So where do I get my ideas?

One of the questions I have come to almost dread is the standard one about where I get my ideas for a story or a novel. The question is frustrating because no one really knows where an idea of any sort comes from. These things pop into our heads and we either play with them or toss them. But this morning I was trying to recall a thought about a particular memory that had been nagging at me. And that got me thinking about story ideas.

Some of my story ideas are not story ideas at all but arrive first as an experience I’ve heard about or undergone and can’t quite shake. One day, while still employed in social services, I was working quietly in my office when a conversation beyond my door caught my attention. A woman waiting to see her social worker had gotten into a conversation with the volunteer on the desk, and they were exchanging information on what happens after you’ve been convicted, served time, and are released. The man explained that the County House of Correction bus took you back to where you were originally picked up, usually right outside the courthouse. As he pointed out, you were wearing the clothes you had on when you were picked up. In his case, he was wearing shorts and was sentenced to six months. He was released when it was January and snowing. The woman said the situation was different for women. No one provided transportation for women. She got a voucher for a bus or train ticket and had to walk to the station. Two stories grew out of this overheard conversation.

I had seen the navy blue bus before, along with the man checking off names, and never really thought about it. Now I did. In “Kenny Orslow Shows Up on Time” (Mystery Weekly February 2020), a young man is convicted of buying drugs and shows up at the bus stop at the appointed time, but he’s not on the list and the officer won’t let him on. Kenny is now homeless and stranded—and desperate. I had a lot of fun with this story.

The second story grew out of the differences between how the men and women were treated. In “Francetta Repays Her Debt to Society” (AHMM October 2014) a young woman is released from prison but no one is there to meet her. While away, her boyfriend died and she has nowhere to go. She makes her way back to her hometown and arrives at her cousin’s apartment. The cousin is cool and then surprisingly friendly.

The overheard conversation took place in the early 2000s, but it stuck in my imagination for years until I figured out what to do with it. Another odd bit of information came to me more than thirty years ago. A college student drowned in a snow-covered reservoir. The chief of police attributed the accidental death to the student being from the Midwest and not recognizing that the flat expanse was not a field or pasture but a body of water. That comment stuck in my head for years until it emerged in “The Pledge” (AHMM July/August 2020).

Years and years ago I came across a poster of cartoon faces (like the smiley face) showing a range of emotions, with titles underneath—rows of little round faces each with a different expression. This had been developed as an aid for autistic children learning coping skills. This made me wonder how a person otherwise capable could manage in a world where human interaction seemed so opaque. That question lingered in the back of my mind for years (probably decades) until I finally got an idea, which appeared in “Picture This” (Saturday Evening Post, online edition Friday, April 30, 2021).

When one of these factoids, or odd bits of information, comes to me, I don’t think, Oh, there’s a story here. I just remember it because it seems so peculiar, so different from my regular life. Most of my short stories and novels grow out of this kind of tidbit. Right now I have a few of these rattling around in my brain and I’m not sure what to do with them. One involves a man probably in his sixties. He parked his pickup out front of my house and knocked on the door. He wanted to know if I would trade some of the apples in my tree for a bucket of his—he had several buckets in his truck. I agreed because, why not? While he harvested what he wanted (“Please, take more. I can’t use them all.”) he told me about all the fruit trees in Salem that were on public land and therefore whatever they produced was free for the taking. He’d been harvesting, hence the filled buckets in his pickup. I know he’ll end up in a story but I can’t say when.

Meanwhile I’ve been working on a story about an inept hustler who learns damaging information about a friend and tries to use it as leverage with a drug dealer. The idea came from an interview with one of the guards at the Stewart Gardner Museum. A reporter tracked him down in a shabby apartment in a small town and told him some people thought he was in on the robbery. His comeback? “Would I be living here if I had been?” We’ll see where that one goes.

So when someone asks me where my ideas come from, the answer is, Well, it’s complicated. Mostly from life.

One & Done: Writing Stars Sometimes Do Align

When you first put eyes on the man you knew who’d be your husband. The opening notes of a song that strums your soul, still gives you chills when you’re reunited years later. How a perfect canvas sky at sunrise or sunset leaves you spellbound. The awe you hold in a composer, a painter, or any other artist getting a project right on the first go, the first shot, the first time out.

I’ll let you on a little secret. Don’t tell anybody.

It. Does. Happen.

Let me explain.

Sometimes when you draft a scene, a character sketch, a chapter or chapters, whichever your writing project is under your fingertips, you can–and do!–get it right on the first try. I’m here to exclaim, take back, and boldly proclaim: IT HAPPENS!!! The magic pixie dust found you that day, took a liking to you, and left you some of its glittery jet wash in its fumes.

