Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Another kind of haunting

Rick's post of yesterday got me thinking. As a regular blogger on Type M, I am always hunting for new ideas for blogs. After awhile I feel as if I've said it all before, and wonder if there is an original idea under the sun that someone on Type M or elsewhere hasn't already beaten to death. So about two days before my blog post date, I start scrounging for ideas, and often I read the blogs that came before to see whether there is a germ of an idea I can expand on.

Rick's post on the lure of abandoned buildings was pure gold, in more ways than one. First, I realized that my twice-monthly struggle to find a scintillating and original blog idea mirrored almost exactly the process I encounter when embarking on a brand new book. I have written twelve books. I have explored many of the ideas that I hold dear. So I ask myself, what can I write about this time? What can I say that hasn't been said before, by me or by someone else? No writer wants to revisit old ideas or recycle stale plots. We want to be as excited and inspired by each new story as we hope the reader will be. Finding that fresh story is the challenge.

Snippets of story race through a writer's mind constantly. It's part of our psyche - oooh, there's a story in that! Intriguing events, unique characters, or as Rick notes, fascinating locales. We steal from the headlines, we eavesdrop on coffee shop or bus conversations, we salivate at a steep staircase or tantalizing cliff. But most of these snippets are not worth 300 pages. At best, they find minor roles in the stories we create, or get folded into other richer, deeper ideas. Stories that are truly captivating – that have layers and contradictions and meanings beyond the obvious, stories that are at the same time unique and universal, stories that capture our hearts and make us cheer and cry along with the characters – these are the tales we strive to tell.

And that's the other point I took from Rick's post. If you are looking for the unique expression of the universal, look to history. Tie the human experience from yesterday to the human yearnings of today. I realized that many of my best stories have had a historical connection. Something in the past comes back to haunt the present. I love that duality, which lets me interweave two stories together and allow each mystery to propel the other. I have explored old sexual abuse, Nazi war crimes, buried family secrets and crushing military trauma, all in the context of a contemporary crime story. As a writer, I get to travel to distant eras, research history, and probe exciting new themes, all the while taking the reader along for what I hope is a fascinating and illuminating ride.

Abandoned buildings take many shapes, both literal and figurative. I have not yet set a story in a genuine haunted house (although who knows where my next idea will come from), but some of my best ideas are haunted by the past. What about yours?

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