The age-old question for the writer of ‘where do you get your ideas?’ can be a little confusing for some of us. My problem is more like ‘I have too many ideas. Want one?’ and the First Reader always has some on tap (to which I often respond, well, then, you write it) because although sometimes his ideas spark my mind, sometimes they don’t. Which is, of course, why you can’t give ideas away. It doesn’t work that way.
I can have an idea, think that it would work just fine for a story, but if the idea doesn’t come along with captivating characters and a setting, then I don’t have a story. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Having the story come along…
And even then, if the scene blows up my brain all vivid and compelling, and you’re thinking ‘what comes next?’ that’s still not enough. You need a scene, a setting, some characters… and a plot. The plot is usually where it dies for me. I’ll write a few pages, and sit back and think about an ending. An arc of story… and there’s nothing there but thick grey fog. I’ll set it aside, and sometimes it’ll come back to me and say, hey, look, there’s more… like a cheap magician showing you his tricks.
These days I don’t have the time or the patience to run down many of these bunny trails. I will try to stick to the work in progress and plod along toward completion. But once in a while when I’m really stuck, I’ll give in and start to write an idea up. And even more rarely, it’ll surprise me by pulling me along and revealing the plot slowly until I can see that yes, I do have enough there to bring it to completion.
The genesis of Ten Pigeons was a funny twitter account I follow, A Crime a Day. It’s not meant to be humor, or at least I don’t think it is. I suspect it’s meant to highlight the crushing number of rules and regulations that surround us and make it literally impossible to exist without breaking a law somewhere, somehow.
Of course, I look at their feed and immediately think ‘there have got to be stories behind some of these!’
From the mundane to the bizarre, there are hundreds of ideas here. And one of them sparked an absurd conversation in my head that is slowly becoming an entire novel. It all started with ten pigeons…
“It is illegal to import more than ten pigeons a week, unless they are from Mexico.” He blinked at her through thick lenses while she tried to digest this pronouncement.
“Mr. Gaush, I have no intention of importing pigeons. Not even Mexican ones.” Lauren Middling leaned back in her vintage office chair and looked at him. He showed no signs of going away and leaving her alone again in her office, and she was long past wishing she hadn’t invited him in.
“Of course not. Pigeons are very messy. I mean that everything is illegal, somewhere, to some extent.” He crossed his hands over his paunch and reminded her of a pensive owl.
“I’m sure it is.” She wasn’t going to ask him for examples. She was afraid he’d give them to her. He seemed like the kind of man who would have a bottomless font of such trivia. “You came to me because you were afraid you had committed a crime, if I understood correctly.”
He had been slightly incoherent on the phone, and Lauren wondered (not for the first time) if she had too finely developed her pity gland. It served her in her job from time to time as she dealt with grieving widows and bereft parents, but it left her vulnerable to people like William Gaush.
“I am, very afraid.” He leaned forward, his eyes big behind their magnifying glasses. She wondered idly just how bad his prescription was to justify those lenses. “Ms. Middling…”
“Miss.” She interrupted him. “It’s Miss Middling.” She was retro, from the polished wood and velvet-cushioned chair cupping her derriere to the green-shaded lamp on the desk between them.
He blinked in surprise, which was a perfectly normal reaction to her naming preference in this post-modern era. “Miss. Miss Middling…” He faltered like a toy that had wound down.
Lauren prompted him again. “It had to do with your mother’s death.”
The man across from her in the panelled office didn’t look like a murderer, but she knew from experience they mostly didn’t. Murderers, that was. He was short, portly, with a cherubic face and those ridiculous glasses. Dress him in a tuxedo and he’d be a dead ringer for a penguin.
“Yes, er, well…” He found the thread of his thoughts again. “She passed two weeks ago, you see.”
Lauren raised an eyebrow. She found it very effective at getting people to keep talking, while words made them lose their place. He obediently kept going with his story. “I live with… lived with her. I have always, except for one time…” He looked away, briefly, and she sensed that while there was more story there, it didn’t seem to pertain to the case in front of her. “We shared bank accounts.”
“And you are uncertain if you can withdraw funds?” She asked when he fell silent. That was simple enough, and certainly not unprecedented.
“Oh, no, the executor assures me that my salary… oh, I should explain that I was paid for her care, of late. Anyway, I was assured that until the will is probated, I may continue to draw my salary. And I am the sole heir, so it matters little once probate is complete.”
“So what is the crime?” Lauren was feeling wasted time trickle past with more than a little impatience.
“Well, I’m not sure it is a crime.” Gaush stared at her for a long moment. Then he blinked, and went on. “You see, yesterday morning a very large sum of money was deposited into that account.”