Here’s a few instances–

We Are The World,” co-written by Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson, both completed the song’s lyrics and melody in 2.5 hours, and recorded the song in a single session.

Sir Paul McCartney, in writing the 007 Live and Let Die theme, had movie execs wait five days for the work–when he’d written the music in a scant 45 minutes. According to the anecdote relayed in Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown, “I didn’t want the movie brasses to think this was easy, but it was.”

Alanis Morrisette wrote her 1990s hit “Ironic” in an hour.

The blind guy who hit a hole-in-one on his only try.

Chapter 18 of JERSEY DOGS called “A Little Rusk Nikk’ed Us.”

Woodstock, 1969.

Any MLB team’s first try for, or breaking a century-long drought, at a World Series win.

And countless times when people played the lottery on a sole instance, and hit the number big.

So don’t tell me when you bang out a first draft of anything it’s impossible to get it right ON the first go, in the first go. Granted, this is a diff’rent post from calling that first one-and-done draft novel perfect; it ain’t. The book’s likely purple prose-y, your story’s taking forever to get to the point, it’s adverb- or passive voice-heavy, etc. You know who youse are :).

BUT . . . some chapters, or sentence phrasing(s), scenes, or certain word choices ARE perfect in the middle of that first draft crapstorm you can pluck free that which resonated most, and build around this in the coming revisions.

An article in the September 2019 issue of The Writer, “Stop Trash-Talking Your First Draft” puts it brilliantly: “You wouldn’t call your firstborn a sh*tty first draft, would you? Of course not! Even if the baby may have correctable health problems or non, that child is imperfectly perfect, period. Anyone saying to you that child is a crappy first draft, you’d say they’re abominable human beings. The first breaths of life in that early writing draft isn’t any different.” (paraphrasing mine.)

Whether you’re a veteran author or a brand-new writer ten minutes ago, the first draft is part of the writing process. But if the end result isn’t called the horrific names the first draft gets, why should the first draft be treated like a bastard at a family reunion? This reference is a great piece I can’t encourage to be read enough. Feel empowered when you come away from it–I’ll betcha you do, as you should. I did–and if anyone knows how much a hardass I am, I was a wet and snotty cottonball after the piece. (Forget you read that “wet and snotty cottonball” part–I’m a hardass, rememeber?)

So write the first draft with abandon! Come to its defense, warts and all; who else will if not you? The article also questioned when did it become sacred to trash the first shoots of life in a brand-new piece to begin with. It ruminates Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird had much to do with the first draft getting the hot pile of bat guano label, but maybe, the article’s author muses, it might be time to put this line of thought in the trash. I could not agree more. Also paraphrasing mine: Just because Bird rode high on the writers’ reference bookshelves and bestsellers lists, doesn’t mean its apologia is airtight–or shouldn’t be questioned, revised, or even abandoned altogether if its information isn’t applicable or merited anymore.

First-run tries do periodically knock it out the park. Is this a fluke? An oddity? Chance? Absolutely. But trashing the first drafts have gotten the sacred cow status in the writing world–and perhaps your writing lives–long enough. The initial piece may be in rough shape, but you got the damn thing OUT in the first place. The potential the work holds is enough to NOT tag it as crappy, even if it isn’t in a no-need-to-edit perfect place on the first doggoned try.

I’ll let you in on another inside baseball secret: Every word above this paragraph virtually poured out of me for this month’s post on the first go, easy to align my thoughts on the article’s topic, only an edit or two for clarity, continuity, and relevance. But, as that damn bitch called The Muse mule does, when Bessie’s out of steam, she’s not moving for anyone until she’s good and ready. Then it hit me. Rather, Bessie, my mule of a Muse, kicked me (is this her helping me plow another 40 acres of a blog post? You decide. **smirk**) to bookend this aspect of my writing life in a way I didn’t think plausible. The second reason this post couldn’t be more timely: this article vindicates me to my now disbanded online critique group my first Casebook got ripped to hell for. I told that group at the time I knew I was instinctively right to defend the book’s parts that fit when the self-righteous–and traditionally published in the group–mob tried to justify their words in tearing it down. But that’s another blog post for another time.

Create? Yes. Re-Create? Sh*t, No!

Let’s revisit and unpack our “We Are the World” by USA For Africa example–can that magic be re-created? No, unfortunately. Or when you first read Harry Potter, saw the movies, had your first child, or found your car unicorn. Can you re-create that exact perfect first draft moment with all its magical elements falling into place where they should, as they should? Nope. This is why you don’t see Lionel Ritchie, Quincy Jones, J.K. Rowling, et al trying to re-do what sheer dumb luck, fantastic timing, and a lot of Tinkerbell’s dust helped that magic come together, and hold together, in the first place. Imagine trying to re-create Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Back to the Future, Toy Story, or the Indiana Jones flicks. If anything, somebody should’ve told Michael Wang this 1 Corinthians 10:23 lesson before taking the thought of creating Woodstock 50 in mind: Just because you can do something, dun mean you should do it.

