Thursday, October 01, 2009

Where Do Your Stories Come From -- Part 2

In Monday's blog "Virtually There," Gina Sestak asked the question: "Where do your stories come from?" Here's one man's answer:

Invariably when I go to writer conferences like the New England Crime Bake (Nov. 13-15 in Dedham, MA, with Sue Grafton as this year's guest of honor), one of the most frequently asked questions is “where do you get your ideas?”

And invariably the author’s answer almost always has something to do with some soaring experience or the depth of their soul. Some build their stories around a character they conjure, others fashion them after a recent event.

Those aren’t the answers I’m looking for. When I ask, “Where do you get your ideas,” I literally mean “where are you when you get your ideas?” Are you at the grocery store? In the shower? At the gym?

Whenever I write fiction, I start with the scene. I don’t start with “the character” or “the event.” I start with the surroundings.

The idea for my short story “Liberty” (Seasmoke anthology, Level Best Books) came to me while I walked my dog around my neighborhood. The triggering thoughts were, “What kind of crime could be committed here?” “If a criminal was doing exactly what I’m doing, what kind of crime would he commit?”

Since then, I’ve found that approach has worked time and again. After attending a few author readings at my favorite book store (RiverRun in Portsmouth), I started mulling, “what kind of crime could be committed here?” That question led to “The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever,” which will be published this November in "Quarry: Crime Stories by New England Writers."

Likewise, a spring morning and the annual ritual of cleaning out the basement led to frequent trips to the local recycling center. Those trips ultimately led to the story, “The dump at the Dump.”

My wife Pat Remick’s award-winning story “Mercy 101” (Still Waters anthology, Level Best Books), came from her frequent commutes on Highway 101 from Portsmouth to the state capital in Concord.

Again, first came the scene. Second, came the crime. After that, it’s matter populating the plot with the right characters.

The point here is that story ideas need not come from some grand place or exotic situation. Entertaining ideas come from the most mundane places. And let’s face it, we’ve all considered writing, “Murder at the DMV.”

But, awkwardly transitioning back to where I started, one of the great things about going to Crime Bake is listening to other authors talk about where they get their ideas and, of course, listening to experts suggest how to carry them out.

I have listened to Jeremiah Healy discuss the best way to stab people without getting blood on yourself, and I have learned as Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves) taught me how to rob banks. And I have been relieved to hear poison lady Luci Zahray assure, “Don’t worry, coroners almost never test for these things.”

It occurred to me then that the greatest criminal minds in New England aren’t in prison. They’re at Crime Bake.

It also occurred to me that the local SWAT team probably had the building surrounded.

Frank Cook is a short story writer, real estate and business journalist, professional development book author, a longtime mystery fan currently working on two crime novels, and the long-suffering husband of Working Stiffs blogger Pat Remick.


Joyce Tremel said...

Nice post!

I wish Crime Bake wasn't so far from Pittsburgh, and that I had the cash, and the time, and...oh hell. Maybe next year.

Sherry said...

Your post makes Crime Bake all the more tantalizing Like Joyce said, the issues of distance, time and money are there, but I'll be there some year!

queenofmean said...

Interesting post.
I've done that myself esp when I'm walking the dog alone. I think about how the crime would be committed and how the criminal would get away.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

For my first book, I was in China during SARS. I thought a lot about where these various viruses originate and mutate. I came up with A REASON FOR DYING.

Cheryle said...

Interesting idea, to start with the setting first. Myself, I always start with the characters first, then they tell me what they want to do with each other (murder or romance one another or write a diary, whatever).

Frank Cook said...

All ... many thanks for your comments. CrimeBake is a ton of fun. I know you'd enjoy it.