I’m often asked where I get my ideas, as if they’re something I go out and buy, or maybe order online. I used to be tempted to reply, “Up at the mall, 40% off today.” Or, “Down at the farmer’s market, if you want organic.” But now I’d say, “Sugar Beach, for free!”

I wondered where ideas came from too, when I first started trying to write. Where could I find inspiration? What should I write about? I envied people who had lived adventurously or had astounding family stories. They didn’t need to go shopping for ideas. They’d already bargained for them in exotic bazaars or had them hand-delivered by an eccentric aunt.

But what did I have to work with?

My life seemed … um, you know, not all that exciting. I often felt I was trying to turn straw into gold, like the miller’s daughter in the Grimm’s fairytale. How I wished for a Rumpelstiltskin to appear and help me spin my boring life into a book. And if he’d shown up, I might well have promised my first-born.

Alas, no such magic exists. But I did learn that golden ideas are anywhere and everywhere. I also learned that the secret to finding them is to look beyond your own life and think like a writer.

How? By adding a big handful of “what if?” to your straw. Here’s the way it works for me:

I spend half the year in Toronto, and have the great good fortune to live only a few blocks from Lake Ontario. On summer weekends when it’s too hot to do much of anything, I walk down to the waterfront with a book for the afternoon. In the past I’ve always ended up at Harbourfront or Toronto Island.

But this year Sugar Beach is my favourite spot to sit and read.

At the foot of Jarvis Street, tucked between the new Corus Entertainment building and the historic Redpath Sugar Refinery, Sugar Beach has sparkly sand, comfortable lounge chairs, and umbrellas the colour of strawberry ice cream.

Talk about spinning straw into gold. Sugar Beach used to be an ugly parking lot. Then somebody said, “What if we unpave it?” And now it’s a paradise.

But Sugar Beach isn’t just a cool place to read. It’s also an ideas paradise.

It’s hard for me to concentrate on reading a book when everyone and everything at Sugar Beach is possible material for a story. I find myself observing from behind my sunglasses, and eavesdropping on conversations.

There are so many great ideas fluttering around for free that I could never use them all. But if I wanted to choose one to take home to develop, I’d start by asking myself:

What if that hip young woman on the boardwalk wanders too close to the edge, trips in her platform sandals and falls into the water?

What if that hot guy who just came out of Corus tries to rescue her? What if he drowns in the attempt?

What if someone who worked at Redpath Sugar fifty years ago suddenly appears on the beach? What if she’s related to the dead guy?

What if those grandparents on bikes are meeting here to plot a crime?

What if those little kids building castles find a diamond ring in the sand? What if they find a bloody knife that’s surely a murder weapon?

What if? What if? What if?

Sugar Beach. Free ideas. Sweet!