Every writer has a different approach to beginning a book. But there’s one thing that we all have in common: the germ of an idea.
It might be an image of a character that takes hold in your mind. Someone you’ve never met but you want to spend time with. Maybe it’s her ruptured sense of loyalty that intrigues you. Maybe it’s the chewed down fingernails and the skunk-white stripe in her red hair. For some reason, your character is the germ of the idea, the thing around which everything else in the novel will revolve.
Colin Cotterill’s’s work feels this way to me. I’ll bet he started with the character of Laotian Coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun, and took it from there.
Maybe the idea includes a situation or a job (like Cotterill’s coroner.) I wonder if Chris Grabenstein started out with the notion of two cops who worked at a Jersey shore amusement park, and then built a whole world around those rides.
I started Forcing Amaryllis with the idea of writing about a jury consultant because I’d been fascinated by the field since the days of the O.J. Simpson trial. In literature and in film, jury consultants have been portrayed as a combination of P.T. Barnum and Pavlov, with a little David Ogilvy and Satan thrown in for good measure. I wanted to create one who still had scruples.
The germ of an idea can come from anywhere.
Those tiny newspaper crime report summaries can be gems for starter ideas. Like this one, from last October’s Oakland paper:
“Starting Wednesday night, the sound of gunfire will become a criminal’s worst enemy, according to the Oakland Police Department. That’s because they’re now able to listen for gunshots through a network of sensors and high-tech computers piped directly into police headquarters. The system is called Shot Spotter. It uses a Global Positioning System to pinpoint the source of the gunfire.”
Ooh. Now that could be interesting.
The internet is also a wonderful source of unexpected plots. I was recently trolling through the ozone and came across these sad, lonely lines:
“Subject: I can’t find my daughter
I left Chicago in June of 1998 to come here to Tampa to live. My daughter got caught up in the streets of Chicago and I could not find her. Because I had already gotten the job in Tampa, I was forced to leave without her and I have not seen nor heard from her since. I really miss her and pray for her. I spent $100 on a finding company to find her, all to no avail. Her birth date is 7/30/83 and her name is Martha LuAnne Johnson. If you see her, please tell her I love her and contact me. Thanks for listening. I am now 54 years old, but seeing her would be the high point of my fast fading life.”
I can’t get this woman and her lost fifteen-year old out of my head. Did the girl just step away to get some gum and her mother boarded the bus without her? Was the child caught up in a gang or a romance and ran away to avoid a move to Florida? Somehow … someday … I’m going to write their story.
That germ of an idea is what Stephen King describes as the “what if?” What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (King’s Salem’s Lot) What if you lost your hand and had a new one grafted on, but the widow of the donor wanted visitation rights? (John Irving’s The Fourth Hand) What if you got away with a crime seven years ago, but your partner is out of jail now and looking for you? (Marcus Sakey’s The Blade Itself) What if you just met this woman in a bar and the first words out of her mouth are “I just poisoned your drink?” (Duane Swierczynski’s The Blonde)
The “what ifs” can go some crazy places. If you’re a writer, they’re the things that keep your friends worrying about your sanity.
But here’s the dilemma: how do you know when that germ of an idea isn’t germinating? How do you know if it’s a big enough idea to support a hundred thousand words and a year of your life?
Can you recognize that an idea only has legs long enough for a short story? Or maybe a subplot? And dear Dog, have you ever walked away from an idea a hundred pages into the book saying, “There’s not enough here?”
So that’s my question for writers out there today. Have you ever stopped writing a book halfway through? How did you know that it wasn’t a book-worthy idea?
And for all of us mystery aficionados, have you ever read a book that made you think, “Damn, she’s stretched this measly little idea out so far it’s gonna snap like a bad bungee cord?”
PS: Check out the International Thriller Writers’ launch of its “Brunch & Bullets” luncheon series, debuting Saturday, March 17 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel in Hollywood, California. A second luncheon is slated for May 5 in Greenwich, Connecticut. For more information, go to www.thrillerwriters.org