Yes, where does a writer’s fancy have its inspiration? Just think back over any book or film you’ve seen. If you’re like me, you kind of wonder where writers get ideas for their projects? You also wonder about the people who populate their work? Where do they come from?
I can’t speak for all writers, but I can speak for myself. One of the questions that seems to always get asked of me at book signings is “Where did you get the idea for this book?” Many times I’d like to reply, “At Walmart.”
It’s not that simple though. Ideas are like microbes swimming around in your brain waiting to reproduce themselves. To come to any fruition, three parts of that microbe have to be present. In other words, an idea has three parts: people, places, things. The three parts are vastly different.
You have two choices. You either invent them from scratch or you use someone you know in real life or have possibly seen at Walmart. I’d say that in most of my writing, I make up about a third of my people and the other two-thirds are folks with whom I have somehow shared a moment or two in life. You, of course, have more control over those individuals you create.
You can cook up any blend of their likes, dislikes and physicality. With real people, the die is cast. You are pretty much limited to an already set of looks and likes. I have more fun with those that I make up. In my last book MURDER IMPOSSIBLE, if you’ve read it, try and figure out which characters were based on real people and which were totally invented. I’ll give you a little head start in your thinking. Two people who were made up were the bon vivant spinster Vicky and the deaf and dumb murderer Brian.
Two characters I based on people I personally knew were Olivia and Ron, our two amateur sleuths who are the main characters of the book. You have your choice. One set of characters comes with restraints while the others are free to be dealt with as you like.
This idea category is sometimes called “background” or “setting.” All paintings have background and a setting. The same can be said of your writing. All the stages you have your characters cavorting upon have one thing in common. They must be exciting and interesting. If you have uninteresting people playing out their roles against a dull background, you’re going to know rejection intimately.
Now here is the scoop about “places.” For the most part, they should be real ones that you have experienced. That way your writing will take on a three-dimensional flavor. Your reader, listener or viewer must be able to almost smell the place. So it behooves you to get out of your digs and check out the world in which you live.
Sometimes, however, you will have to use a background which you do not know. Here is where you must do extra-careful research. You cannot have a background that’s like a painted backdrop on a stage. It will look and feel phony from the get go.
Obviously you will not paint yourself in a corner except rarely. I had to do it once when writing my book CONTESSA. The leading character and a friend took a weekend trip to the P. T. Barnum museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had no way out because I had never been there. What was I to do? I got maps and read as much as I could about the place. I then wrote with an image in my head. It worked I think because I didn’t get any flack from the city once the book was published.
Consider these other examples: Margaret Mitchell writing in GONE WITH THE WIND about the siege of Atlanta as if she were in the middle of it; Mary Renault writing about daily life in ancient Greece in THE PERSIAN BOY.
Background is very important so if you haven’t lived it, then you must make yourself research to the point where your imagination will suffice. In the book I am now writing MURDER AMONG THE ANCIENTS, I am telling the story of Cleopatra’s sister who comes to Ancient Ephesus and is murdered.
In this book I go from ancient to modern times where Olivia and Ron (our amateur sleuths from TEDDY BEAR MURDERS and MURDER IMPOSSIBLE) finally solve the murder after two thousand years. I can tell you the amount of research I’ve done on Ancient Ephesus is enormous. So, “place” can be either real or a figment of your imagination. Either way it has to live for the reader. If you are writing a contemporary work, you are in luck because you can choose any setting that is around you. This cuts down on the amount of research involved and makes for re-living your life in a certain place and time.
This refers to the things that happen in our lives. This category has three parts: real, almost real and contrived. You can have all of them or a combination of the three.
The murders in my book TEDDY BEAR MURDERS were based totally on real homicides that were committed by a former student of mine. I changed very little in the plot points. I just merely fine tuned them. For my present book, MURDER AMONG THE ANCIENTS, I was listening to our guide in Ephesus and as we passed a set o f ruins, he said, “This is the temple where Cleopatra’s sister was murdered.” I quickly asked him a few questions and knew that here was a “thing” I could write about when I got back home.
For “things” and “places,” you can just look and listen a lot wherever you find yourself. You’ll discover more than enough plots to fill all your future works. Plot is happening all around you at any given minute. Just be aware of it and you’re on your way.
There you have it. Where do my ideas come from? Mainly as you can tell, they are all around me at any given time. I just have to mix them together like a salad and let life do the rest.
Best to you and keep a sharp lookout of the world in which you’re passing through.