When a Writer’s Real Life is Too Crazy for Fiction

Friends who know I write persist in asking, “So how do you get your ideas?”

And no matter how many times I explain that ideas are everywhere, even in real life, they insist on an example.  “No, really.  Tell me how you got the idea for what you’re working on right now.”

So this week when that old familiar question came over the phone line (or I guess, in the age of cell phones, it came over the air waves), I decided to tell all.

Here’s what I told my friend:

A couple of nights ago, I dropped into bed at 2:00 am, after a marathon editing session on a new author’s book.  Even though I was exhausted, I fell asleep only after extended tossing and turning.

Less than two hours later, a persistent chirp woke me.  I couldn’t immediately identify it because the furnace was running.  But every few minutes that irritating sound yanked me from the edge of sleep.  I finally realized it was the CO detector in my office.  Since it wasn’t blaring away, I knew it had to be signaling weak or dead batteries.

Isn’t it strange that the blasted batteries never die in the middle of the day?

Stumbling out of bed and only half-awake, I walked into the other room without turning on a light, and grabbed the unit.  I dragged it into the bathroom, where I flipped on the dim light attached to the fan, hoping not to wake completely.

It wasn’t until I fumbled the access panel open on the plastic unit that I remembered my last experience with this detector.

The battery compartment is so tight, removing and replacing batteries involves a wrestling match requiring several tools and more than a few cuss words.  (I served in the Air Force, so yes, I’ve heard stuff that would turn your hair blue.  But I try very hard never to let anything like that slip in my own conversation, and if something does, it is really mild.  But you won’t read what slipped on this occasion.)

The task was no different that night.  Right away, I managed to pull a fingernail past the quick while attempting to remove one battery.  After shaking my hand until the pain eased, I searched for help.  The only tool in sight was a sturdy metal tweezer.

“Just what I need,” I thought.  “I’ll pry these babies out of here to shut up the stupid chirp, and replace the batteries in the morning.” 

Holding the case in one hand, and attacking the batteries with the pointy end of the tweezers, I still couldn’t leverage one enough to pop it out.  I was fully awake now, and more irritated by the minute.  I changed my grip on the case, switched hands, tried prying from the open end of the compartment, from the side of the batteries . . . they weren’t budging.  And that blankety-blank thing just kept bleating.

More than ready to return to my warm bed, I made one more ferocious effort.  The tweezers slipped off the end of the battery and sliced a long shallow furrow along the outside of my left index finger.

Holy midnight blood-baths!  My stomach threatened to heave when I forced myself to yank off the long strip of skin hanging at the end of the wound.  And of course, my finger bled.  And bled some more, while I dug through drawers searching for a Band-Aid and antiseptic cream.  I finally got the finger wrapped up, and by now the frequency of chirps had progressed to “Danger, Will Smith!” level.

I stomped into the dark kitchen, opened the oven door for a little light (I still had hopes of returning to sleep before dawn.  Dwindling hopes, but I clung to them.)

Grabbing a butter knife, I attacked those batteries with every intention of cracking the case wide open if that’s what it took.  After a couple of frustrated heaves, the end of one battery lifted a fraction.  Another five minutes of sweating effort, and I had pried it free and tossed the silenced detector on the kitchen counter.

Back to the bathroom I went, where I changed the blood-soaked Band-Aid.  Finally, I crawled back into bed, wrestling the now-frigid covers around my ears.  And dropped off to sleep until the alarm-radio blasted on two hours later, at which time I discovered my injured finger had continued to bleed, liberally decorating my sheets, pillowcase, and gown.

Well, that had to be the kernel of a story, didn’t it?  I made notes until interrupted by my friend’s phone call.

Once I finished recounting my tale of real-life midnight misadventure, and told her I was playing with the idea that a woman disappears in the middle of the night, leaving behind bloodstained sheets, and a destroyed CO detector, there was a long silence on the other end of the line.

“Okay,” she said, “but no one would ever believe that whole thing you just made up about the CO detector.  That could never happen.”

“You’re probably right,” I sighed.  “Listen, I have to go change the bandage on my finger.  I’ll talk to you later.”

Next time someone asks where I get my ideas, I’m going to say Santa Claus brings me a bag full of them every year.  They’ll probably believe that.