Last summer, I attended a dinner and the keynote speaker was a very popular author. He was entertaining and motivational and, when he finished, opened the floor to questions. One would-be-author in the audience raised her hand and asked him, “Where do you get your ideas?” He seemed almost offended by her question and told the young woman that you never ask an author that question.
That response puzzled me and has brewed in the back of my mind ever since. I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked that question, albeit rarely from another author. But it made me wonder why people ask it. It’s just so open-ended and unanswerable that I often wonder, “Do they really expect an answer?”
I think yes, they do. And I think the answer that they often expect ties back to the author’s life.
You see, I believe non-writers — whether they’re readers or not — are often in awe of us who do. They can’t believe someone can come up with the plot twists and the witty dialog and all the drama that makes-up an entertaining suspense-thriller or murder mystery, much less any compelling piece of fiction. They have no understanding of the hours on top of hours we spend at our computers writing and editing and revising. They don’t know that we lose sleep, neglect our friends and family, burn through reams of paper. They never see us obsess over finding that perfect word. They only see the thrilling, enthralling roller-coaster ride of the end product. If we do our job right, we make writing look easy.
To them its sexy and extraordinary. And, I suspect they wonder if our personal lives are filled with all the murderous intrigue, sexual melodrama and duplicitous characters we write about. So, what they’re really asking is, “Is your life as exciting as your books?”
Going forward, I’m going to answer: “Yes. And, no.” I think that’s about as succinct an answer I can come up with to a question that’s so open-ended it’s unanswerable. It’s also honest.
My ideas come from the world around me.
They originate from my friends’ lives and my family history, though they are exaggerated reflections of things I see, hear and remember. The characters in my books are never a perfect representation of any one friend — but some of their personality traits and quirks breathe life into those characters. Stories that my friends tell me sometimes find their way into my character’s history. Then there’s funny, sad, angry, emotional things they say that becomes dialog. Kimberly Bradford from Prey of Desire was inspired by a girl I dated in college, who owned a rotweiler and took care of her grandfather. However, the specifics of Kimberly’s relationship with her grandfather more closely echoed memories I have of my own grandparents. And Mallory, Kimberly’s best friend, was inspired by another girl I knew in college who made a living by rear-ending people in expensive cars. Mallory doesn’t do that, per se, but that’s where the spirit of her character came from.
My ideas come from reading books, watching TV and going to movies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, if I wrote that <<insert movie/book/TV episode here>> I would’ve changed the ending. Then BANG I have a new idea for an ending to a book. Sometimes a headline or news story just lends itself to become a great hook for a murder mystery. When I heard Fred Neil‘s “The Other Side of This Life” for the first time, I immediately thought of a road trip, which led to The Designated Survivor. In fact, the original idea for that book hit me while watching the Ellen Degeneres show. I had this idea for a comedian like Ellen leaving the airport and somehow having to take a trip with a crazy fan who has a body stuffed in the trunk of his car. Of course, the final story is quite different, but that’s where the idea came from.
My ideas come from just living. In fact, I’ve been watching the world around me for so long, I’ve collected 15 college rule notebooks filled with scribbles describing plot ideas, and murderer motives, and character names. There’s 40 years of living in those notebooks, and I thumb through them from time to time. Now those bits and pieces go into an app on my tablet, but still….
I’m not nearly as interesting as the people I write about. My life is not nearly as mysterious and eventful as the plots in my books. But people are going to ask. And some day, when I’m the keynote speaker for a dinner at a writer’s convention, I’m going to say, “Hey, that’s okay. Ask away. I’ve got an answer.”