Where DO I get those ideas?
One of the most common questions anyone ever asks a writer is "Where do you get your ideas?"
It’s a good question, one for which there doesn’t seem to be an answer. "Everywhere" doesn’t quite capture it; "They just come out of the woodwork" seems a bit flippant; "I dream them" is true only part of the time; and "I live with my characters long enough that they start telling me what to write" garners funny looks from non-writers who’ve never experienced such a phenomenon.
You see, getting the idea to begin with isn’t the problem. The problem—or, as I prefer to think of it, the adventure—is to take that germ of an idea and turn it into what feels like a living breathing entity.
My ScotShop mysteries came about when my agent said, "Could you craft a three-book series around the idea of someone buying something in Scotland—something that has a ghost attached to it?"
Well, of course I could! The moment he asked me the question, my 14th-century Scottish ghost jumped out of my brain and into my heart.
My Biscuit McKee series started when I heard Harriet Austin speak about how to write a mystery. She said, "Just start writing, and if your characters come alive, you’ll know you have a winner." Then she paused and said, "Be sure you put a body somewhere in the first five pages—it’s expected."
So I looked down at my notepad and started writing:
There had definitely not been a body on the second floor landing when I had run up to the attic earlier in the evening, but there definitely was a body, and a rather messy one at that, when I sauntered downstairs after a leisurely snack. I have never been very squeamish, but I do admit to pausing a moment before I stepped gingerly over the leg that jutted out on the hardwood floor where the staircase turned down to the left.
I looked at what I’d just written and said (silently of course, for Ms. Austin was still giving her speech) "Who the heck are you?"
I had no idea at that moment that Marmalade, the orange and white library cat, had just stepped, fully alive, from my pen to my paper to my brain. Or maybe she was in my brain to begin with. I don’t know. I only know that that exact paragraph became the opening lines of ORANGE AS MARMALADE.
Once the cat was there, the other characters, such as the librarian Biscuit McKee, simply stepped into place.
I’m making it sound awfully easy, which may be something of a disservice to all the writers (such as myself) who struggle at times to get the right words on the paper.
If you’d really like to see this process, I’d suggest you go to see "The Man Who Invented Christmas," a delightful movie about how Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol." Pay particular attention to the Fezziwigs, who dance on a street in London before they dance in his book. And to Tara, the maidservant who becomes Dickens’ treasured beta-reader, one who is brave enough to say, "It just wouldn’t happen that way! You can’t kill Tiny Tim!"
In writing RED AS A ROOSTER (yes, I promise it will be published sometime in early 2018!), I had an entire family descend on me, from Robert Hastings, an innkeeper, and Jane Elizabeth Benton Hastings, his sturdy wife who becomes something of a town hero, right down through nine generations, complete with a wonderful couple (Grace and Arthur Hastings) to a real scoundrel (Gideon Hastings) who finally—and most satisfactorily—gets what’s coming to him. In fact, when I wrote that particular Gideon scene, I ended up cheering.
The next time you feel like cheering (or crying or groaning or yelling or laughing) when you read a scene, will you be able to imagine the author doing the same thing?