Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Walk in the Park

by Mark Alpert

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 would’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.


  1. Hi Mark Alpert,

    Welcome to The Kill Zone.
    I've always wanted to visit NYC, probably for the very reasons you list in your post today.

    There's GOT to be a story in there somewhere.

    Looking forward to more of your posts,

    Paula Millhouse

  2. Welcome, Mark. Love this post. Walking in NYC also feels like time travel. The architecture in the different sections of town can conjure ideas too.

    YA author Jay Asher tells a story about how his book 13 REASONS WHY was inspired simply by him walking through a museum listening to an audio tour as he did. He said the intimacy of the woman's voice in his hear was the first trigger. His book is about a girl who committed suicide but left 13 recordings with the people who contributed to her making that decision.

    I love the idea of walking to get your brain buzz accelerated. Vroom vroom.

  3. Welcome, Mark.

    I find I always get my best ideas when I am in the middle of cooking dinner. There is a direct correlation of how dirty my hands are and how many pots are just about to boil over to how great the idea is. If there is no way for me to write it down then it is the perfect next scene or idea. If I am sitting in front of my computer, hands poised, waiting for inspiration to come, I can't come up with one thing.

    My writing process is to run around all week at work compiling post-it notes and scraps of paper when the ideas flow and then sit down on Saturday morning (after reading TKZ posts) and transcribe those jotted down half sentences into something that resembles a chapter or scene.

    Your theory works for me.

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with Her Captain

  4. Welcome to TKZ, Mark. Glad to have you as a blogmate. Your walk through the park produced so many visuals. I'm sure you'll find a way to incorporate one or more into your WIP, especially the racist pick-up line. I might steal that one. And I really like your tips on horizontal versus vertical thinking. That's why I'm writing this comment while standing. I can feel the ideas coming faster as I type. :-)

  5. Welcome to TKZ!

    I love people-watching for ideas. I used to work at a gas station, and that was a veritable treasure trove of weird stuff. The most unusual thing that happened was I had a regular guy come in every Friday to buy a six pack of cheap beer. This guy was in his 50s, and age was not kind to him. He was missing teeth. He was bald except for three straggly strands of gray hair on top of his sunburned head.

    One day while his wallet is open to pay, he points to a picture of a beautiful girl in the plastic photo holder. "That's my daughter," he says proudly. Only this picture is clearly a cut out from a department store magazine.

    I told him she was pretty. He nodded, grabbed his beer, and left, but my mind was spinning. Why doesn't he have a real picture of her? Is he stalking her? Was there a horrible custody battle and now he can only see her through her modeling jobs?

    People are excellent sources of inspiration. Good luck with yours!

  6. Welcome to the Zone, Mark. Great to have you aboard.

    Your account reminds me of my acting days in NYC, when I used to love to hang out at Washington Square Park. People watching. I used to do that in Times Square, too (back when Times Square had hair on its chest).

    May your strolls be fruitful and your Metro card full, just in case you have to train back.

  7. The racist pick-up line reminded me of what aVice cop told me over twenty years ago.

    In our large midwestern city pimps and predators trolling bus stations and streets routinely used the "You won't talk to me cuz I'm X, Y or Z" on rural or small town runaways and those 'escaping' to the big city.

    Per the officer the guilt-based approach was effective in initiating interaction that had ugly consequences for some very vulnerable girls/young women.

    Sorry for the dark link but this is TKZ:) I may use the scene myself in a future tale.

    Thanks for kickstarting my Saturday, Mark. Looking forward to more stimulating posts.
    Good luck

  8. Ew, what an awful torture device. Your scene could inspire a science fiction novel maybe more than a thriller. What if all the characters had a weird device on their faces? What would its purpose be? Perhaps a breathing apparatus. And so on.

    I use walks, too, to generate ideas and know very well what you mean by walking in a trance. Welcome to TKZ!

  9. Maybe that is why Hemingway stood at his desk to write instead of sit?

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with Her Captain

  10. Howdy Mark and welcome to the good ship Kill Zone, I'm Basil, the guy who lives in the little room by that statue of the hot mermaid chick that sticks out of the bow. My job is to clean the salt and gull poo off her and keep her painted up & smiling as we crash through the literary waves writing about people killing each other and then getting killed or badly spanked for it. I met her first when the crew here hung me from the bowsprit in a storm with a big flashlight that I was to shine on any big scary things coming our way and to sing my special poems to scare them scary things away.

    Well, there were indeed some big scary things and they were turned out to be tone deafer than me and next thing I know I was hugging that big wooden fish-lady and knew what my life's work would be. My only regret is that my room is immediately next to the head...which is...well I could use a fan sometimes.

  11. Oh...and I get my inspiration by walking too. Although, living in Alaska I tend to walk in the woods more than the city. Communing with nature, and sweating up mountain trails in bear infested forests motivates me to think faster. I write military/espionage thrillers and have learned that there are a surprising number of helpers out there willing to give advice. Squirrels know some pretty amazing stuff.

  12. Mark, I think you have the whole story right there in a nutshell. The guy's remark is the Joycean epiphany; if you can build back from there, you have it. Your description of the whole scene is very cool. Looking forward to your posts.

    Victoria, I always thought Hemingway stood up to write because of bad knees - you know, the shrapnel wound from WWI. Or maybe he did it in case he had to beat a quick retreat from Miss Mary and get aboard the Pilar... Or maybe... Someone should blog on this.

  13. Hi Mark,
    I write during England's Regency era. Never heard of the Scold's Bridle. Really gross. I went web surfing and found this: The Scold's Bridle (1994) is a crime novel by English writer Minette Walters. The book, Walters' third, won a CWA Gold Dagger. Looks like there was a movie too. You probably know about all this stuff.
    Maybe this will help power up your ideas even further. Interesting that it was used on Virginia slaves too in the mid 18th century according to Wikipedia. Too intense for me. Have fun! Jill

  14. I love your people watching stories! Now I'll be on the lookout for some kind of commercial with CG going on with their faces.

    If you need ideas, you could always borrow my mom's game (she reads mysteries by the ton). She's always trying to figure out how to hide the body. One time a guy with a tractor was mowing the pasture. The mower doesn't have blades. Instead it has a ton of chains that drag the ground and beat the grass to death. Mom remarked, "That'd get rid of the body effectively."

    Elizabeth Poole, the story about the guy with the magazine photo has made me ponder so much. What a weird thing!

  15. Mark, welcome! I am HOWLING about the story of the guy who thought that his nationality was impeding his love life! What a great tale! More, please, in future weeks!

  16. Welcome, Mark! Having just spent a week lounging in the sun I realize that I've not thought about a new book idea since then...hmmm...I suspect sunshine isn't conducive to my creativity. I need some darker, urban weirdness to get me back on track!

  17. Thanks for the warm welcome, everyone! Elizabeth, I love that story about the gas-station customer with the magazine photo of his daughter. It's so sad. I was thinking: maybe the guy doesn't even have a daughter. Maybe this is a fantasy he invented. Maybe he saw a picture in a freebie magazine and decided, That's my daughter. I'm going to tell everyone she's my daughter.