“I see.” Lauren wasn’t sure what, but she did understand his concern. “Have you spoken to the bank, Mr. Gaush?”
Perhaps he wanted to know if it were legal to simply stay quiet and hold onto the funds.
“Oh, yes. I keep track of it online, and I went right over to my bank when I saw it. They were able to tell me that it wasn’t a mistake, and the monies originated via a wire transfer from the Caymans.”
Lauren wasn’t up on her non-extraditing countries and banking shelters, but it seemed to her that the Caymans were considered one. It was unlikely that it was an insurance payout, in that case. She asked anyway, but he simply shook his head. “I have all her papers, and there was an insurance, a small one, but it will not be paid until after probate.”
Well, then. This was interesting. She leaned forward over the desk. “Mr. Gaush, what is it you would like me to do for you?”
He settled back into the chair, and a hint of a smile swept over his lips so quickly she nearly missed it. “Why, Miss Middling, I’d like you to find out where it came from. Then, if it is a crime, we shall report it.”
Lauren pulled open a drawer. “I will conduct a preliminary investigation before I commit to a full-scale one. You are not,” She looked at him through her lashes, sternly, “my only client.”
She put the contract on the table between them. “My usual rates are $100 an hour plus expenses.”
“Oh, you misunderstand me.” William Gaush changed visibly before her eyes. He leaned forward, almost across the desk. His eyes were very bright behind his glasses. “If you discover that it is fully legal, I shall split the funds with you. Half and half. If they are illegal…” He shrugged and leaned back. “I shall of course pay you the going rate. But I must have a full investigation, no half-measures.”
“Really, Mr. Gaush,” Lauren was done with the little man, and ready to politely eject him from her office and life.
He interrupted her. “Perhaps you would like my bonafides.”
He opened the soft attache case he’d carried in and leaned against the chair leg. The piece of paper he extracted was slid across the desk top alongside Lauren’s contract. She turned it over.
Despite her best intentions, she gasped. It was the statement from his bank, with the amount of the deposit neatly highlighted in bright yellow.
He was leaning back in her chair, now, with a definite air of the cat who’d been in the cream on his face. “I am told you are an up-and-coming investigator, once a bright young lawyer, but now perhaps…” He waved his hand to indicate the small office. “Despite the brave front, struggling a little to make your brand-new agency get off the ground. Five million dollars would be quite the injection of capital.”
Oh, ideas. I have lots of them or none of them. I created a file just for ideas. Now I am having an issue that I need a lot more ideas right now and I am running short. Challenge I have set myself and it’s going to be interesting. Will see if things are shaken loose over the holidays.
I like that ‘Ten Pigeons’ excerpt. Sounds interesting.
Writing challenges can be great for mental exercise. I used to play along with a weekly one, and I miss it.
Ooo, I love it! More please.
Yeah, the ideas. All the ideas are shoving each other around in my head with their little hands in the air, shrieking ‘pick me! pick me!’ Sometimes. Other times, they’re all sullen and quiet and hiding. =o\
And sometimes they are only half ideas and you have to run a dating service.
I want to read all of Ten Pigeons as well. Defintely mooar! 😉
Now, remember the “It’s Been Done” thread a while back? I look at that intro and I immediately think of “God Save The Mark”, one of Donald Westlake’s early comic crime novels.
In the Westlake novel the guy inherits the fortune (which in the early 1960s was a hundred thousand dollars) as part of a money laundering scam. The narrator’s uncle, who left him the money, was a petty criminal who was dying of cancer, and the mob was going to use his death as a way to get funds from Mexico into the US. At the last moment, though, the dying man screws up the plan by changing his will to leave the money to his nephew instead of the non-profit organization that functioned as a money laundry.
Now, what I’d do with “The Ten Pigeons” (a very Westlake title, by the way) is make the late Mrs. Gaush not the wealthy dowedger that her son believed her to be, but an active mobster and the widow of a former highly placed capo. For decades she had been instrumental in moving funds in and out of the US untraceably. Like many organized criminals, though, she kept the true source of her wealth from her son.
Mrs. Gaush died at a very inconvient time, while she was engaged in a complex bank transfer. Her death threw a wrench into the plan, and the money went to Gaush, Jr.
Now the mob wants their money, but they know that Gaush, Jr. has no knowledge of or obedience to the criminal organization.
Lauren is a further complication, and I’d make her a former investigator for a federal judge before she went into business for herself, so she picks up quickly on what is really going on. Lauren and Gaush end up on the run from hitmen, and desperately trying to unlock the secrets of his mother’s business dealings in order to have enough leverage to buy their way out of the mess.
And at some point they have to take a train. This is a story that absolutely needs a deadly game of cat and mouse on a speeding train.
