Writing Right with Dmitri: Source Material
Okay, Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Answer 42:
From personal curiosity.
I just made up this week's Post Quiz. It's about vending machine history. Why? I was curious. I got to wondering who made the first vending machine, what the weirdest things were that had been sold this way, etc, etc. So I did some research, and shared it with the Post. I was nosy, is all.
I also found an item for the Spoils of War series by being nosy. I looked up the Nuremberg Laws, not a cheerful topic, and found out that General Patton stole the dratted document, which made me laugh. That was just like him, I thought, so I chased down the story, courtesy of the National Archives. Brilliant people over there.
See what I'm getting at? A lot of people say, with some justification, that the internet is the world's biggest time-waster. So it is…if, and only if, you let other people set the agenda. Take today: it's August. It's the 'silly season'. That means newspeople are hard up for hard news. So they go scraping the bottom of the barrel. They manufacture stories. They make mountains out of molehills, and annoy innocent folk who are on holiday.
Like Mr Pierce Brosnan. He and his fourteen-year-old son were travelling by air from the smallish town of Burlington, Vermont, to Detroit (I believe). Mr Brosnan, a native of Ireland, seems not to have realised that the prohibition against taking anything with a sharp edge to it onto an airplane – like, say, his hunting knife – applied equally to terrorists and actors who play James Bond. This is no big deal. It is why we have security people at airports, so that they can explain such niceties of modern air travel. Alas for everyone involved, bored paparazzi were lurking about the airport. The minor dispute became a 'major' 'news' 'story'. I believe the Daily Whatsit over in the UK published at least half a dozen pictures of Mr Brosnan removing his belt for inspection, arguing with officials, and even drinking a perfectly innocent Coke with his son. Bring on September, folks.
Now, you don't have to get your inspiration from that variety of ephemera. You can pick more interesting ephemera. The internet is, potentially, the world's biggest free library. You can search anything. archive.org has millions of items to choose from: everything from out-of-print books in the world's languages to photos, films, audio…philosophical depth and nutcase rants, it's all there. As Augustine would say, 'Take and read'.
Gutenberg has books, books, books. Too lazy to read? Listen. Instead of trolling Youtube for 'the ten dumbest things my cat has ever done' or 'the ten best onscreen deaths of Sean Bean' (two major Youtube topics), why not look up 'oldest film footage'? Or go the opposite way, and look up the ISS? Lots of great NASA stuff, including Chris Hadfield's wonderful version of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'. You can be entertained and learn, too.
Or go hunting in Open Culture, a wonderful website that will open your mind to a world of interesting things, like the 'Gnome Chomsky' garden gnome. It isn't all bad academic jokes: there are free books, audiotapes, videos, and lots of info.
There are lots of other great sites out there – and if you find them, share them. We live to learn. But what's the point here? The point is that these days, your computer is a link to the great libraries and archives of the planet. Which is what it's supposed to be. And the limit to what you can find there is the limit of your own imagination. And curiosity.
Asking questions and hunting for answers can stimulate us to research, read, and write – anything from a new Guide Entry (yes, yes!) to a piece for the Post to…you name it, your next novel? But it has to start with a question. Hm, I wonder who invented the first vending machine, and why? I wonder what NASA's up to these days? (Go ask President Obama, big Trekkie that he is.) I'm in the mood to listen to some jazz/classic pop/really rockin' Liszt, but I'm broke, where can I find some free music? You get my drift.
You can learn a lot online. Not just info. You could take lessons in languages, for example. Or find 'how-to' instructions that will lead to hands-on learning experiences. All for the price of a few pixels. So get to work. And get nosy.
We need the copy.