Guest Chick: Sandra Murphy

The Chicks are excited to welcome acclaimed short story author Sandra Murphy today, tackling a question we’ve all thought about…

Where Do Ideas Come From?

Something happens + a question = an idea for a story or book.

Writers say, ‘I couldn’t think of anything to write’ or ‘The Muse wasn’t speaking to me.’ I don’t believe in writer’s block or The Muse.

Ideas float in the air like dandelion fluff. They’re in your newsfeed, in a scrap of conversation, or what you see. That’s ‘something happens.’ The question that fuels every mystery is, ‘what if?’ 

In the news. In this week’s news, a 410-pound cube of gold, worth $11.7 million was found in NYC’s Central Park. A one day only art installation, it was heavily guarded. What if, instead of being art, the gold had dropped from a plane?

The Velveeta Cheese company had an art installation too—an eight-foot-long box of their cheese, aka liquid gold, to show ‘you don’t have to be rich to be golden.’ What if hordes of squirrels overpowered the security guards and stole the cheese during the night?

Overheard conversation aka eavesdropping. My short story ‘The Exterminator’ for Die Laughing: An Anthology of Humorous Mysteries, is based on eavesdropping. Walter’s a no-kill exterminator. In line at his favorite coffee shop, two women are overheard to say, ‘It’s the exterminator! If he’s here on a job, I don’t want to stay.’ Two men in black suits, white shirts, wearing pinky rings, mistake Walter for a hit man. Desperate for cash, Walter takes the job only to realize, if he can’t kill bugs, how’s he going to whack a guy?

Eavesdropping at your favorite spot likely won’t net you a hit man but it will give you fodder for a good story. Be sure to pick a spot away from the main crowd so a neighboring table will feel it’s private enough to dish the dirt without being overheard. Use an earbud as camouflage. Don’t lean toward the conversation. Falling out of your chair is a dead giveaway you were snooping.

What you see. A scruffy panhandler sits on the sidewalk, a used but empty coffee cup in front of him. As shoppers walk by, he asks for spare change. Without warning, he jumps to his feet and chases another man. What if he’s not a beggar but is an undercover cop on a stakeout?

Spin what you saw, heard, or read. Standing off to the side and watching doesn’t make you a wallflower. It makes you a better writer.

So, what have you read, seen, or overheard that could turn into a mystery? Leave a comment and let me know.

BIO: Sandra Murphy lives in St. Louis, Missouri, south of the Gateway Arch and Anheuser-Busch, near the mighty Mississippi River. On a hot summer day, the smell of hops awakens her imaginary friends. They spin tall tales and she submits them as her own. Her short story, ‘Lucy’s Tree’, won a Derringer award in 2020.  Her latest efforts include ‘Room Service’ for Monkey Business: Crime Stories Inspired by  the Films of the Marx Brothers, and editing Peace, Love, and Crime: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the 60s and Happiness Is Listening to Your Dog Snore, a collection of quotes about dogs.

43 thoughts on “Guest Chick: Sandra Murphy

  1. Fun stuff, Sandra! How about turning a “cliche” into a wild twist, surprising and delighting audiences? For example, the evil twin kills and replaces the good brother (cliche), but the motivation for murder is the loot stolen by his Nazi grandfather during WW2 (twist). Room for interesting historical factoids along with elements of thriller mashed up with classic murder mystery.

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    1. Nice twist! My sometimes writing partner, Michael Bracken, and I wrote a story set during WWll – Gracie Saves the World. It’s in The Extraordinary Book of Historical Mystery Stories. Like you said, including historical facts made the story. We’d love to revisit Gracie!

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  2. A friend and I are both avid readers of mysteries. I will be telling her something that happened or I saw and while relating the story to her she will say to me, “But what if……” or “Are you sure that is what they really meant? It could be…..” Maybe she should be writing. This is a fun exercise, I think I will be more conscious of my surroundings and look for fun scenarios!
    Carol

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    1. Try writing a story together. I have a sometimes writing partner, Michael Bracken, and we’ve written and sold five stories so far. Sometimes it feels like ‘who’s leading, me or you?’ or one of us only knows how to waltz and the other can only dance to “Walk Like an Egyptian” but we have a lot of fun.

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  3. Sandra, I use overheard conversation all the time. That is what gave me the idea for my first Laurel Highlands book. I was on the street corner and a woman on her cell phone said (in a very angry voice), “You’d better fix this!” As she walked off, the question was, “Fix what?”

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  4. Sandra, I’m not a very good eavesdropper, so I tend to rely on what I see. Recently, I was at one of my son’s band concerts. The ensemble included a harpist. The harp is such a big instrument, I couldn’t help start wondering how it might be used to bump someone off. A little research later, I have a full idea for a future whodunnit!

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    1. I didn’t think of using a harp – such soothing music – as a murder weapon, great idea! What if is the question that can lead to all kinds of twists in a story.

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    2. That’s funny, JC! Both my sons played tuba in the marching band. I wrote a short story where someone was killed by a tuba and my older son and I choreographed exactly how it could happen. Mother-child bonding at its best!

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      1. I’ve got a story pending where cymbals play a significant part. Mother-child bonding over a murder and a tuba. That’s got to be unique!

