A writer's stash of new ideas for stories is like a spy's cache of secrets. Exciting, filled with unknown potential and importance, often dead ends. You won't usually overhear writers talking about ideas any more than you'd hear our imagined spies doing it. This isn't necessarily because we think they'll be stolen, though writers usually have an innate paranoia about such things. A better reason we're tight-lipped is that ideas need time to flourish, and talking about them before ripeness can make them feel less worthy, potentially draining our motivation to return to them.
“Where do your ideas come from?” is a common question for writers to hear, maybe because the production of “ideas” is more mysterious than the logistics of actual writing, on which writers have to spend far more time and energy. Ideas are amorphous enough that the answer to how a particular project came to be tends to become its own kind of historical fiction. Not that I would make up a story about a book's origin, but in piecing things together retroactively you're drawing from a combination of memory, speculation, and dramatization of a process that you are not fully aware of or conscious of most times while it's happening. Since you tend to reflect on a project largely after it's all finished and maybe most of all—in the case of a book—after it's published, you're often trying to put your finger on the idea generation years after the fact.
“What is your next book?” is just as common a question and might be a way of asking the same thing in concrete terms. It's another question touching on something that, for a variety of reasons, I don't usually stop to reflect on until after it’s determined. Most of my ideas for future books come while writing an earlier one. As I’m working on my most recent project, I find myself more conscious of not just having ideas—which I tend to have frequently and try to jot down before forgetting them—but also of which ideas I was rejecting. It occurred to me that such rejected ideas are easier to talk about with more immediacy because you're not cultivating or protecting them in our usual farmer or spy modes (pick your metaphor). In their own way, these rejected ideas offer a window into how and why we arrive at and invest in ideas.
My latest project and current “next book,” The Last Bookaneer is about literary thieves in the 19th century. Robert Louis Stevenson plays a prominent role as the target of some of these “last bookaneers” (my novel is set before the modern copyright regime kicked in, when paranoia about literary theft was very justified). I mention in the novel that when the Jack the Ripper murders were occurring in London, a theatrical version of Stevenson's novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was being performed, and some observers wondered whether the frightful play about a man who transforms into a murdering lunatic might have somehow triggered the real-life murders. There were some reports that the theatrical run was cut short because of the supposed connection between the play and the horrible deaths. That historical tidbit made me think: What if Stevenson, finding out about this while away from London, is brought back to try to solve the Ripper murders himself? Maybe a detective contacts him in desperation. Maybe Stevenson worries about his creation being tarnished forever by the Ripper’s bloody deeds. In the 20th century, Lewis Carroll was suspected to be the Ripper by one writer. Though that theory was silly, what if some of Carroll’s contemporaries wondered the same thing? Could Carroll, in an effort to protect his name and reputation, collaborate with Stevenson to find the killer?
There's another peculiar historical fact about Stevenson that I bring up in The Last Bookaneer. Stevenson's elaborate hand-drawn map for Treasure Island, which helped inspire the writing of his novel, was lost by the publisher and never recovered. In my novel, I suggest it was a bookaneer who swiped it. But there's another novel in itself, another idea: Years later, maybe in the 1910s or 1920s, the original map drawn by Stevenson is found and the discoverer realizes it might have actually led to a treasure. Maybe some colorful literary enthusiasts, an English professor, for example, gets involved, racing against an amateur but dedicated fan of Stevenson's work. Maybe it's a father and stepson who are the ones who get hold of the map, and this becomes a profound bonding experience for them.
Those are the kinds of notes I take in my “ideas” document. I probably come up with five or ten ideas for new stories during the process of writing a book. I rejected both of these ideas above quickly enough that they didn't make it into my ideas document, but they provide useful case studies in what ideas survive past the larval stage.
Let's take them one at a time. First, our Ripper novel. What should we call it? Strange Case of Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Carroll. I've had at least one other idea for a Ripper novel, which I'll keep quiet since I like it more, but it's very possible I will never touch the subject directly. There's such an avalanche of books and other media on the topic—fiction, nonfiction, and everything in between. True, I haven't seen something exactly like this and that's a plus. But all Ripper stories have to face the frustration of not having a truly satisfying ending because we probably will never identify the Ripper. The idea does have some ingredients I do like. It rises out of an actual historical connection between the Ripper murders and Jekyll and Hyde. It could have happened, in other words, even though it didn't. It brings a literary personality, or, if you include Carroll, two of them, into a situation far from a writer's usual routines, testing characters' emotional and mental states. Stevenson was a very ill man and investigating the
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violent murders could force him to face his mortality in a different way. However, while the premise or initiation of the story is fairly compelling, the idea traps you into history—the hunt for the Ripper—something that would, in this case, hamper rather than help the story and leave it nowhere to go.
Now, The Lost Map of Treasure Island, we'll call the other one for the moment. It's lively. It rises out of an actual moment in history: the loss of Stevenson's original map. But, similarly to Jack the Ripper, Treasure Island has been remixed into countless stories in every configuration. And, ultimately, even with a change in time period and the introduction of different titles, you're competing with the original novel rather than branching off from it by setting up a hunt for a treasure. In other words, it remains too close to its source material.
I've had a few other ideas while writing The Last Bookaneer, but those will have to stay in my spy-proof briefcase. Meantime, let's come up with some better titles for my two rejected ideas—put yours in the comments section—just in case I change my mind.