I’m not going to write it, either. I’ve got five short stories that I’ve agreed to finish before mid-February. But those are my thoughts.
Hah – the late Mrs Gaush was a spy. So it’s different, but similar. And it gives me a great excuse to do serious research on the OSS, CIA, and Cold War era.
And the SOE. The British Special Operations Executive was a bunch of madmen. The character of James Bond is based on an SOE man.
Yes, although this character is American, there were Americans in the SOE, like Virginia Hall.
Christopher Lee was an SOE man…. which was why he could explain to Peter Jackson how an evil wizard sounds when he’s backstabbed…..
I think that snippet just generated a sale… at least, I want to know how it turns out.
Doubleplus extragood: Cold War espionage is one of my hobby subjects.
But where do the aliens come in? ~:D
Through the black hole!
There’s a Disney movie tie in? [just horribly dated myself there, eh?]
First I got into the habit of developing setting, but that wasn’t sufficient. Then I started to train the habit of developing character, but setting and character aren’t enough for me to make a story. I’m finally learning how to make plot. I’m now at the stage where I simply need to write. (Butt in chair probably would’ve done me a lot of good earlier in this process.) Ideas can be cheap, lots of less useable per unit very useable, and execution is the difficultly.
I’ve sold nonfiction. So I have proved I can write.
Writing *fiction* is a whole different thing, one I have yet to get a grip on. The problem isn’t characters, settings, or plots – I’m pretty sure I’m no worse than many there – but that fiction isn’t about things happening, it’s about constraints.
There have to be good reasons for your characters to not take the simple and obvious solutions to problems, that is, “I don’t care”, “Bite me”, or “THUMP!”
There’s the kind of fiction where the characters are so hedged about with arbitrary Expectations, Obligations, and Duty that they’re just meat puppets dancing on strings. I’ve bored through to the end of some of those, but now I usually toss them on the trade pile when I recognize the style. I can’t imagine myself writing that kind of thing.
Then, for anything written in the near-past, present, or future, you have to deal with cellphones, the internet, and ubiquitous surveillance video. My wife and I have been watching the DVD set of The Rockford Files. I love the character and the show, but in 2017 he could have solved at least half of his cases while sitting at his computer wearing a robe and bunny slippers.
Heh. Yeah, I just spent two weeks backtracking because I realized that Secondary Character had to have a good reason to stick around when things went south, and at the moment he’d be likely to very sensibly hightail it. (He’s not even important. His BROTHER is my walking history book and I have to have him around. 🙂
Keep in mind that although people are predictable, sometimes they are predictably stupid, willfully blind, and generally dopes. You just don’t want to write them as complete asses.
There are a few things that can throw wrenches in the works of modern searches. Misinformation, for one, and bad search terms that send you off on red herrings. Then there’s power issues, like forgetting to charge your phone the ONE time you need it. And breakage, of course, your kid knocking a glass of water over your laptop, your phone dropping out of your pocket as you get out of the car (or into the toilet), or the ever-frustrating “no connection.”
Ah yes, plot. Or plot-line(s). I come up with scenes, snippets… and occasionally even a bit of theme, but a “Start at Point A, get to Point B” is elusive, and the idea of the actual route (which is apt wander through Q and R or such…) is.. well, more stealthy than any aircraft.
Settings and characters are easy. Getting a good story (ie plot) is hard.
“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”
— Ray Bradbury
I like that. I pants, which doesn’t mean de-pantsing, but flying by the seat of the pants. Literally feeling with your whole body what’s going on and how you need to correct for it. It’s scary and exhilarating all at once, and if you do it right that translates to the reader.
My experience is the opposite: I know who they are when I see what they’ve done.
Me like 10 Pigeons whole bunch! Mouth now drooling for MORE.
LOL! Thanks! I am working it up into a full-length mystery novel, but it won’t be released until next spring.
I have problems with problems. Once I have a sufficient problem to carry a story I can usually work through the rest.
With Ten Pigeons, I decided one case (problem) wasn’t enough to carry a novel, so a few chapters in I threw another case at her and her trusty sidekick.
Sometimes it helps to have problems spawn other problems, to vary the situation.
I’ve gotten them from your alpha reader. . .
I want the rest of the story. I want it, please?
I just wish the ideas wouldn’t ambush me as I’m passing traffic on US-287! Two hit me in the space of five minutes, and there was No WAY I could stop and write them down. Grrrrrr. Manged to hold onto them until the next gas stop, thanks be. And then couldn’t find my little idea book. Had to use a napkin. Thppppth.
It’s really, really, REALLY weird, but I have been known to make up bad crossover fanfic in my head when a new idea hits and I’m in no place to write it down. $CHARACTER explaining the lay of the land to Jack O’Neill or whoever is dumb as hell but tends to keep it firmly in my head until I can scribble.
that is weird, but could be an interesting story.
