Sunday, September 29, 2013


On this perfect early fall day in our small town in western New Jersey, with the sun shining in a deep, autumn blue sky and the leaves starting to turn to oranges and yellows, the local fire company held its annual auction. It seems as if everything under the sun and then some are available for auction or purchase. Stacks of books pour out of the hall, clothes piled on clothes line the firehouse, sports equipment - skates, bats, balls, sleds, skis fill a shed, household items of all imaginations occupy a tent - pictures frames with photos of long gone great-grandparents, old Christmas ornaments that someone once lovingly hung on their tree, and decorations for  holidays through out the year, pots and pans, flower vases and baskets, table linens-and the auction tent itself packed with furniture, antiques, picnic tables, bikes, boats, and beyond.

What an auction of ideas for writers - the remains of people's lives. Who used all this? What did this table hear or that chair see?  Was it a happy home or did illness, sorrow, betrayal, history of war or economic problems trouble this house? Who looked at this photo and who gave it away?

Auction items are a treasure trove of inspiration for a writer  - for plot, for characters, for setting.

As a writer we can say, well, "What if....the owner of these faded silk flowers touched them gently as she smiled at a birthday being remembered?"  "What if ...the mother in the sepia toned photo cried as she read the letter from her son at war?"  "What if ...friends and family cheered as the athlete with that bat slammed the winning home run?" "What if ...that piece of jewelry was accepted by a teenage girl  who then tells the boyfriend that she is making other plans?"

I once heard Mary Higgins Clark, the mystery writer, give a talk where she said she began her first novel, and many subsequent books, by asking "What if...." when looking what might actually be a very ordinary scene or event and imagining something bigger and much more interesting and mysterious. She said she was in Singapore as a young air line stewardess and noticed an international looking group at the next restaurant table and haphazardly thought, "What if... they're not what they appear?" and she was off. 

Auctions offer much trash and many treasures but all have a past and can fit in a story as a main character or a minor plot point. A writer only has to ask "What if... " and can be off on a unique new book. Where do you see treasures of inspiration and when have you said "What if...?"


  1. 'What if' keeps me going on many (if not every) writing projects. And I love auctions -- there are so many questions brought up by the myriad of items on sale. It's like hundreds of people's lives strewn on the tops of folding tables, whispering at you.

  2. If I remember correctly, there was a picture book published years ago with the title What If?
    Yes, it's an intriguing question.

  3. I missed that auction again this year! But I've been trolling second hand furniture shops all year, furnishing a beach rental, and I've had a blast. I'm a regular at the Habitat for Humanity Restore and I wonder about every piece of furniture. Walking through that store is like walking through an anthology -- so many stories.