If there’s one often-asked question that especially bugs authors I think it’d be “where do you get your ideas from?”. Stated that way, it sounds like people think there’s a special place where you can buy them.
The truth is that ideas are all around us. Our job, first, is to select the right one for our next book. In my experience, that’s often the easiest part. I just know. The challenge for me, then, is where the heck to go with it. After that, the really hard part is to do the work—put in the countless hours of writing, revision, editing, more revision, etc.
Right now there’s a compelling idea that keeps calling to me, but I’m facing a tricky situation I’ve not dealt with before.
As I suspect most readers are aware, several weeks ago a horrific event stunned us Mainers. A lovely woman swimming off Harpswell peninsula where she lived was fatally attacked by a great white shark. I didn’t know her but feel so very sad for her family, friends, and of course for her.
Here’s the dilemma. I’m a marine scientist-sea kayaker who writes mysteries that get readers “in, on, and under” Maine’s waters, so a great white threatening boaters and swimmers would be the basis for a compelling story. But that could not be a “Jaws”-type tale in which the shark is a monster-alien from another world. Given the fact that sharks certainly are large predators, framing the story would be a delicate task.
I’m reminded of the challenges some of my colleagues (e.g., Kate Flora, Bruce Robert Coffin) face as they write a story based on actual murders, accidental deaths, and the like. Cop shows and movies perpetuate many myths about the real world of policing, but most of us know nothing about the emotional, mental, and physical tolls officers deal with every day.
Picture, for example, a detective who witnessed a dreadful murder in the early morning and has been dealing with the aftermath all day. At that point she wants to work through what happened with colleagues but can’t take the time because she’s hosting her sister’s birthday dinner party where she’ll pretend all is well. I would imagine similar situations happen all the time.
Returning to my Maine mystery-that-features-a-shark, what might readers be surprised learn about these fish? (Um, besides the fact that they are fish). For starters, even though Maine’s great white populations are increasing (laws protecting marine mammals has resulted in more seals, a preferred food), shark-human attacks are extremely rare (a dog bite is much more likely). Given that, why a shark might bite a person? One reason is that people in wetsuits look like seals to them.
My challenge, of course, will be to imbed particulars like these in a compelling story with memorable characters, striking scenes, and all the rest.
Returning to “where do you get your ideas from?” I’ll end with a couple of responses from three authors:
• “In asking that you have done the thing that all authors hate. And, we hate it for two reasons. One because we get asked this every day, and two, we are scared the ideas will stop if we tell someone else.” (Neil Gaiman)
• “I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.’” (Stephen King)
• “I wanted to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].” (John Steinbeck on “The Grapes of Wrath”).