of jeans from the 1880s. Auction on eBay as the oldest Levis ever, they were purchased by Levi Strauss & Company for a cool $46,532.
- Two paintings bought by bargain hunter Carl Rice, at a 1996 Tucson, Arizona garage sale – one of roses purchased for $10, another of magnolias purchased for $50 – bore the initials M.J.H. in the corner. Turns out they were works by well known 19th century painter, Martin Johnson Heade. Sold at auction in 1998 for a whopping $1 million.
- Daydreaming in English class one day in 2000, ten year old Bingham Bryant, a grade 5 student at Old Lyme Central School in Connecticut, studied a gloomy painting that had been hanging in the library for 80 years. “I was certain it was old,” he said. He told his father, an art dealer, about it. End result: Fate of Persephone, a long lost original by famous artist Walter Crane, sold at auction for more than half a million dollars.
- A 2011 newspaper article recapped a piece of local history. Between the late 50s and 60s, dapper Winnipeg resident Ken Leishman (aka ‘The Flying Bandit’) committed a number of crimes including bank robberies, stealing planes and escaping custody. His most famous heist was the March 1, 1966 theft of nearly $400,000 worth of gold bullion from the Winnipeg International Airport – the largest gold theft in Canadian history.
Without giving away the entire plot, I can safely say that Missing in Paradise contains many of these real-life elements – inquisitive boys discover a box at a garage sale containing items that, at first glance, appear commonplace, but just might lead to a potential fortune – a legendary lost shipment of gold rumoured to have been stolen in a heist years ago.
Is this a case of art imitating life? Maybe. But whatever the source of fictional ideas, I’ll keep stuffing my futures box with clippings and encourage my son to send more weird and wacky stuff. sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, and who’s to say where one stops and the other begins?