The classic question: Where do you get your ideas?
The classic answer: Ideas aren’t a problem. I already have more than I can use in a lifetime.
The second classic question: How do you write an entire book?
The second classic answer: The same way you eat an elephant, one bite at a time.
All joking aside, there are as many ways to start a book as there are writers. What I’m talking about today is that absolute first minute, the completely blank page, the very first time the idea, “Wouldn’t it be fun to write a book about X?” comes to me.
Since I’m a character person, I always have spare characters running lose in my head. This first-idea moment is like a curtain call for actors. Which of this rag-tag bunch that show up this morning will get the starring role in this book? I insist they come with resumes. I’m not much interested in their height, hair color, etc, though I do have to be careful about having too many black-haired, green-eyes characters—a combination I find incredibly sexy.
What I’m much more interested in is preexisting buttons I can push, internal conflicts, etc. I look for characters who have
• Turning points in their lives, places where the character learned something good or bad about life and about human nature?
• Secrets: It might be a big or a little secret, distant past or recent. Whatever it is, it's a secret with consequences and those consequences will change a person forever.
• Hopes, dreams, fears: what keeps him alive? What would be the worst blow, the worst loss he could suffer? What would be the greatest triumph, the greatest blessing he could gain?
On a big piece of paper, I write five or six character names, leaving a lot of white space between each one. If you’re familiar with Gabriele Lusser Rico’s Writing the Natural Way, you’ll recognize what comes next as what he calls “clustering.” I draw lines between the characters to show relationships. At this stage, vague phrases are fine. “Steve has a secret that has something to do with a scandal that happened in town 50 years ago.” or “Frederick is spying on the doctor. Why?” I’m looking for ways to eliminate orphan characters and increase the web between other characters, especially where the connections relate to the mystery.
An orphan character is a character who is in the book for one reason only. Old Dr. Blakeley knows that Mrs. Coleman couldn’t be Tom’s mother because he performed a hysterectomy on her decades ago. There’s no mention of Dr. Blakeley anywhere else in the book, but, toward the end, the protagonists have car problems near his farm. While they are waiting for the tow truck, the old man reminiscences and the protagonists suddenly discover this vital clue that solves the mystery. Dr. Blakeley is an orphan character: either get rid of him and give his secret to another character, or build up Dr. Blakeley’s role.
I want all of my characters—either knowingly or unknowingly—related to one another; they went to school together, served in the military at the same time, or worked together; one character dated/married another character’s relative; one character sold the other character the murder weapon; two characters corresponded on a chat room about antique vases and forged antique vases happens to be the motive for murder; and so on.
By this time, I’m usually able to pick which character might make the best villain, AKA the killer, but I like to have at least two possible killers in reserve because they provide good red herrings. I ask each potential villain to tell me why it seemed right to them that the first murder victim had to die. I tend to stay away from the “It was an accident. He hit his head on the corner of the marble mantle and, when I realized he was dead, I panicked.” That character isn’t guilty of murder, but rather of covering up a murder, which makes for a lot less juicy story.
I’m after the person to whom murder makes sense, a person who has what Liz Lounsbury calls the “faulty life view.” If I can get that person to tell me a believable story, can make me think, even for an instant, that yes, murder was a reasonable solution to the problem, I've had my first ah-ha moment. I know I've got an idea for a book that's worth looking into.
Writing quote for the week:
Plot from the murderer’s point of view and write from the detective’s point of view.~Earl Stanley Gardnier, mystery writer