In this month’s offering for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group monthly blog, I’d like to continue my post from last month about the source of ideas for the stories I write. First, though, a few words about the group. This is a posting on the first Wednesday of each month by some outstanding bloggers from around the world addressing the insecurities and fears of writing as well as advice and tips on how to get the most out of your talent. You should pop over and check it out, and while you’re there, sign up to join this august crew.
Okay, enough promotion, now on to the finale of ‘where story ideas come from,’ an adaptation of a post I did a few years ago.
When I started writing the Al Pennyback mystery series, I didn’t have a specific sub-genre in mind. It’s not a hardboiled mystery with a hero who is always battling bad guys; nor is it a procedural mystery – I go light on the technical aspects of crimes, criminals, or police procedures. I was just going for a good story that had a crime as a central element, which the hero, Al Pennyback, would then set about solving.
My main motivation for writing this particular series was the fact that I live in the Washington, DC area, and have for more than 30 years, and most of the stories set in this locale are about politicians, spies, or high-powered lobbyists. I know that the average Joe and Jane who happens to call the Washington metro area home lives a life that can be just as exciting as the K Street crowd, or the boys across the river in McLean, so, about ten years ago I started drafting.
My first, Color Me Dead, went through more than six years of rewriting; the title changed, the central plot changed, and most importantly, the name and background of the main character changed. I no longer remember what I called him at first, but, one day as I was sweating over the tenth or twentieth draft, Al Pennyback was born. He’s an African-American; after all, the area is predominantly African-American; he’s retired military; being retired military, I can relate to that, and the area also has loads of retired military people; and he’s a sucker for puzzles and unsolved mysteries. Despite, or because of, his military background, he hates guns, preferring to use his wits or his martial arts ability to get out of tight spots. He’s a widower; gives him an air of sympathy; but, has a girl friend. The sex scenes are only hinted at. I think too many modern mysteries go overboard on the sex. And, the language is mostly mild. On occasion, Al or one of the characters lets fly with an earthy expletive, because that’s the way people talk after all, but you won’t find curse words on every page.
That’s sort of the definition of a cozy mystery; cosy in British English; but, I didn’t set out to write cozies. Despite that, one of my British readers has decided that’s the sub-genre of at least one of the stories in the series, Dead Man’s Cove. He gave it such a good review, I don’t have the heart to argue the point.
Following the advice given in most books on writing, I try to show, not tell. I let the characters’ dialogue and action move the story rather than filling page after page with exposition or descriptions.
Now, the question one might well ask is; where do the ideas for this series come from? The answer is – everywhere. I read newspapers, print and online, and every edition has at least one story idea. Till Death Do Us Part, for instance, came from an article I read in a South African newspaper on a flight from Capetown to Copenhagen a few years ago about a couple who’d come to Johannesburg on vacation and been victims of a carjacking. The wife was killed, but the husband escaped unharmed. It turned out later that he’d arranged the incident in order to get rid of his wife. I changed the setting to Jamaica and was off to the races.
I’ve done two books about radical militias, Dead, White, and Blue and Deadly Intentions. The proliferation of militias and other hate groups in the U.S. over the past several decades has always concerned me, so this was a natural.
Deadline started out as a story about scams against lonely women, but about one-third into the first draft I decided to throw a ghost in just for the heck of it. I’m a bit agnostic about ghosts – I don’t know that they are real, but I don’t know that they’re not, so there you are.
Whatever motivates the story idea, my main objective is to write a story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the page to see what happens next.
There you have it; that’s where story ideas come from. I’ll bet if you stop and think about it, you’ll find that your inspiration is similar.