Nothing has ever been invented, ever discovered, or ever written that hasn’t been in answer to that question. I can’t speak for all writers, but when those two words cross my mind it usually means a trip through the worm hole or a peek through the key lock, and to quote Dr. Seuss: “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”
It’s true that I’ve had story ideas from the time I was a teenager, but they rarely went anywhere. Once, I had this great idea for a Civil War novel based on a ‘what if’, but that was before the internet, and I was living in a place devoid of libraries and books.
I’m fairly convinced that if the internet and the ability to do in-depth research at a keyboard had existed in the early 1980s, my writing career would have developed sooner.
In 1997, I was going through my underwater archaeology phase. I never lost the passion for it, but at this point it’s served only by reading articles about it. In March of that year, I was kneeling on a bed of sand, thirty feet below the surface of the Red Sea just off-shore a tiny uninhabited island called Black Assarca. In turn, this remote location was twenty-five miles off the coast of Eritrea in Africa. Under sixteen hundred years of sand and coral encrustation was a shipwreck of unknown origin, and we were painstakingly fanning layers and layers of sand away from the artifacts buried beneath from around the time that Rome was being sacked by the Visigoths. The Persians were fighting the Armenians, Attila was running around with the Huns, and the Vandals were beating up on Carthage – almost sounds like a normal day in the New York Times, today.
Anyway, on the first couple of days working in my assigned area, I uncovered three amphorae, sort of the ancient equivalent of Tupperware, only much bigger and heavier. I was excited; I was holding a vessel in my hands that had last been handled by some guy who thought of Rome the same way we think about the United States now.
Eager to continue, I went back the next day to my section and fanned away at the bottom, creating a swirl of sediment as thick as a nineteenth-century London Fog. What did I find? A stone block; even the fish are looking at it like: “Dude, you got a rock.”
The head archaeologist on-site scratched his head for a moment and told me not to worry, it was probably used for ballast. Undaunted, I went back to work. Then, out of nowhere – because that’s where it comes from, nowhere – WHAT IF? What if I uncovered something that just couldn’t be there, something unreservedly anachronistic? How would it have gotten there? Who would have put it there? Needless to say, I overstayed my bottom time and had to be brought back to reality by the dive tender banging a piece of rebar on the steel tub of the platform overhead.
Writers know that once the seed of an idea is planted, it germinates and gestates, twining its tendrils of imagination so firmly around the contours of your brain that if you don’t find a way of getting it out of your head, you’ll simply explode – yes, it’s an alien life-force. Three years later, however, the imagining of how that artifact got there became the opening scene in my first completed novel, Flashback. It’s ironic that what firmly planted my feet on the road to writing was writers block. Sorry, I had to go there. I dug up a block, get it? Never mind.
The point is, one must always allow the synapses of their brain to be open to any situation that begs the question: What if? Even if it doesn’t occur to you, just pick a few moments, look around and ask the question – you’ll never know what you’ll find.