For a long time the world of literature has faced the dreaded “question that must not be asked,” as Neil Gaiman put it. Where do you get your ideas? Harlan Ellison jokes he gets them from an idea service in Schenectady. Other writers have similar answers. I wondered why this was so and I thought, you know, I’ll actually say it. Out loud.
You start by being observant. This is nothing new. If writers were not observant, they’d miss the same sort of life they need to instill in their books. You see the absurd things, the mundane things, the things that would never occur to you in a million years. And then you start asking, “What if….”
What if that barfly hanging off the telephone pole in front of a bus stop just–did what? Lost his car? Had the love of his life drive off on the number seven? Doesn’t remember where he’s been? Got off the bus not caring where he is or what happens to him?
Ask another “What if…” question. What if there were a condemned hotel, home to a commune of squatters, on a street where serious crimes were afoot.
What if there were a dirty cop, driving his car, looking for someone interesting to pull over? Not for breaking the law, but for something else known only to him?
Take the “What if…” questions and see where you can come up with answers that can tie the questions themselves together. You end up with the start of a plot. Once you have that, think of the most interesting characters you can that can exist in that plot and do things that are really interesting.
I have two books coming out this month, “Turnabout” and “Shallow Secrets.”
The first was written a while ago, the second more recently. My third book, slated for next fall, started with this notion: according to the FBI, stalking is the only real predictor of murder that we have. Now add a “What if…” question: what if someone were stalking someone you cared about? What if you had the knowledge to not only recognize this, but do something about it?
What if the person you save knows what you’ve done and can never look you in the eye again. Was it worth it? Why won’t she forgive you?
Another “What if” question I had, more of a “why” question, really, is why is prostitution illegal and making pornographic films not? As a writer can I put all this together, add the right kind of character, the kind who has the background and the personality traits to navigate all these questions and sub-questions that come out of the first few questions?
“Turnabout” is a Florida novel, where the action can only take place in Florida. Set back in the days when there was an internet but no world wide web, what happens to the money when the Feds take somebody down? What happens if all those records are kept on a computer network with actual storage encrypted and living god knows where? What happens when some bad people recruit a good one to help them get some of that “lost” money? Murder, kidnapping, and layers of deceit drive the story, where a good man gets put in a bad situation but comes out of it, able to resume his life where he had left it, something he thought he’d never be able to do.
“Shallow Secrets” is the story of a cop investigating a series of murders. A suspect is arrested and it turns out that not only did he have an acquaintance with the cop, he implicates him. Was he guilty? If it can’t be proved certain either way, can he still remain a cop?
Years later another string of murders pulls him into a different part of the state. He agrees to help on a limited basis only, until he learns that there could be a strange, unexpected connection to the earlier crimes. Navigating one investigation while trying to explain the other from years before is something that seems impossible, and yet….
Stark House Press is publishing both books in a single volume. To me, the only really important question I have of a reader is, “Would you read another book by this same author?” I want the answer to be “yes” and I don’t want them to have to wait until next year for another book.
Both of these are written differently, with different structures and style. Hopefully after you read one you can ask yourself, “Would I read another?”
And hopefully you’ll turn a couple of pages and do just that.