Where you you get your ideas? Harlan Ellison used to answer that question by saying “Schenectady.” As a former reporter, I used to get a lot of ideas just from the news—a mention of a particular trend or the name of an interesting person—would be enough to set me off in search of a story that I could craft just for my readers, who were usually most interested in local stories. It was a kind of “think globally, act locally” kind of writing where I would take ideas and make them accessible to the readers of the magazine or newspaper I was working for.
With fiction, the process is a little different but the source remains very much the same. I no longer read two newspapers a day, but I cruise news sites obsessively and not just what is now known as “mainstream media.” There are always ideas to be found online and sometimes those ideas are pure gold.
My most anthologized story, “In the Kingdom of the Cat,” was inspired by a local network news story about what happens to unclaimed bodies in Los Angeles. The comments section contained a link to a video and as I watched it, tears dripping down my face, the story came to me as an almost completed piece. I wrote the first draft in one sitting, revised it the next day and the story’s been out there ever since.
Sometimes I’ll see a news item and know there’s a story there but also know it’s not the story for me. I ran across a reference to “bunny hunters” on CNN not long ago and when I discovered the term referred to a certain kind of online child predator, I felt the familiar prickle of a story waiting to be born. And I knew I could probably get a good story out of my take on that topic but I also knew it would be a story that would make me want to take a scalding hot shower and then immerse myself in a vat of melted chocolate before I would feel human again. That is not a story I want to write.
But I have wanted to write a crime thriller in the vein of Gone Girl or Girl On a Train or James Patterson’s Honeymoon for a while now and while reading a TMZ story (don’t judge) about a murder suicide, I suddenly keyed in on a phrase—A woman presumed to be his wife.
I played that phrase over and over in my mind for nearly a week and then one night, just before I fell asleep, I suddenly knew how my novel could open. I saw the characters. I saw the situation. And I knew that I had something I could spin into a 60,000-word book with a plot that had absolutely nothing to do with the original crime that had attracted my attention.
Where do I get my ideas?