Go ahead. Ask a bunch of writers to name the most common question they get asked in interviews, and I guarantee one of the top five will be “Where do you get your ideas?” And most writers also rate it as one of their least favorite questions.
Theodore Geisel—best known as Dr. Seuss—was one of those writers. He once answered it thusly: "I get all my ideas in Switzerland near the Forka Pass. There is a little town called Gletch, and two thousand feet up above Gletch there is a smaller hamlet called Über Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock fixed. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them." (You can read more of Geisel’s writerly wit and wisdom in this great Mental Floss article).
And yes, I get asked that question quite a lot, but unlike many other writers, I enjoy it. It requires fresh thinking every time it comes down the pike, which is probably why my answer is different every single time. So…where exactly do I get those weird, fascinating, relentless sparks that with the proper kindling become plots and characters?
Friends sometimes drop them in my lap. I was having lunch with my friend Donna, a fellow Sisters in Crime member, and she told me about a controversy in the running community concerning bib mules.
“Bib whats?” I said.
“Bib mules,” she replied. “A really good runner who runs a marathon with a slower runner’s timing chip so that the slower runner can get credit for a very fast time.” She went on to explain that this was just one of the many ways that amateur athletes try to cheat their way to medals and prizes and entries in prestigious races like the Boston Marathon
That conversation was the spark for my upcoming novella “Trouble Like A Freight Train Coming,” a prequel to my Tai Randolph series. It’s being published in two weeks (!) in Lowcountry Crime, an anthology that also contains a story by Writers Who Kill author James Jackson). And like any well-tended spark, that idea soon burst into a conflagration of fictional lies and deceptions and all manner of criminal shenanigans
Some story ideas are harder to trace—I still have no idea how Tai’s name came to be, or even when it happened. She has always been Tai in my head. Once I started researching, I was surprised at the various meanings that name has in languages across the world (for example, in Polynesia it means “tide,” in Romanian, “yours,” and in Mandarin Chinese, “too too much” or “extreme”). All of these meanings are appropriate for my character, but I wasn’t aware of any of them when she first started appearing on the page.
Where do my ideas come from? I’m not sure I want to peel off every layer of that process. The mystery fiction I write always comes with a solution, but I prefer some mysteries to remain…mysterious.
How about you? If you’ll permit the question, where do you get your ideas?