Writing Lesson #1—Where do you get your ideas?

Mystery writers are asked that question all the time. The questioners are either awed by our fertile minds or afraid that we've acquired our murderous ideas through personal experience. But the only honest answer is: We find ideas everywhere. So can you. The trick is recognizing the ideas you already have. I live in the part of the country that's home for wonderful sourdough bread, and serious bakers always have "starter" in their refrigerators. It's a yeasty flour and water batter that keeps being fed and it in turn "starts" future loaves.

In almost the same way, you can keep idea "starters" from which will come infinite numbers of stories, long and short. And the fact is, you already have all the ingredients it takes.

Plots are seldom handed to us fully baked to continue—and now drop—the analogy. They are constructed, and they begin with an idea—any idea that emotionally affects you.

We're writing crime, so (most of us) are definitely not following the "write what you know" school of thought. Instead, we find our starters in whatever stirs our emotions. The basic ideas is: if something gets to you, it can be made to get to a reader.

So become aware of all the times you have a strong emotional reaction to your environment, which includes:
—Conversations with friends. How many times do you talk about things that infuriate you, arouse your sense of injustice, or plunge you into despair, be they at work, school, your neighborhood, the country or the world? Listen to yourself—those things are story starters. What if somebody fictional was so upset about that situation that he did something illegal or deadly to change it? What then?
—News stories. Your daily paper is a treasure trove, an archive of human passions, often run amuck. How many times have you paused, or found yourself shaking your head in wonderment disgust or anger over stories of abuses, be they physical, financial, political or emotional?

Mysteries are about passions and desires. People want something desperately enough to commit a crime for it. They "need" love or money or power or status or safety—or all those things—or what they perceive as those things, and they'll do anything to get it.

Newspapers are filled with the ingredients for these stories. Don't rely on only the "big" stories that make front page news and will soon be Movies of the Week. Look also at the smaller stories of injustices. Consider "Dear Abby" and her kin's columns, the financial pages where money and greed, success and ruination, lie behind almost every story. Look at the personals and let your mind speculate. Consider feature articles that deal with hardships endured or overcome. Probably even the classifieds could tell a tale.

Whenever you find yourself pausing over a story you've read or heard, when you realize you're thinking about its people, wondering what you'd do in that situation, being infuriated by the behavior or response or the after-effects of the story—make note of it. Jot it down on a card or cut out the news story.

There are other sources as well. For example, when you find yourself thinking, "I never knew that!''consider that information as a potential core for a story. Clues often consist of just that—information that baffles most people except for your sleuth, who knows enough to look at the fact in a different light. I built Caught Dead in Philadelphia around the knowledge of Winnie the Pooh's "actual" name. My sleuth knew it. The police didn't, so they missed a clue.

Also in your environment: classic plots found in myths, fairy-tales, classic drama, the Bible, all ready to be reinterpreted and updated. Such ideas as sibling rivalry in the story of Cain and Abel, the extremes of jealousy in Othello, the power-hungry murders in Macbeth, or the psychological damage done to that poor cygnet in "The Ugly Duckling" can be adapted to your own people and times.

And finally, if like most people, you've come across someone whose disappearance from the universe would not break your heart, remove him—on paper. It's legal, it's therapeutic doing it—on paper— and it can even be profitable. In future lessons, we'll discuss how to disguise him and make him fresh and believable.

Put all these "starters" in a file which will be your personal data bank of crime ideas. Starters will be there for future use, often taking on new slants and spins and sometimes combining with other ideas in the file into one entirely new whole.

It isn't that you haven't had ideas. It's only that you haven't been aware of them.
Next time, we'll talk about the next step: getting the "starter" going.

On to Lesson 2!

Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.


© Gillian Roberts.