Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Where'd you get that idea?

When people find out that I write mysteries, one question they ask is, "How do you come up with your ideas?" The answer is at the same time easy and complicated. The answer is easy in the sense that ideas occur to me, I think about them, and if they develop into a storyline, I write them down and create a story.

The complicated part is that those ideas come from different places, and play different roles in my writing. For instance, in Publish or Perish, the mystery centers around a graduate student in a fictional school of education. I got to know a lot of graduate students when I was in graduate school myself, and I've met a lot since. The hard-working, often stressful life that most graduate students live (I know I did) inspired me to create characters who spend lots of time at the office (often more time than they do at home), are highly focused on their goals, and often have a complicated relationship with their advisors. The victim in my novel B-Very Flat was inspired by my own love of music, as well as the number of music professionals I've met who've taught me about that competitive world. I'm sure that many mystery authors are inspired by their own experiences. Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series comes to my mind right away. I'm sure that Cornwell's experiences in forensics influence the storylines she creates and the kind of person Kay Scarpetta is.

Sometimes, authors influence each other. I know I've been influenced by other authors. In fact, Patricia Cornwell's sleuth has influenced me. One of my recurring characters, Tanya James (a member of the Department of Criminal Justice atTilton University) was in part inspired by Scarpetta.

Some ideas start, as a fellow crime author told me, "from the flimsiest of threads." It can be as simple as seeing someone on a bus, in a coffee shop, or some other place, and thinking about who that person might be. That's what happened to Ariadne Oliver, one of Agatha Christie's fictional detectives. Oliver described seeing a woman sitting on a bus and getting an idea for a story from imagining who the woman might be, where she was going, etc.. An inspiration can be a song lyric, a photo, or something someone says, too. In fact, another fictional character created by Agatha Christie, Mr. Clancy, discusses the whole question of inspiration in Christie's Death in the Air (AKA Death in the Clouds). In one scene, Mr. Clancy is searching for the perfect character name and finds it when he sees a particular shop name he likes. In another, he explains his whole thought process as he struggles to decide why one of his characters doesn't share information she has.

One other point about ideas: all of us who write get our ideas in different ways. But I would guess that one thing we authors have in common is that we get our ideas because we're observant. We're curious about the world and we notice it. We're sensitive to what we see and hear and it makes an impression on us. I know that's true of me, and I'm sure it's true of my fellow authors. What do you think? When you write, where do you get your ideas?


  1. Interesting post! I'm always curious as to where any authors get their ideas. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks, Melissa! I sometimes wish there were one clear-cut answer to that question, but there just isn't... : ).