Write What you Know
As to the question of where the ideas for books come from: For me, my books originate as what I call a kind of triangulation of three to four separate themes, or leitmotifs, which when woven together, form the foundation of plot and character. A book can surely spring from one galvanizing event.
Once, in Houston on a book tour, I was pulled over by a cop; a disagreement of opinion escalated (in my view, he was ticketing me unfairly). I ended up handcuffed and tossed in the back of a police car, where multiple other policemen interrogated me for all kinds of crazy things I had zero to do with. As they eventually all drove away and I was left with the cop who had pulled me over, I kind of went through the “what-if” scenario of what if he was suddenly shot by a drive-by. Not a half hour before, the entire Houston police force had seen me arguing with him. That scenario became the launching point for my novel 15 Seconds. An innocent man is arrested for something he didn’t do and from there, everything goes ka-zooey.
More often, books originate as newspaper articles, things found while researching something else, even personal anecdotes. Things that form a nexus with the human, the interesting, and the dramatic. Sometimes these are stories that are current and topical—which can be a different problem, of course. Certain plot lines become too closely associated with stories that play out in the public arena, which, for the most part, have been consigned to television, e.g., “Law and Order.” and can bring a story “ripped from the headlines” to market in a matter of weeks, not the nearly two years required to write and publish a book.
Often, these are stories that had made a connection to me at one time, maybe even years before, but because I couldn’t find the right structure for them, were saved and stored, either in physical form or memory. Put “in the vault,” as I say.
The “vault,” to me, is the wellspring of fiction. Fiction and memory crisscross a blurred line, like a road weaving back and forth over a river for miles. It’s where ideas go until they find form, whether in a file or in my head. I have kind of a “string theory” view of it. It is the ideas that are the “creation.” The novel is merely the delivery system that attaches itself to it at a later time.
Five or six years back, I cut out an article in The New York Times about a murder that had taken place on the industrial eastern shore of Staten Island. Two young lovers: the teenage girl who had gone missing for years and whose body was found in a man-made hole, and her boyfriend who finally admitted to the crime decades later. Something appealed to me. The randomness of the crime, that the killer had turned into someone else by the time it was discovered; the blighted, almost moonscape setting where it all took place. But I never found the proper form for it. So it just sat there. A clipped story in my file. I could have thrown it out a dozen times.
Six years later, Superstorm Sandy roared up the coast. It hit Staten Island with a vengeance and gave me a reason to set something there. Suddenly the six-year-old story of this random murder came out of the vault and fit, seamlessly, as if it had always been there, and became the linchpin for Everything to Lose. Whatever struck me about the story years before couldn’t find its form until other events molded together to fit it.
Almost twenty years ago, my wife and I took our three young kids on a raft down the rapids on the Snake River outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They were mostly Class IIIs and IVs; a few were pretty intense. Our guide was a tough, seemingly fearless, pretty outdoors gal who took me over a bit with her gritty, self-reliant way. She got us down through what we thought were a couple of hairy situations. We talked about her life, her always having to prove her toughness in a male-dominated job. I always wanted to find a story for her. Nothing quite came. Soon I just tossed her in the vault. Years passed.
A year ago, I read an article about the fight between local farmers and ranchers against outside oil and gas exploration companies over water rights in drought-stricken Western states. These corporations needed vast amounts of water for fracking and were able to bid ten times what the local farmers could afford. The locals were all being driven out. A story formed. Ultimately, Ty Hauck, who’s a character I’ve used from time to time, takes up the fight for these downtrodden farmers and ranchers. But it’s Dani Whalen, a dogged and irrepressible whitewater guide, who unearths the first murder and won’t back down from following it through. It was my guide twenty years later!
I believe that there are no accidents in the imagination or linearity of time. Ideas come up, like stars, not necessarily in sequence, and they wait for the proper form to appear. If you store them in the “vault” and wait long enough, it usually comes.