Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ideas worth their salt

Barbara here. I love the way the mystery writer’s mind works. We share that very special dark sensibility that lets us see possibilities for murder, and more importantly for mystery, in the smallest daily events. Take the recent blogs about cruise ships. Who else but we twisted souls would see fertile ground for intrigue and cover-up in such a lavish, pampered world?

People are always asking writers where we get our ideas from. The truth is, from everywhere. From newspaper snippets, from cellphone conversations overheard on the bus, from lonely people in coffee shops, from that tempting cliff along the lake… The reality is, we get far more ideas than we have time for, so hopefully only the best survive the first few seconds of scrutiny. Because ideas come not from out there somewhere, in some vast repository of undeveloped plot ideas, but from our own inventive minds. Anything can be the germ of an idea once a writer set his mind to it.

To test this, pick any page of the newspaper at random, find the article at the bottom of the page, and see what comes to you. If your mind turns to suspects and motives and possible suspects even if you are reading a story about baby pandas in the zoo, then you have the makings of a crime writer. Another test, pick four words at random from the dictionary. Hopefully some of them will be nouns and verbs. Spin a story that connects them. Throw a death in, and…

The next step is to play with the idea, tease it apart, expand it like a spider spinning a web, to see how far it will take you and what intrigue and suspense you can capture within its threads. Not every idea is worthy of a 300 page novel. Some, simple and circumscribed, make a perfect short story. Some have depth and mileage enough for that wonderful form that has recently been revived – the novella. Longer and more complex than a short story, but still more limited in characters, time, setting and plot than a full novel.

How does a writer know that their idea has enough “meat” for a full novel? I am not fond of analyzing my writing process, perhaps because of a superstition that if I look at it too closely, I will lose that magic voice in myself that whispers the stories to me. I’ve described my writing process as “fly by the seat of my pants”, which means I jump in and start writing once I have the germ of an idea and the opening scene in my head. I work without an outline, without knowing where the story is going or how it will end, without knowing whodunit.

But the truth is that I have already toyed with this idea a fair amount before I start to write. I have asked myself what characters I need, at a bare minimum, to tell this story, and what kinds of conflicts and dramas are likely to occur. So I do have some vague, up-in-the-air notion of what the shape of the story will be, and whether there is likely to be enough excitement, interesting characters, and complexities to sustain a novel.

But the most important question I ask myself about an idea in its prenatal stages is whether it has resonance. Do I care about it? Do I want to spend a year of my life exploring it, and three hundred pages writing about it? Does it touch a chord in me, stir feelings strong enough to propel me through the difficult stages of the writing. And will it touch others? Is it a big enough theme to connect to universal human emotions – desperation, sorrow, yearning, struggle, hope – emotions not only that others can relate to but care about as well. Some people think that crime fiction is all about murder and mayhem, but it’s not. Truly great stories are about struggle, choice, failure, and triumph.

And it’s your characters who must ultimately tell that tale.  


aaron said...


I love Dame Agatha Christie's response to the question "where do you get your ideas?": Harrods. Great post again...keep up the thought- provoking posts!!

Charmaine Clancy said...

I'm starting to learn that some ideas may be story-worthy but should be left to the universe for someone else to write. As you said, your idea must resonate with you, you have to care about it to do it justice. Those are the novels you can write to the finish.