Where Do I Get My Ideas?

That smoothie better be cold.

This is apparently one of the worst questions you can ask a writer but I’m not sure why. The short answer is that I get ideas everywhere. Life is full of interesting tidbits that can be developed into characters, stories, even full-length novels. Nothing I’ve ever written wasn’t based, at least in part, on some specific experience from my real life.

Perhaps a better question is “What inspired X?” As a reader, I’m less interested in where a writer gets ideas in general than I am in who and what inspired specific stories.

I recently announced my short story, “Queen of the Dogs,” is nominated for a 2017 Anthony Award. You can read more about the story here. It’s about a young Latina housekeeper who was inspired by a woman named Rosa who worked for us for nearly fifteen years when we lived in Los Angeles. You get to know someone rather well over such a long period of time, even when you only see them a few hours each week. Saying goodbye to her when we left wasn’t easy.

Rosa grew up in Guatemala, where her family owned a large farm. Even so, they were very poor and eventually, she immigrated to the United States with her two children. I never did find out what happened to their father. By the time I met Rosa, her children were grown, with their own families.

She’d worked as a housekeeper in varying capacities nearly her entire life. In hotels, for agencies, as live-in staff–she pretty much had every aspect of the job covered. She told me about a few of the employers.

Once, she worked as a live-in housekeeper for one of the most well-known producers in Hollywood. Overall, it wasn’t a terrible experience, but the household was regimented and the staff was expected tow a strict line. For example, when Mr. Producer returned from his run each morning, there was to be a smoothie waiting for him in the kitchen and it had to be made at just the right time so it wouldn’t melt too much by the time he got to it.

When Mr. Producer returned from his run each morning, there was to be a smoothie waiting for him in the kitchen and it had to be made at just the right time so it wouldn’t melt too much by the time he got to it.

One of the other staff members was an English woman–if I remember correctly, she served as sort of a household manager. Rosa had been working there a few years when a passport went missing. I can’t recall who it belonged to but the English woman immediately blamed Rosa for the theft and Rosa was subsequently dismissed. Even years later, when Rosa told me the story, her voice was filled with hurt. She said she always thought that the woman, who was also foreign-born, was the real culprit.

Then there was the time she found one of her employers dead of an overdose in his bed. She’d worked for him for many years and had a mostly good relationship with him, although once he’d apparently made some inappropriate sexual overtures to her. But after working for him so long she knew his secrets, and one of them was that he had a problem with pills and alcohol. She politely refused his advances and he never did it again. As she told me about his death, I could tell she was sorry he’d died the way he had. She’d been fond of him.

At one point, I recommended Rosa for a job with one of our new neighbors, an older couple from the east coast who’d purchased a condo in our building as a pied-à-terre in Los Angeles. It turned out to be my mistake. I should mention here that Rosa was the hardest working person I’ve ever met. She never said no to a job. She needed the work, so any time someone asked me if I could recommend a housekeeper, I told them about Rosa.

They seemed nice enough, but I should’ve known something was off about them when my husband and I went over to introduce ourselves. My husband was on the board of directors for the HOA and there was something he needed to speak with them about–I don’t remember what it was or why I accompanied him. Anyway, we kind of did a pop-in, which was our bad, and the husband happened to be hanging around the house in his underwear. Hey, we all do it sometimes, right?

Sure we do. Except when someone comes to call unexpectedly, we don’t stand there in our tighty-whities having a conversation with the new neighbors. No, we slink off to another room and either hide until said guests leave or PUT SOME PANTS ON. Not this dude. He stood there in his underwear chatting with us–people he’d never met–as though to punish us for our ill-advised decision to knock on their door without calling first.

We kind of did a pop-in, which was our bad, and the husband happened to be hanging around the house in his underwear. Hey, we all do it sometimes, right?

In spite of this odd introduction, when the wife asked for a housekeeper referral, I recommended Rosa without hesitation, explaining she’d worked for us for ten years and that we really liked her. They hired her on a trial basis, but from the start, it was a bad situation. The wife was distrustful and unkind, and Rosa finally quit when she found her shuffling through her purse, looking for Rosa’s identification because she doubted her immigration status.

That’s one of the things that struck me most about Rosa’s life: she was always looking over her shoulder, certain that she could be accused or even arrested at any moment. She was an American citizen and had been for years, but her appearance, her broken English, and the community in which she lived made her a constant target of suspicion.

But Rosa was no criminal. Even if she’d been inclined (she wasn’t), she wouldn’t because her references meant everything to her. Without them, she couldn’t get work.

I’ve wanted to tell a portion of Rosa’s story for a long time, but it wasn’t until Gary Phillips asked me to contribute to the 44 Caliber Funk anthology that I re-imagined Rosa as a young woman named Marisol, new to the United States and eager to experience her adopted country to the fullest. The resulting story bears only the slightest resemblance to Rosa’s real life, but her hardworking spirit remains.

Read “Queen of the Dogs” here.

Holly West

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