This is my first post for The Kill Zone, so I want to talk about inspiration. Right now I’m starting a new thriller and looking for ideas. In fact, I’m desperate for ideas. I have no ideas whatsoever. So here’s what I do: I go for a walk.
Someone once told me that the speed of your thoughts depends on the orientation of your body. When you’re lying in bed your thoughts move slowly. You find yourself dwelling at length on unhealthy topics such as, “Why the heck did I become a writer in the first place?” When you sit up, though, your thoughts move faster. It’s easier to concentrate on your work in an office chair than in a La-Z-Boy. And when you’re walking, your thoughts are in constant turnover. Your mind flits from subject to subject. Sometimes you enter a kind of trance and wander three blocks in the wrong direction. Well, I do, at least.
I’m lucky enough to live in New York City, a great place for walking. My favorite spot is Washington Square Park. Usually I pace the rectangular perimeter of the park while I’m thinking of ideas for my novels, but when I’m in dire need of inspiration I stroll along the curving, bench-lined walkways. The park is right in the middle of the New York University campus, so it’s always buzzing with students. I sometimes feel like I’ve entered a different country, the Land of Eternal Youth. There are so many young, beautiful people here!
Last week I ambled through the center of the park, past the Washington Arch and the famous fountain where the Deadheads stage their all-day jam sessions. I stopped near the statue of Garibaldi, which is a good people-watching location. The place was especially crowded that afternoon because some advertising company was shooting a commercial there, and that kind of activity always draws a crowd. The cameramen wouldn’t say what kind of commercial it was, but after watching them for a while I concluded it must be an ad for Intel. The actors -- a gaggle of young men and women, dressed casual-chic -- sat on a bench nearby, staring delightedly at a laptop screen.
But here’s the freakish twist: each actor wore a strange contraption over his face. It was a square black tray, about six inches on each side, strapped to the head in such a way that it jutted horizontally from the chin. It looked kind of grotesque, like those oversized lip plates that African tribesmen insert into their mouths. Two white balls, similar to ping-pong balls, were fixed to the tray’s corners. I think they were part of a motion-capture system, something the ad company will use to create computer-generated special effects. But that’s just a guess. The secretive cameramen wouldn’t say anything about it.
Still, it caught my attention. I think writers, especially thriller writers, are irresistibly drawn to weird, disturbing sights. (Well, I am, at least.) The odd, high-tech chin tray made me think of something I came across in a book not too long ago: a reference to the scold’s bridle, an iron muzzle used to punish women in England and Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Women accused of being gossips or shrews or witches were forced to wear the muzzle, which had a bridle bit that extended into the woman’s mouth. The bit was studded with spikes that pierced the woman’s tongue if she tried to talk. Unbelievable, right?
I strolled toward the other end of the park, thinking about whether I could incorporate the scold’s bridle into my new novel. I tried to imagine what it was like to have the bridle clamped around your head while you were forced to parade through an English town in disgrace. (Some of the bridles were equipped with a ring and chain so the woman’s husband could drag her along.) And while I was picturing this scene, another strange spectacle unfolded right in front of me. A young guy, tall and lanky, approached a gorgeous women sitting on one of the benches. He stood a little too close to her and started talking in a low, urgent voice. Maybe it’s a drug deal, I thought. Washington Square Park used to be an infamous pot bazaar, but the cops cracked down on the dealers a few years ago. Curious, I took a seat on the neighboring bench and pretended to study my iPhone.
As it turned out, it wasn't a drug deal. The guy was trying to pick up the woman and failing miserably. She wouldn’t even look at him. After a while I heard him say, “Is it because I’m Dominican? Is that why you won’t talk to me?” Wow, I thought, that’s not going to work. He’s basically calling her racist. In the whole history of romantic entanglements, I don’t think that line has ever been successful. After another long silence the guy gave up and walked off. He joined two friends who were standing thirty feet away, observing his attempt. One of them said mockingly, “Ah, sucker!” and then they all left the park.
Then it was time for me to go, too. I didn't have any great brainstorms, but it wasn’t a waste of time either. Maybe some of this stuff will work its way into my new book. Or maybe not. It was better than sitting at my desk, at least.
Posted on Saturday, September 22, 2012