It’s dangerous to talk to a writer. All my friends and family now know this. You never can tell when something you say off-the-cuff, some insignificant little remark, might set off a creative spark in the writer’s mind, and woof! Off they go into Creator-Land, and you’ll find your throwaway sentence suddenly transformed into something wild and wooly and utterly different than you intended.
Writers must be on guard for those glittery images that zip past you and run off down the road, never to return, if you’re not listening. Some of your best writing topics might be lurking in the meandering blabber of your neighbor, your Aunt Matilda, or the snarky office gossip-monger.
My favorite example of this phenomenon is a short story I wrote over 20 years ago. It’s called "Miss Maud and the Three Bears" and is the tale of an irascible old lady who hated people but loved bears, so much that she lived a secret life as a bear. (There’s a lot more to the story, but I don’t want to spoil it for you, in case you want to read it.)
I’m not that interested in bears, or in crabby old ladies either. I certainly never thought about writing a story about them. But one day I went on a first date with a rather tedious young man whose favorite subject was himself. In the midst of his ramblings, most of which I was not listening to, he mentioned that on a fishing trip he had seen two bears swimming, or rather being swept along by the current, in the rapids of the Skykomish River, high in the Cascade Mountains. One of the bears was holding a wiggling salmon in its paws as it rode the water downstream. As it passed him standing on the bank, the salmon made a last frantic leap for freedom but was caught by the bear’s enormous claw.
There was something about the image of those bears that captured me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. For weeks I dreamed about bears swimming in mountain rivers, salmon thrashing between their paws. Finally, with just that one image to guide me, I wrote my short story, which, although there is a scene with bears swimming in the river, is not actually about that at all. Go figure. After I wrote the story, the dreams stopped, and there was no second date with the boring guy, so he never knew how he had inspired me. But to this day, "Miss Maud and the Three Bears" is one of my favorite stories, and when I read it, I see those swimming bears, river water sparkling on their fur as they are swept by me.