In college a friend and I were taking the same short story writing course, and I remember her asking me, "Where do you get your ideas?" Knowing she was a good writer, she assumed she could compose a decent story, if only she could figure out what to write about. She hoped there would be a trick, but for me, at least, there isn't. Instead, there's a lot of thinking.
Drowning Ruth started out with my thinking about a Boo Radleyish neighbor we had when I was growing up. She was a recluse and lived in a big house, kept two white German Shepherds and a white cat, and surrounded her yard with a chain link fence-unheard of along the lake where everyone cut a cross each other's lawns as a matter of course. The only way to get past her house without walking up and down two long, steep hills or literally swimming was to scramble over the boulders she'd piled between her fence and the water. One afternoon, as I stood on the edge of her property line poised to run, the people immediately next door warned me that she'd shot at some other kids from her window with a bb gun. I was quick, though, and mostly timed my crossings for the minutes when she was riding away from the lake on her mower. I only saw her face to face once, when she yelled at my brother and me from her vintage car to "get off this private road"-the road we lived on, which, by the way, wasn't private.
My great aunt had known her, though, years before, and she told me stories about how this woman used to sit in the car and wait while her husband went to parties in Milwaukee. The poor lady was probably only agoraphobic, but I'm glad that at the time I had no notion of such a prosaic explanation because whenever I passed her house-especially when I trudged up and down those endless hills--I romanticized the tragic life that had made her want to shut herself away and imagined her days alone in her mansion.