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  5. Neat ideas to find inspiration, Sandra! Besides those listed above, I tend to look at cars. It’s probably a Los Angeles thing, but I like peeking at people’s vanity license plates or what’s inside their cars to formulate backstories.

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    1. A personalized plate can give you insight into the driver but it would make an even better story if you misinterpret it. That could be pretty funny! What’s inside my car could give you all kinds of ideas – a lot of padded mailing envelopes and books in the back, a mysterious lump in the front (clothes that I need to bring in the house but…), and more.

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  6. I’d read all of those stories. I’m going to have to check out this anthology since I really want to know about that exterminator and how he gets himself out of the mess he’s in.

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    1. I think you’ll particularly like Moose, his sidekick and partner, a Jack Russell terrier with impulse control problems. Let me know what you think.

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  7. One thing I will always miss about New York is the fantastic bits of overheard conversation you hear simply by walking or waiting for a subway. Of course, with everyone on their phones now, that’s probably changed. But I mined gold from some of those moments.

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  8. Eavesdropping is definitely my favorite way to get ideas. But it also makes me wonder if anyone’s ever taken anything I’ve said and put it in a book, lol.

    Thanks so much for visiting the Chicks today, Sandra! (I gotta check out your story, “Room Service”–I love the Marx Bros.!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Leslie. It was a lot of fun to write – there’s a barbershop quartet convention and…You know I enjoy your writing too, I’ve reviewed your books for Kings River Life ezine. Thanks for having me. This was a lot of fun.

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      1. Love it! I sang (briefly) in a barbershop quartet–good fun! And thanks so much for your work with Kings River Magazine (and for reviewing my books there)–such a fabulous publication!

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  9. Welcome, Sandra! I don’t believe in writer’s block or the Muse either, and I’m definitely not above a little conversational shoplifting! I get lots of ideas at a food court, airport, grocery store, hotel lobby … anywhere people gather. It used to be more difficult to capture the conversation, but now with phones, it looks like I’m texting rather than writing down every word they say!

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    1. Texting, nice cover for ‘borrowing’ a conversation. When we were able to eat out, I always had a book with me. As long as I remembered to turn the pages now and again, it made a good cover for concentrating on a conversation. I look forward to being able to do that again.

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  10. Sandra, thanks so much for hanging out with the Chicks today! I just downloaded the Monkey Business anthology to my Kindle. Don’t know how I had missed this one! I’m a huge Marx Brothers fan (Duck Soup is probably my fave MB movie). I also love reading short stories — and I admire authors who are able to write short stories!
    Btw, I’m a seasoned eavesdropper. Sounds like you and I share that skill. But, it’s all just research, of course!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ll like Monkey Business. It was fun to watch the movie again and then update the story with a few twists. I’ve reviewed one of your Liv and Di books for Kings River Life ezine, enjoyed it a lot. Research, yes. let’s go with that!

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    1. My imaginary friends? There’s a whole neighborhood of them inside my head. Even the ones who are supposed to only have a walk on part, no dialogue, decide they want to be ‘a star’ and try to take over the story. In the summer, it’s the smell of hops that makes them crazy. In the winter, it’s the reflection of light off the snow. It’s getting quite crowded in my head!

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  11. Welcome, Sandy, and thanks so much for visiting Chicks! I’m not sure I even bother to disguise my eavesdropping habit anymore. In a way, it seems as if a lot of people don’t even care about privacy anymore, especially when they’re talking on the phone. I worked part-time at a Starbucks years ago, and my Wednesday shift breaks coincided with the Bible study meetings for a group of the most gossipy, uncharitable ladies on the face of the earth. I don’t mean to be ugly, but..I got plenty of future material, bless their hearts. (Some of it didn’t technically qualify as cozy, I’m afraid.)

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    1. I think I sat near them too but at Denny’s. And then there were the retired guys who met at the same time every day, what an earful there! No privacy or concerns with the phones and not much with in person conversations anymore. Kind of takes the fun out of eavesdropping!

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    1. Thanks, Margaret. I find a lot of ideas from newsfeed stories, especially now that divers are finding submerged cars from 40 years ago. If I ever get that one done, it will be the length you write – a scary thought for me!

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  12. I love reading all the interesting ways stories are created. Ideas for them? They are all around. Most of my stories come in the wee hours. A fleeting message from a character, or the whole darn story plays out during the night. I can’t keep up with the suggestions I get while sleeping. Last night 2 distinct stories and I’m feeling compelled to start an outline so they won’t get lost in the shuffle. Most often, during the day, I write a line with a character’s name and the story follows.

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    1. That’s the best way, when they sneak up on you and write themselves. Some of my best stories have come along that way. Sweet Tea and Deviled Eggs, in a collection of my stories titled From Hay to Eternity, was one of those. I need more!

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  13. Sandra, welcome and congrats on all of your success!

    I have overheard some pretty interesting (and hilarious) conversations and keep hoping for one that a) inspires a book (or at least a scene) or b) is a bona fide mystery! Keeping my ears open. 🙂

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    1. The trick is to be stealthy about it. There have been times I’ve wanted to say, Speak up! I can’t hear you or Wait, don’t go, I need to know what happened next! So inconvenient when that happens.

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