Good Mysteries

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Where Did That Idea Come From?

Posted by goodmysteries on January 24, 2012 at 11:55 AM

Readers often ask me where I get my story ideas. I usually tell them that I see stories everywhere, which is true. I can be riding the bus and see an unusual looking person sitting across the aisle. I think to myself, he looks like an artist. But he has a troubled expression on his face. He’s got problems. Maybe he’s seen something that bothers him. Hey, that man sitting right behind him looks sort of sinister. And I think he’s watching my artist. Is he following him? Maybe my artist just saw him commit some sort of crime and the other guy’s waiting for a chance to.... Well, you can see what I mean, right?

When I was still living in Ohio, I got up in the middle of the night, not knowing what awoke me. I went to one of my bedroom windows and looked out into the darkness which was broken only by a dim street light nearby. I thought to myself, what if I looked out there and saw a neighbor loading something into the trunk of his car that looked like a body? Worse yet, what if he, sensing someone was watching, suddenly turned and looked my way. Of course, I’d jump back from the window. It’s dark; he couldn’t possibly see me, right? Or could he? I could almost sense the anxiety, feel the sweat on my palms. Another plot in the making? Maybe.

A friend of mine once handed me a photo of a weed infested area beneath a highway overpass. She said, “I was driving along and saw that and thought it would be the perfect place to dump a body.” I love it when my friends support my endeavors. I still have the photo. Never know when it might come in handy...for a plot idea, of course.

I was hiking one day with a friend at a state park. We rounded a bend in the trail and I saw this tunnel-like opening underneath a tangle of overgrown bushes. My first thought? You’ve got it: what a perfect place for the hero or heroine in one of my books to find a body while on a hike with a friend....

So, as you can see, story ideas can spring to mind anytime, anyplace. It’s a blessing and a curse.

When asked where I got the idea for my Spirit Lake series, the answer was an easy one: I dreamt it. The recurring dream was always the same. I was sitting on a fog shrouded dock. It was getting dark. The mist swirled around me, I could hear the water slapping against the pilings. In my mind I knew I was in Pennsylvania. Suddenly a baritone voice said, “Do you know why they call it Spirit Lake?” I turned to see who was there....then woke up. I had no idea if there even was a Spirit Lake, so I went online and found out there was one in Iowa, the other in Idaho. I couldn’t find any reference to a Spirit Lake in Pennsylvania. The dream plagued me for weeks, off and on. During that time, the idea of a story about a haunted inn on a lake began to take shape. I chose Pennsylvania as the site partly because of the dreams and partly because my ancestors settled there when they came over here from Germany in the 1700s. Once I started writing the book, the dreams stopped.

With my shape shifter series, I had no prophetic dreams, just the desire to write something different and fun. I love wolves. They’ve always fascinated me. Adding the paranormal element to a mystery story made it exciting to write and I hope to read.

I also keep a file of story ideas. If I see something in the newspaper that I think is unusual or eerie or mysterious, I cut it out and stick it in the file for future reference. I recently used one of those articles (it describes unexplained blood dripping from the walls of an old house), in a new novel I wrote, one that hasn’t been published yet.

As for how I get the names for my characters, that isn’t quite as spooky. I envision the character in my mind: color of hair, height, eye color, build, etc. Then I try to match the name to the description I have in mind. I have a list of first names that is quite lengthy. I skim through it and usually the choice pops out at me for some reason. As for the last names, I also have a huge list of those. It is called a phone book.

I make a profile sheet for each character, listing their physical descriptions and backgrounds. It makes things much easier for me in the long run. I’m what is known as an organized writer. I don’t like flying by the seat of my pants. My greatest fear is that I will forget something and leave the reader hanging out there wondering why there was no resolution to a certain part of the story.

I tend to be very descriptive when it comes to my characters. I like to tell the reader what they’re wearing in most scenes. I describe rooms in detail, including color schemes. Some readers may like this, some might not. At a seminar once I had a reader tell me that she only liked books where things were described in detail because she had no imagination at all. In other words, just reading that a character had an “interesting face” or that a room was done in earth tones wasn’t sufficient. This woman wanted all the details. I thought about that for a long time and decided that erring on the side of caution was my best bet. I’d describe things in detail. The ones like the woman at the seminar would love it; the ones who liked to use their imaginations would forgive me if the story was gripping enough. So far I haven’t heard anyone complain. Knock on wood.

In closing let me say that I don’t think there is any right or wrong in the creative process. Every author has his or her own methods and that is a good thing. As an author all I want, at the end of the day, is to know that someone, somewhere read my work and enjoyed it.

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