I remember reading a piece by Harlan Ellison once about how a story idea and a title came to him. If I remember correctly, he was on a plane and overheard two women talking about their kids. One woman asked the other about her son, Jeffy. Ellison heard the woman answer: “Oh, Jeffy is five. He’s always five.” Now, Ellison was pretty sure the woman actually said “fine,” but that’s not what he heard, and out of that mishearing a story was born. That story was called “Jeffty is Five” and is quite a good one.
A week or so ago I posted a poem here called “Harmland.” That title, too, came from mishearing something. I was listening to a song, not sure by who, when I heard the singer use the word “Harmland.” I was almost immediately sure he said “heartland,” but that’s not what I heard. The title instantly resonated with me and the poem came only a short time later. The emotion of the poem had been inside me for a while but the title helped coalesce it into something real.
Yesterday I was listening to “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies. I like this song very much but never have figured out quite what the lyrics are. I know I could look them up online, but what’s the fun in that. Instead, I enjoy trying to puzzle them out, and I enjoy the weird associations that come to me from mishearing certain phrases. For example, I’m pretty sure there’s “a machine ahold of my right hand” somewhere in that song. And there’s a story in there somewhere that one of these days I’ll write.
While listening to that song yesterday, for the thousandth time, a perfect title for a noir crime story also came to me: “Long Dead Woman in a Black Dress.” I’ve got to write this one, and I’ve got a pretty good idea how it’s going to work.
So, if you’re looking for titles or story ideas, I suggest you mishear a few things. What say you?