Tuesday, January 24, 2017

How To Catch a Wild Idea

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?


E. B. Davis said...

Congratulations to you and Jim! Real life is where the ideas come from. Just this weekend my husband said something that would counter an idea I had--but then I realized that it actually could work to my advantage and bring more authenticity to the story even if it isn't flattering to law enforcement. It's a complication in fiction, but then I realized that it could rub Islanders the wrong way since my Sue and Woody stories take place on Hatteras. To promote you have to show yourself. In this case hiding behind a pseudonym would be very convenient! It's a dilemma.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Life is all around me. I'm a shameless eavesdropper and people watcher.

Bib mules, who knew?

Jim Jackson said...

I am always amused when people come up to me and tell me they have this "great idea for a mystery," as though coming up with an idea is the hard part of writing. I tend to write about financial crimes, because they interest me, and I'll never run out of ways crooks try to get your money without working for it. I gently tell the would-be idea-giver that it sounds interesting and that they should write their own book.

BTW -- I had the pleasure of working with Tina on her novella, "Trouble Like a Freight Train Coming" and I think everyone will enjoy this fun read of Savannah low life featuring a young Tai Randolph.

KM Rockwood said...

I marvel that people don't see story ideas at every turn. My problem is sorting through the ideas to chose just one to work on. I have characters badgering me to write their story, real-life situations that shout out to be turned into stories, and glimpses of things that should be explored further to find out what gems lie inside.

Tina said...

I'm seeing a common thread here, and it's true to my experience -- there's a wealth of ideas; it's the choosing that's hard.

Also BTW: I have yet to read Jim's novella in our anthology, but I will say this-- after reading his books, then working with him on two projects, I have seen his mind at work, and I tell you, we should all thank our lucky stars he took his talents into fiction instead of crime.

Warren Bull said...

Restaurants often give me ideas, that is, when I'm seared close enough to other people so I eavesdrop.

Karla said...

The world around me! There's always something that piques the imagination, whether it's something I see, someone I meet/see or something I hear and sometimes something I smell. As authors, I think our senses are tuned into things that might be out of the ordinary, or more accurately, extraordinary.

Grace Topping said...

How can I get to that place in Switzerland!! I've been so stressed with things going on around me that my mind is blank. The Wicked Cozies this week had a blog on writers' retreats. Just what I need.

Tina said...

I once lost consciousness in the middle of a flight across the country. The plane goes into medical emergency mode. The whole "is there a doctor on this flight" routine. And the first thing I did upon coming back to my senses was start taking mental notes, like "So that's what it feels like to lie on a cockpit floor. Gotta get that in a scene."

Writers. Always on the hunt.

Alas, I have looked for that tiny Swiss town on Google Earth. I don't think Dr. Seuss played fair with us.

Gloria Alden said...

I get that question a lot. Even my doctor has asked me that after he started reading my first book. Like others have said, it's by paying attention to what's around you and listening in to other's conversations in a restaurant or sitting waiting for your flight to come in or the conversations of others on the plane. And it might be something I read in the newspaper that sparks an idea, as well as being a reader. I might read something and an idea pops up on how I might change what I read into something totally different. But mostly I stick with what I know; place, personal interests, etc. people I've met and create new personalities for. Or ideas that come from nowhere and I can't explain.

Tina said...

It's the ones that come from nowhere I find most fascinating (like how Tai got her name. Trey too. Their first names materialized, but I had to choose their last names. Randolph I saw on a county line sign in North Carolina (which also inspired her father's family's tobacco-money wealth)and Seaver came from a list of Irish surnames in genealogy book).

Terry Odell said...

I have an idea tree in my yard. I go out and pluck some fruit. Sometimes it's under ripe, sometimes it's rotten, but every now and then, there's the perfect, sweet, juicy offering.