Like many authors, when I’m speaking to people about my writing, I tend to hear similar questions, whether I’m talking to a group or to individuals.
One of the questions I often get is, “How long did it take you to write this book?” That’s an interesting one, and I’m not sure exactly where it comes from. I’ve never asked anybody who posed it, “Whaddaya wanna know for?” That would seem rather surly and ungracious, especially if I haven’t answered their question.
I’m guessing most people have little idea about what goes into writing a novel, so the only form of measurement that makes sense to them is time and that’s why they ask about it.
But without a doubt, the question I get most often is, “Where do your ideas come from?”
If I’m talking to people who either would like to write or have already started on the long road of becoming a writer, what they really want to know is, how can they go about finding ideas for their own writing. I usually give them some version of Henry James’s advice to young writers: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” That is, be open to everything . . . what you read, what you hear, what you see, and so on.
For a general reader at a library presentation or a book fair, I tend to talk about where the ideas for a specific book came from. And, because nobody wants to hear a long story while they’re standing at a table, I’ll usually abbreviate it.
The truth is, of course, as always, more complex.
I’m not good at just making things up out of whole cloth, which is what many people (including many writers) think being a writer is all about. For me, I have to start at a specific place—with a kernel of an idea, which may come from an anecdote I’ve heard from someone, or an item I read in the newspaper or online or elsewhere that aroused my interest. When I write mysteries, this usually has to do with a crime or violation of the norm.
Also, because I like my books to be busy, from there I braid together that starting point with elements of other ideas, again taken from my mental file cabinet where I store all my possibilities. (I’ve tried writing these down, but I usually lose my notes.)
Let’s look at the fourth Martin Preuss mystery, The Forgotten Child, as an example of how this works.
If you haven’t read the novel, here’s some context. (I’ll go easy on the spoilers.) The book is a departure from the first three books in that my main character, Martin Preuss, is now retired from the police department and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life once the thing that gave shape and meaning to his days has ended.
Thus he’s at loose ends when he’s asked to find someone who was last seen in the 1970s.
His search takes him back to the the art scene in the Cass Corridor in Detroit, and to the history of Ferndale, the inner-ring suburb of Detroit where he lives and works.
So where did all that come from?
When I finished the third book in the series, Guilt in Hiding, and started thinking about the next one, I knew I wanted to focus on more than just a crime, I wanted an event that had a critical impact on Ferndale.
My then-neighbor was president of the Ferndale Historical Society, and he told me about a huge fire that devastated a block in downtown Ferndale in 1975. He shared the Society’s archives with me, and he put me onto a book written by the former fire chief, which included a chapter on the fire.
That took care of the important civic event I was looking for, but I knew I needed to personalize it. Most of my books have family dysfunction at their centers, so I rifled through that mental file cabinet for a suitable direction.
I remembered hearing about several men of my acquaintance who, though currently married with families, had had a child with other women when they were young, and who had lost touch with those children over the years. One of these stories seemed like it would lend itself to a mystery novel that forced an investigator to go back in time to the 1970s, and would in addition be ripe for some compelling family drama.
These became the main strands of the plot of The Forgotten Child.
As I began to flesh out the missing person (or should I say, the missing person began to flesh himself out; this is the mysterious and exciting part of writing fiction), I realized he was an artist, and thus his link to the art scene in Detroit in the 1970s was a natural connection, as well as another likely source for more drama.
And the fire? My challenge was how to take this actual episode in Ferndale’s history and put it into a novel—to transform it from an episode in history to an integral part of the plot of a book.
I wouldn’t need to write an accurate history of the fire; historians and participants had already done that. But I would need to imaginatively transform an actual happening into a fictional event that would not only advance the plot of the book but would act as its center of gravity.
The poet Marianne Moore talks about poetry being “imaginary gardens with real toads,” and that’s what I found myself creating here.
I kept as many of the actual details of the fire in place as I could to give the events of the book authenticity and accuracy, while making them serve my own purposes. I kept the date of when it happened, the details of the fire itself (where it started, what damage it did, how it changed Ferndale), and the responses of local fire and police departments.
But because I was creating a work of fiction, I changed some details, some circumstances, and the outcome. I also switched the real people involved with my fictional characters. I changed some key details—specifically the cause of the real fire, which was never determined—to meet my own purposes in the book. I omitted some details to keep the story moving as quickly as possible.
I peopled the apartments in the building (as well as the entire novel) with imaginary characters. I call them “imaginary,” but they are “real toads”—people I might have known or seen at one time—living in this imaginary garden. (Don’t believe authors when we say we’ll never put you in our books; we always do.)
And finally, I set all this in a context consistent with the conventions of a mystery novel, with lots of bad actors and bad actions, most taken (again) from reality but transformed through the alchemy of fiction.
In the coming weeks (alternating with Indie Mondays), I’ll be talking about where the ideas came from for a few of the other books in the series, including the events that formed the inciting actions of the plots. I hope they’ll demonstrate my guiding principle: everything is fuel for a writer’s imagination.