Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where do you get your ideas?

I was a panelist at the Poisoned Pen's Virtual Mystery Conference today, where author Ann Parker asked us to share where we get our ideas. This is the piece I turned in.


Some writers say they get their ideas from stories in the newspapers or from life experiences, but I credit mine to an overactive imagination. Specifically, daydreams.

A few years ago I attended my first writers’ conference at which David Morrell, perhaps best known as the creator of Rambo, delivered a moving speech about why he writes the things he does. He told us about the time he first realized that everyone in the population does not daydream. After mentioning a daydream to someone, he recounted getting a confused look in return followed by the question, “What’s that?”

I made the mistake of telling this story at work, rather excitedly, and expecting my co-workers to be equally stunned and amazed. Guess what? I had the David Morrell experience. It was eerie and unsettling to explain to people all the scenarios I play out in my mind and not even get a glimmer of recognition back from some. They had no idea what would compel me to think up fake situations. Worse, I failed to adequately explain that I don’t decide to daydream. It just happens by itself. One colleague still ribs me about it today.

The idea for my first book came while I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for my food. I thought I recognized a baby across the room. A quick look at the parents, however, told me I was wrong. I didn’t know the family after all. But I wondered . . . what if that was the right baby but she were with the wrong parents? Would I go over there and introduce myself? “Hi, I’m friends of Maddie’s parents, who are you people?” Probably not. But what if I did? And what if instead of giving me a good explanation, like that they were the baby’s aunt and uncle, they said I was mistaken and that this was some other child?

My thoughts ran away. Before I knew what was happening, I was planning how I would report a missing child without letting the fake parents know I was onto them.

I admit this is a strange thing to be worried about while waiting for lunch. But that’s the idea that kicked off Final Approach.

I’m wrapping up its sequel now. The idea for it came from another daydream. I was driving back from Dallas one summer and saw a huge, flashy mega gym looming not far off the highway. Its neon sign and enormous footprint gave the impression it must be an awesome place to work out. But I’d belonged to gyms like that before and started flashing back. When I exercise, I never arrange my hair, apply make-up, dress up in a cute little coordinated set, or spritz myself with alluring perfume. Ladies at these places do.

And there went my focus again. What if my character Emily had to make herself fit in at one of these high-brow clubs in order to solve a murder? Heck, what if the club was so elite that this Plain Jane couldn’t even get a membership? How would she get around that? I favor fish-out-of-water undercover scenarios and this one hooked me immediately. Suddenly I was imagining poor Emily, impervious to fashion trends and disinterested in beauty treatments, faking conformity with Houston’s debutantes and trophy wives inside a gym like the one I’d just passed on the highway.

I’m a new writer, of course, and recognize that if I stick with it long enough, ideas are bound to arrive by any number of avenues. While the big ideas still come from daydreams, I do tune into real life for the particulars. An overheard conversation, the way a woman wears her shoes a half size too big, the smell of spearmint gum on someone’s breath . . . those real-life details certainly find their way into my narratives. But so far, the gas pedal for a new story idea has always been my runaway imagination.


  1. These are great stories for how you got your ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I always like to hear what spurs people's stories.

  3. I day dream. A lot. For as long as I can remember. I am shocked, just as you were, to find that some people don't day dream!