By Deborah Sharp
A newspaper editor from way back in my previous life always said only a lazy reporter can't find a good story.
"Stories are everywhere,'' he'd say, taking a drag from the cigarette burning on the edge of his desk. Yes, I'm so old editors still smoked in their offices when I was a wide-eyed cub reporter. Drank, too, but that's a tale for another day.
Anyway, his advice set me on a path of always looking for the offbeat, the unusual, the toss-away observation that might turn into a story. Even though I write fiction now, I'm still doing it. These days, my eyes are peeled for the kind of details that could add something to a plot or to the characters who people my Mace Bauer Mysteries.
Occasionally, I do it just for fun. Just to see if I still have the chops for observation.
The scene: The sidewalk along State Road A-1-A, the beachfront highway in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale. My eyes -- and my notebook -- are open when I spot a couple of lowlife-looking guys, hanging out and drinking beer across from the Elbo Room. Their bicycles lean against the Wave Wall, under swaying palm fronds and a Turtle Nesting sign that details the yearly schedule for lights-out along the beach.
These guys are clearly members of the sun-baked, hard-living crowd my husband and I identify as BWI, or Biking While Intoxicated. They've already been found guilty of DUI, lost their drivers' licenses, and now get around on salt-rusted bicycles with holders on the handlebars to tote their beers. Flouting the law against open containers, Dude No. 1 has tucked a dirty washcloth around his beer can, like that'll fool the cops who patrol the beach.
Dude 1 sports a 'do-rag and a bright orange T-shirt touting a soft-drink, It's Crush Time. The cool thing about being a fiction writer, though, is I get to improve the scene with a better T-shirt I spotted in a tacky souvenir shop about a block away: I Support Single Moms, it said, above a stripper on a pole, One Dollar at a Time.
So, now Dude 1's wearing that T-shirt instead, chugging from his washcloth-wrapped Budweiser.
Dude No. 2 asks him, ''You've had a few, right?''
No. 1 nods.
Dude 2 holds up a 32-oz. plastic thermos. "This is my first one.''
In the spirit of show and tell, Dude 1 puts down his Budweiser so he can pull something from his pocket. Click. Snap.
''That's a switchblade!'' Dude 2's bleary eyes widen. "That's illegal, man.''
''I didn't know you were such a law-abiding citizen,'' says No. 1.
So, that's where the scene ends, as they mount their bikes and make their way south. But I couldn't help but wonder What If? (The two favorite words of a fiction writer, right up there with The End.) What if Dude 1 killed somebody with that switchblade? Or, what if he simply found it somewhere after someone else used it in a fatal stabbing? What if Dude No. 2 has to step up to help? Sober up, slay the demons he's keeping at bay with that thermos of beer, and use the skills he learned as a trained military investigator to clear No. 1 from a bum murder rap?
Maybe, or maybe not. But at the very least, that T-shirt with the stripper pole will turn up in the pages of my next Mace Bauer Mystery. So what have you observed lately that made you ask What If? Has there been something that made you wonder WTF?