Micro-ideas from a high-definition world

Maureen here, still on a high from a three-day writing marathon that resulted in an (almost but not quite) completed first draft of the next book in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series, “No News is Bad News.”

A lot goes into getting that first draft done, big things and little ones.

A lot goes into getting that first draft done, big things and little ones.

First drafts are funny — don’t worry this won’t be a tortured “how I produced the first draft” post — in that, at least in my case, there’s a lot of stuff in them that may not make the final draft. People ask writers where they get their ideas. Frequently. I’ve written about that before. It’s difficult, yet easy, to answer because there are so many ways to answer it. The bottom line is that’s because there are so many types of ideas: big picture ones, themes, plot twists, plot frames. You get the picture. But one thing I thought a lot about as I got really immersed in this book are the micro-ideas.

I read once that a neighbor of one of the Wyeths (the three-generation artist family) said something like they couldn’t hang out their laundry because he’d come over and paint it. I’m too screen-fried right now to look it up on the Internet and tell you which Wyeth and what the exact quote was, but you get what I mean.

I feel kind of like that as a writer. The Wyeth not the neighbor. Everything around me is fair game. It’s not even like I’m looking for it, it’s just there. A spoken phrase, a mannerism, a moment, a feeling. I’ll see or hear or experience some little thing and — zing! — it hits me and I have to get it in my book. HAVE TO get it in there.

Here’s something you should know about me. I live in a high-definition world. Every morning the sunrise thrills me. The subtle differences, depending on the weather, are a fascination. Sunsets, too. My Facebook friends I’m sure get tired of the endless parade of the sun coming up and going down as seen through the lens of my iPhone.

Have I ever seen a sunset I didn't like? Do you have to ask? A million photos of them taken from my front steps.

Have I ever seen a sunset I didn’t like? Do you have to ask? A million photos of them taken from my front steps.

The world itself is a fascination. What people are doing. What they’re saying. What the thing is out the window. I can’t go in Target or Pier 1 because there are too many bright colors and I want to buy everything. Because they’re bright colors. Yeah, I know, okay? Smells, colors, sounds, feelings, impressions — they’re all popping out and zipping around, orbiting and dodging. I’m rarely bored. Some of things are just distractions, others irritations. Lots of them are momentary delights. Others land and take up residence, either as obsessions that I have to take a zillion photos of — sunrises, sunsets, the railroad bridge behind my workplace — or details that end up in my books.

Is this all a bad thing for a writer? Not if it becomes part of the process.

For instance, Trudi Knoedler, the producer of the audio version of “Cold Hard News,” the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series, mentioned to me recently she’s narrated German paranormal erotica. I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head. Boom! I worked it into the book. It’s just a moment, one tiny one, but it’s there.

I recently read the word exsanguinate. I had to have it. Not only for the look and sound of it, but what it means. Completely drained of blood. I’m sure I’ve heard it before, but we were only acquaintances. We didn’t know at the time how much we loved each other. Now we do. Again, couldn’t get it out of my head until I typed it on a page.

Here’s another one. This fall, when hunting season started, a line from the Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime” kept going through my head: The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now… It got to the point that I not only had to listen to the song, I had to put it in my book.

I may get a variety of vibes from other people, but my kitty and doggie always make me feel good.

I may get a variety of vibes from other people, but my kitty and doggie always make me feel good.

Another one: I realized at some point in my life, that almost everyone I come in contact with makes me feel something physically. Once I realized it, I knew it had always been there. I found it very interesting. I started noting the feelings, how strong they were, who triggered what. I don’t know if everyone has this or not. The feelings run the gamut. I’m not always thinking about them, but they’re always there and now that I know it’s going on, it adds another dimension to life. That got into the book, too.

So what happens, though, when all this stuff goes in a book? There’s a writing rule everything in a book needs to advance the story, whether it’s plot, character development, theme. I agree with that. Too many random things confuse and distract readers and can make for a slow, boring read.

But I don’t have total control, at least initially, over this. The book is taking shape even when I’m not writing. It’s feeding on all that stuff swirling and popping around me, grabbing it, stuffing it in. Some of it’s really good and healthy, like kale or carrots. Some of it’s Snickers bars and Giffords chocolate ice cream. So the first draft or two can end up being flabby, with bad skin and sticky hands. I won’t torture the metaphor further, you get what I’m saying.

So my rule with these things is that if they end up making the final cut, they have to be there for a reason.

German paranormal erotica? It’s already doing it’s job as a tiny bit of insight into a character.

Exsanguinate? Oh my yes. How could I not?

The bridge behind my office. Another obsession.

The bridge behind my office. Another obsession.

The Talking Heads song? As long as I can get permission to use the lyrics, it underlines some of what’s going on in the protagonist’s head. I don’t know if it was listening to the song or if the muse sent me the song, but there are a lot of lines in it that fit while I was writing. If it’s not going to work out, I’ll have to listen to REO Speedwagon or something like that for a solid month to purge my head of it.

The physical feeling from other people? My protagonist has that, too. I just have to fine-tune the writing so it works and is convincing to readers instead of being this weird thing that will just make her (and me) seem a little, um, creepy and someone to avoid.

There are hundreds of other things that landed in the book from that constant carnival that’s swirling around that may not make it. They were still fun while they lasted. I’m not sure where else a writer would get her ideas.

Maureen Milliken is the author of “Cold Hard News,” the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on twitter @mmilliken47. Like her Facebook page, Maureen Milliken mysteries, and sign up for email updates at her website, maureenmilliken.com.

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2 Responses to Micro-ideas from a high-definition world

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Great stuff, Maureen. I want to steal it all (the danger of this business)

    I think it is fascinating to discover the characteristics our characters have–both the ones we’ve given them and the ones they give themselves. Part of the fun of this “job.”


  2. Hi, Maureen,
    I call what you’re talking about the “kitchen sink” theory of writing a book–throw in everything, including the kitchen sink was a phrase I often heard when I was younger and it makes sense to me to do this in the first (what I call the “rough” draft). A lot of it comes back out, but a surprising amount ends up working very well indeed.


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