“When it’s perfect, be it from the onset or after many rounds of revisions, then let it go. If you keep tweaking, you’ll tweak the perfect out of it.” —Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, 25th Anniversary Edition (paraphrasing mine)

If Cameron’s second-to-none resource is helping you to be okay with finally silencing your mother’s words, the inner editor and outer critics, naysayers, and downright haters of first drafts for being in that pole position, then be okay with it. Don’t even let Anne Lamott tell you diff’rent. Think about it: How much pressure is on her to defend her position?

The defense rests.

I attended a NYC 2011 workshop where Reed Farrell Coleman spoke on a similar topic. He knew a would-be author a few years prior revising his book’s opening chapter–both hands on the wheel, please, or swallow your hot beverage before reading on–27 times.

You read correctly. Twenty. Seven. Times.

But this was made more bittersweet because, Coleman said, this author had been one of the first detectives on scene hours after the Twin Towers were still hot ash, hot rubble, and chaos. He’d been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer as he drafted the novel, so Coleman point-blank told him, “Dude, you don’t have time to revise this much. Take the best of the suggestions and move on; the opening’s gonna be what it’s gonna be!”

The author took Coleman’s advice and moved on. But he died before ever completing his book. How much time he’d lost on something that didn’t need that much fussing about to begin with, and sadly, the world will never know what would have been.

This is what Cameron means about tweaking the perfect out of the imperfect, and this includes first time tries being right . . . the first time out. You, Dear Author, need not diss the WIPs in the zygotic stage of life. Let it go. Be proud you get to watch it fly–or cradle it to the next world with dignity and grace in one hell of a send off.

As always, you got this.

~ Missye

* * *

You’re still here?

Um . . .why?

The piece is over. I mean, I know you want more of me–or wished the Toy Story franchise ended at TS3 like I do, or more Pottermore following Harry and the wizarding gang all growed up–but sorry, ain’t got that for ya. I’ll be back next month, Lord willing, with another scintillating, firestarting post. Go feed your cat or clean his box, since he’s giving you that stink-eye felines perfected waiting on their humans to tend them.

No?

Sigh.

I didn’t want to do this, but . . . this goes dark in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

Keeping Track of Details by Karen Shughart

Well, I’m almost there. I’ve been slogging away at writing book two of the Edmund DeCleryk mystery series, Murder in the Cemetery, for upwards of a year and now I’m in the editing, polishing and cut-and-paste phase of the book. There are more details in this one than Murder in the Museum, so way more things to keep track of:

For example, in an earlier chapter, Annie DeCleryk, wife of sleuth Edmund DeCleryk, invites a friend of hers to speak at an evening event sponsored by the Historical Society where Annie works. Low and behold, a later chapter indicated that it was a luncheon event. Boy, was I glad I discovered that one!

At another point I write about an unidentified set of tire tracks at the murder scene, that’s early on in the story, but as I reached the end of the first draft I realized I’d never come back to it and explained why they were there.

There are a set of historical letters written into the plot, they take place in the 1800s. I have them interspersed throughout the book in chronological order. At least now I do. When I scrolled through the manuscript, I discovered that in a couple places they were in the wrong order.

white painted papers

Then there are chapters. As I write and revise, I sometimes remove chapters or move them to another location. Sometimes I divide one chapter into two. I spent one afternoon making sure the chapters were in order and correctly numbered. In a few cases they weren’t.

I also try and eliminate redundancy. Ed and Annie take a trip to England, you’ll learn why when you read the book, and they discover there’s a connection with something that happens on that trip and the murder in Lighthouse Cove. I explain it fully in that chapter and yep, I had Ed explaining the same scenario, multiple times, to other characters who were helping solve the crime. You, the reader, probably don’t want to revisit the entire story more than once, so in subsequent explanations I went back and had Ed summarize.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was a journalist once and as a result, my fiction writing, at least those early drafts, is typically very succinct. So, then I go back and expand the plot. Once done, I usually realize I’ve written more than I need, so then I cut.  What that means is that sometimes I get rid of a chapter I’m emotionally attached to, because as much as I like it, it really doesn’t enhance the plot.

Writing a novel takes a lot of work, not just making sure the plot makes sense, but also keeping track of all the details that make a book flow the way it’s supposed to. I do that on handwritten notes, charts, notes in my computer and, also, in my head. Phew! But I’m gratified when the finished product finally goes to print.

