Friday, July 13, 2007

The Question

Charles here.

Like most authors, I seek every opportunity I can to talk about my books and the writing process in general. And, like most every author, I know that at these events I’ll inevitably be asked The Question.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

We get asked this question so many times that some authors have come up with witty responses they always use: “I buy them in bulk from K-Mart”, “Online, same place I get my porn”, “I just go out and kill people and take really good notes.” Others say something like, “No idea” or “If you find out let me know,” and I’ll admit, I’ve used a few of these over the years myself. We get asked it so many times that we forget that it’s a real question, that the person who asked it is truly curious how our little minds work. While this might prove to be impossible, here’s how I believe I develop my ideas.

I start with a basic broad idea, say a mystery set in India, and from there I make a mental list of all the things that could go in that frame. I know, that’s huge, but since I focus on adventure mysteries (as opposed to whodunits) and my protagonists are average Joes, I’m already narrowing down the list. And since I don’t do politics, mention nuclear weapons, involve CIA/MI5/Black Ops plot lines or write historical mysteries, I cut that list even further. And since I like to keep my stories on the move, I know that I’ll be taking in many locations at a rapid pace. When you consider that all that is done subconsciously as I create my mental list, that list can get focused rather quickly.

Take Nobel Lies, the book that will be published in September. Since my first visit to Thailand, I knew that it would be a great setting for a fast-paced adventure and I had been forming plot lines in my head for years. Then the 2004 tsunami hit. Phi Phi Island, our favorite Thai vacation spot, was leveled and scores of people we had come to know were killed. I knew I couldn’t write any story about the Thailand I knew without the tsunami. Give the size of the disaster (and the relative insignificance of any adventure I would tie to it) I saw three possible directions – the adventure ending with the tsunami, the adventure starting with the tsunami or the adventure taking place after the tsunami.

Ending with the tsunami was out for me – no matter what I tried to write I wouldn’t be able to capture the terror of the real event. That’s not a knock on me; no writer can. And I know I didn’t want to start with the tsunami since my fictitious story would pale compared to the reality that would have to be all around. So that left me with a post-tsunami adventure.

I traveled to Thailand for the one-year anniversary of the event and I saw that it had recovered enough to seem ‘normal’ but there were scars all around to remind what had happened. So, the story would take place one year or more after the tsunami.

As for the plot, I knew it wouldn’t be murder. With 230,000 killed as a result of the tsunami, I felt I couldn’t work up enough interest in one more death. Yeah, that’s the job of an author and it can be done, but not by me. I guess I knew too many who died on Phi Phi to add to the carnage. (That said, I did rack up an impressive body count in the final product, but I didn’t know that when I started.) So how about someone missing? Approximately 40,000 people still remain unaccounted for. And what if you were looking for just one of those people?

My next list ran down reasons why that person hadn’t come forward on his/her own – amnesia, they were being held against their will, they didn’t want to be found…hmmm…not wanting to be found. Why not? And what if you found them, then what?

It goes on like this for months, making mental lists, creating possible roads – most all with dead-ends – until a story develops. Okay, so it’s nothing shocking here, no exciting revelations, but that’s how I believe I develop my ideas.

And I say believe since I may have simply convinced myself that this is how I do it.

So the lesson here? The Question is more interesting than the answer.

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