Oh, it never EVER makes it to “story” stage. It just seems to kind of flag the details in my brain for later expansion, and then I try to ignore the Muse side-eying me for a few hours. 🙂
Have a voice recording app on your phone, assuming that you have it on the dashboard/aircon holding thingymabob, that you can put on your shortcuts.
Even many dumb phones have a voice recorder mode.
*points to the pile in the corner of his brain*
That’s the mil SF pile
*points to another pile*
that’s the urban fantasy pile
*points to a small pile next to the first pile*
That’s the space opera pile.
I have no want for ideas.
“My problem is more like ‘I have too many ideas. Want one?’”
Mine too. The generator will not shut off. I’ve had ideas aplenty and seen them turned into successful businesses.
Owned by other people, of course, because having the idea is the easy part. I had the idea and stopped there. Somebody else had it and pounded on it until it made money.
Stories though, there I get to follow through. The ideas come in response to problems. Last summer, at this very blog, my recovering-from-burnout detective found a single high heeled shoe in Amsterdam, and now it is 3/4s of a novel. Aliens, you know. The bastards show up everywhere.
How does one arrive at ALIENS!!! from a shoe? Therein lies a tale. ~:D
You have the guy from the History Channel find the shoe?
My guy, he keeps finding bad stuff. In the first book, he finds corpses with their heads melted. Second book, he finds zombies. Its not good for his PTSD, and it makes his robot girlfriend cranky.
I gave him a rest for three and four, but book five he finds a shoe. The robot girlfriend, she is -not- happy.
Something I’ve noticed over the years is that some authors take off running, write Great Stuff for a decade or so, and then suddenly seem to lose the spark, cranking out stuff that looked like it was over-critiqued by a writers’ group.
I don’t know, maybe it’s that they got big enough their editors just bought based on previous history instead of saying “this ain’t right”, but it happened to a *lot* of my favorite authors.
Drake was apparently getting all sorts of interesting feedback from persons at Tor, if the Author’s notes in the Books of the Elements are anything to go by. (I finally read The Spark recently. I personally don’t have much clue how best to market it, so I’m a wee bit more sympathetic to Tor’s marketing department. On the other hand, I’m a lousy salesman, without a solid grounding in marketing, and I’m not employed to move books. On the gripping hand, the Books of the Elements were very much to my taste, I often forget I am weirdo and have trouble understanding why they weren’t more popular.)
You put a knight on the cover. You put laserguns and techie stuff into the picture. Easy.
It used to be pretty darned common to do that sort of “cross-genre” stuff., and most people like it fine if it’s not kept a secret. Stasheff made a LOT of money from that sort of cover.
Some days I have lots of ideas. Some days the well is empty, and when I try to find something creative, it feels like trying to see through cotton wool.
Mostly, though, that’s just being tired, sore, running low on sunlight and nutrition, REM sleep and patience in dealing with the world.
Everyone knows that to get ideas you mail the address in Schenectady two postage stamps, and they send you a post card with three ideas.
This was a standard joke in the early 1960s among SF fans. It is what you do with the ideas that matters. Consider the opening plot line: Boy meets girl. Insert ten pages from the current five-year plan Boy meets TRACTOR! Insert 15 pages on the mechanization of agriculture. Girl meets foreign spy of the reactionary wall street plutocrats… That’s the idea. The details are what matter.
That’s a great joke, which isn’t really at all funny because it nails certain kinds of books that we’ve all read down to a Tee.
I’ve been reading Chester, Bickham, and Swain; on the principle of follow the river to the source. From them I’ve taken scene & sequel, and a story is a character in a setting, and if your not good with characters, here’s what a character is.
So ideas, I’ve had a few, don’t know when, don’t know where… bursts into song and goes off to find a chorus.
Well, as a sucker for something that sounds like a Bogart movie, you’ve definitely got a good hook to it, at least. I want to know where this is going now (and how many ways the titular Ten Pigeons step in to reference the curious ten million dollars in the client’s bank).
Argh. I never have any ideas to continue a plot. My characters just want to go home or hide until the heat goes down, and they usually have very good ideas on how to do it. (And yeah, I hate the books where the villain just magically knows where the hero is hiding, or where everybody they meet are working for some baddie.)
So I try to have my character run into some interesting people doing interesting things, and then my readers complain that my main character isn’t having enough initiative. Well, she doesn’t want to do any stuff, because she has no idea what’s going on and there’s no advantage to just flailing around like a sitcom character. And honestly, I can’t blame her!
Luckily I have a gift for creating characters who are fanatics or nuts.