 

Acknowledging Technical Support by Karen Shughart

police motorcycle in middle of road
Photo by Jimmy Chan on Pexels.com

I write mysteries. They’re Cozies, which means they don’t include graphic violence, explicit intimate scenes or coarse language.  But they do have a sleuth who investigates the murders, and although the books are fiction and there’s a lot of sway in writing them, I want them to be at least somewhat technically correct.

There’s wiggle room, of course there is. No one is holding my feet to the fire if I miss a detail that a real detective wouldn’t. But my aim is to make the books as realistic as possible, so that’s why I decided to get technical support.

Technical support offers credibility to any work, and it’s important to me, as an author, to feel comfortable that what I’m writing has at least a semblance of investigative reality. Plus, it’s a fun way to meet competent experts in a wide variety of fields, in my case criminal justice.

Before completing Murder in the Museum, the first of the Edmund DeCleryk Mysteries, I attended an eight-week class sponsored by our county sheriff’s office. I learned all the ins-and-outs of our county’s criminal justice system, everything from investigative procedures to arrests and bookings to how a K-9 unit works. There are also a number of other services provided to the community by our sheriff’s office that have nothing to do with solving crimes; services to the elderly and children, for example, and learning about those gave me an appreciation for all the fine work our sheriffs do.  When I had additional questions, I was delighted when the sheriff and two of his undersheriffs offered to meet with me to answer those questions.

A retired commander from a sheriff’s department in another county, two retired police officers-one a professor of criminal justice at a local community college-helped me not only understand how our legal system works but also the steps in conducting a solid investigation. It was high praise, once the book was published, to get an email from one of my contacts who said the investigation in the book was “spot on”.

Now I’m working on the second book in the series, Murder in the Cemetery. I’ve kept notes and all the information from those wonderful and talented folks who helped me with the first book, but in this one I needed additional support. Our district attorney who is a former physician’s assistant, provided valuable insights and information. A possible connection to the murder with the CIA resulted in a lengthy and productive conversation with that agency’s public affairs director. A retired beat cop and friend gave stellar examples of how law enforcement agents can be compassionate.

blur close up focus gavel

Writing a book takes a lot of work. Keeping track of details, making sure the plot flows and keeping characters straight are part of the process, but  including realistic investigative procedures results in not only a better book but also one that passes the test for accuracy.

 

A Compulsive Story Maker and the Mayor’s Grandpa Mug

I was in the thrift store looking for tolerably attractive coffee mugs. I kept very few when I downsized and moved, and I’m clumsy with crockery, so I needed to resupply. A friend who recently retired from running our local bookstore was also shopping. She told me she could never buy the mug I found especially pretty, because it had words on it promoting a business systems company, and she was a compulsive reader. “It would drive me crazy. If there are words in front of me, I read them. Even if I’ve read them before, I read them over and over.”

This doesn’t happen to me. I’ll read them once and then enjoy the elegant blue and gold stripes around them.

But then she picked up a mug with pictures and words. “Oh my goodness,” she said, “it’s Jim Smith.”* The mayor.

Happy Father’s Day. We love you, Grandpa Smith was inscribed above a picture of his three smiling grandchildren. On the other side of the mug was an image of the mayor, his son, and his dog. The men looked handsome and happy; the dog, slobbery and goofy. This was the mug that could drive me crazy. I’m not a compulsive reader, but a compulsive story maker.

“He’s such a lovely man,” my friend said with a touch of concern

“And a good mayor,” I added.

We acknowledged we were both thinking about stories that would emerge. Would the mayor appear inconsiderate of his grandkids’ feelings? People would speculate. Had he had a split with his son or grandchildren? Had a person in one of the pictures died or been kicked out of the family? It’s possible he had so many grandpa mugs he needed to clear out the excess, or he quit drinking coffee, or the unflattering shot of the dog bothered him. But the mug felt wrong there.

I bought it for a quarter along with the pretty mug with words on it, but I’m not drinking coffee out of the grandpa mug. I bought it so other compulsive story makers wouldn’t invent tales about the mayor.

And then I quietly disposed of it, so I wouldn’t keep thinking of stories. Someone else’s family pictures suggest so many, and I write about a psychic who can see past events connected to a person by holding an object imbued with their energy. I felt like I’d be drinking in the mayor’s energy if I drank coffee from his grandpa mug. There’s a possible story there, but I can write it later. Not every day at breakfast.

(*Not the mayor’s real name.)

Would the grandpa mug drive you crazy? Are you a compulsive story-maker?

*****

Shamans’ Blues, book two in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, is on sale for ninety-nine cents on all e-book retail sites.