The fictional writer/detective Richard Castle of the ABC detective show Castle had this to say about writers and their ideas for novels: “There are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people…mystery writers and serial killers.” Although, I don’t literally sit around all day thinking about killing people, I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about if and how characters should die. Once, after reading one of my novels, a hospital coworker asked me with an askance glare that, I’m certain, she saved for shady characters skulking through her neighborhood and baby seal killers, how did I come up with the ideas for my books?
As a writer of thrillers, ideas for novels come to me from different sources. I suppose the biggest source is the daily news. Whether newspapers, magazines, or TV shows, there are stories that spark my imagination. I save particularly interesting ones.
Another source is conversations with friends and acquaintances. Most people, in spite of themselves, love to gossip, and gossip can be a rich source of story ideas. Of course it helps to change the name, gender, and age of the person gossiped about, unless, that is, you like lawsuits.
A third source is personal experience. Have you ever taken a wrong turn while driving in a strange city and found yourself in a shady neighborhood in the middle of the night? As you snake your way down a particularly dark street, a group of hulking young men approach. Or maybe you’ve walked by a man and woman in a heated argument gesticulating wildly with expletives flying like machine gun bullets.
I recall one situation in which my wife and I were driving a rental in Orlando. As we drove up an onramp to the interstate we pulled to a stop behind three cars. Apparently the distant car had, for some reason, stopped causing the middle car to suddenly come to a stop. Unfortunately, the last car couldn’t halt in time and slammed into the rear of the middle car. The driver of the sandwiched car, livid of course, jumped out, ran up to the lead car, and began giving the driver an earful. I inched onto the grass and drove past the scene hoping nothing more transpired. As I blended into traffic on the interstate I kept glancing in the rearview mirror praying that I didn’t see the young man with smashed rear bumper in hot pursuit.
So, why was I so paranoid? It was the writer in me. While most people would have seen just an unfortunate fender bender, I saw a young man, maybe a criminal with a record, as a psychopath just sent over the edge. As I drove by I imagined him leaning into the offending driver’s side window, pulling a revolver. I could almost hear the “pop, pop, pop” of gunshots and see lightning like muzzle flashes from within the car. He’d then look up in time to see my car go by, read the license plate, hop into his souped-up vehicle and begin the chase.
The crazy scenario I just described probably just betrays a suspicious and likely idiosyncratic mind. (OK, guilty as charged.) But it also reveals an active imagination. Can’t you see the opening of a thriller? A nice suburban couple pursued across the country by a crazed killer. Oh, by the way, feel free to use the premise if you like. I’ve got a million others.
Although, it doesn’t require a wild imagination to find ideas as a fiction writer, it certainly helps. But, it does require the willingness to exercise your creativity. To use the old cliché, to think outside the box.
What are some of the ways you come up with ideas? I’d love to hear from you.
Next time I’ll discuss how I came up with the ideas for my two novels: Fatal Impact and The Peril Protocol.