Friday, July 19, 2019

Where do You Get Your Ideas?

It is generally accepted—or may just be a truism—that the question readers most often ask writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Writers like to disparage this question, as anyone who has done much writing knows that we spend our days tripping over ideas hoping they don’t distract us from the task at hand. The trick is in knowing which ideas work best for your talents and which you may want to spend a year (or more) of your life on, often forsaking all others.

I am not to the point where this question disturbs me. Much of that is due to the fact that I am delighted when readers ask me anything. Another has to do with the idea of reader engagement. If this is what they most often ask, then they must be interested and people are always willing to talk about what interests them and will tend to think kindly of those who engage them on such topics, especially if some enlightenment is involved.

So let’s talk about where ideas come from, and how unique they need to be.

An idea—damn near the whole book—fell into my lap last week when an article in the “Penns River” newspaper described how one of the towns had six shootings in the past six weeks and how concerned the locals were. I live halfway between DC and Baltimore, where six shootings in six days is a slow week, but the article presents an opportunity to examine the dramatic difference in how Penns River residents view such things.

This silver platter disguised as a newspaper article handed me the premise for an entire book: Small town has six shootings in six weeks. The local police department is already stretched thin. While not all the shootings are fatal—some only result in property damage—the locals are upset. (More on this in a couple of weeks.) How this plays out is made to order for examining Joseph Wambaugh’s dictum that a good procedural doesn’t just show how the cops work the cases, it shows how the cases work the cops. Even the title sets up perfectly for a series with all two-word titles: Six Weeks.

Boom! Done. Easy, right?

Well, yeah, except for the niggling details such as actually converting a 600-word article into an 80,000-word novel that maintains reader interest and the characters, dialog, supporting events, and more satisfactory resolutions all that requires, along with a little comic relief and some examination of the ripple effects on the town and the cops that can be used in the series down the road. Not to mention the fact I currently have a book in the series about half finished, the next fairly well planned, and another pretty good idea for the book after that, which may now get pushed back thanks to this new idea.

Sure, it’s nice when the idea falls into your lap already formed. All it does is start the work.

Let’s focus on the “How am I going to create 80,000 worthwhile words out of this?” It’s not enough to have an idea, or even a good idea. Not even a great idea. It still has to be an idea that fits your talents and interests. Give the same idea to Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippmann, and me and you’ll get four radically different stories, even leaving aside the chutzpah it took to mention myself in the same sentence as the others. Giving four writers, even in the same general genre, an idea is not unlike handing four fashion designers identical bolts of cloth. What comes out will still be unique.

Doubt me? Stick around.

Premise: A mob boss has some issues and goes to see a shrink.

Results: The Sopranos. Premiere January 10, 1999
Analyze This. Premier March 5, 1999.

Both were in development at the same time; I doubt either creator know what the other was working on until the trades started talking about them. The two end results share little except for the mob boss and the shrink.

Premise: An outlaw gang with a charismatic boss in the American West sees their times are ending as the 20th Century dawns and moneyed interests create permanent posses to hunt them down. Both gangs heads south where they meet grisly demises.

Results: The Wild Bunch. Premier August 7, 1999.
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Premier October 24, 1999

The thought of a mob boss seeing a shrink inspired different ideas in David Chase vs. what Kenneth Lonergan and Peter Tolan came up with. Walon Green and William Goldman took even more commonality and went their own ways with it. Ideas are great. Nothing good can come without them. All they are is the gas in the car. You still have to know how to drive.


Richard Krauss said...


Elgin Bleecker said...

Well put, Dana. It all depends on the individual writer and how he develops an idea. Have you had people approach you with the proposition – I have this great idea for a book? They say they will partner with you by telling you the idea, and then you can just write it up. As if an 80,000-word book will easily spring from their 2-minute anecdote. Makes me laugh because that happened to me in a grocery store aisle! I said, no thanks, before he could spring it on me.