“I begin with an idea, and then it becomes something else.” Pablo Picasso
One of the questions people ask a crime writer is “where do you get your ideas?” or “How did you come up with your story?”
Ideas originate everywhere: in the media, in family tales, in dreams, even standing in the shower scrubbing your back. It is up to you to wrestle ideas to the ground and develop them. Many things happen between the idea and the finished story. Sometimes you will abandon a story because the idea didn’t have legs. That’s O.K., too.
How do I get my ideas? I take a vacation! No “Staycations” allowed. I must climb out of my daily routine, dare I say rut, and even my comfort zone. Embrace a new place and ideas follow. For the last twenty years, I’ve seldom taken a holiday without finding a story. Most writers will tell you they start their stories with a character, an event or a place. A place is how I came up with the ideas for my just-published suspense novel, World of Mirrors.
In 1996 my husband and I were in Berlin and drove to the Baltic Coast of what was formerly in East Germany. We picked the island of Rügen because it was a scenic backwater, an easy drive from Berlin and easy on the pocketbook, too. What I never expected to find on Rügen was a novel.
In the days of the DDR (German Democratic Republic) Rügen was a vacation spot for East German prominente. When we arrived in 1996, the two Germanys were reunited, but in many ways, nothing had changed. The island was a museum of quaint Baltic architecture, and the run-down buildings were sorely in need of TLC. “Commercial” was a concept that had not reached these formerly socialist shores. Typical tourists, we took in the idyllic unspoiled scenery, the Hunting Lodge, the famous Chalk Cliffs, the beaches and the modest restaurants.
Home again, the island kept jumping back into my thoughts until my half-formed idea arrived: “there must be a story there.” Just a germ of an idea. There’s a story there. I had some characters knocking around in my head and I found a reason for them to go to that island. I created other characters, giving them agendas that would clash with the main characters. Then came the research. Ideas need flesh on their skinny bones.
Peter Schneider, a German journalist inspired me. He wrote about the fate of the guard dogs that had patrolled the Berlin Wall and the Death Strips. What had become of those dogs? He also wrote of the North Vietnamese “guest workers,” desperate to stay in the West. They had been brought to East Germany and were being shipped home against their will. Who knew?
We had been in East Germany in 1990 and seen Soviet soldiers who would be shipped home to little food and no civilian jobs. A child of the Cold War, I had never expected to feel sorry for the Russian military. An ex-wall dog, a North Vietnamese “guest worker”, and a Russian naval officer became characters. More ideas came from my reading, sixteen books in all.
We had seen sleek yachts that had been converted from old Baltic eel boats. Sailing seemed a natural part of the island culture. Enter the Zeesboot, which plays a big part in the novel. There was just one problem. When I had been on the island of Rügen, I had no idea about writing a book set there. A writer looks at the world with different eyes when she is writing. She needs details where the devil lurks. Not pretty scenery, but the underbelly, the seedy bars, the bad neighborhoods, the place where tourists don’t venture. I hadn’t seen Rügen with a writer’s gimlet eye.
The following summer we were back on the island with rolls of film, scads of note cards waiting to be scribbled upon, and plenty of questions and work points. To flesh out those ideas, we visited local bars, and we photographed harbors, boats, and non-touristy places. Nude beaches abound along Baltic shores. What would make a better scene than a nude beach with some shared confidences? We even found a book about the Zeesboot. Ideas were coming like kamikazes as I began to connect the dots between the island locale, my characters, and the events that would soon form the story.
Home again, I continued my research, now trying to understand the viewpoints of the people in this part of Germany. When the Wall came down, everyone in the East lost free day care, health care and usually their jobs. They were free of the tyrannical East German government and its relentless spying, but worried about their pensions and how they would pay to educate their children. My research gave me ideas about sneaking across the Baltic to Sweden or Denmark by boat, and how the old States Security Police, the Stasi, might play into the new realities.
I set the book in the summer of 1990. The wall was down; Communism was gone, but the Germanys were not yet united. This period was called “the time of the turn,” or “the year of miracles.” The title World of Mirrors came from Marcus Wolf, the former ultra-paranoid East German spymaster.
Ideas are everywhere, and the writer has to nail them down, develop them, and play them off against each other. From “wouldn’t it be cool to write a novel set on Rugen?” to massive research and then 350+ pages of writing and rewriting. Keep plugging away and eventually there will be a story.
When I traveled to Singapore, Burning Man, Germany and the Northwoods of Wisconsin, these locales generated ideas that eventually became novels. Think Isaac Newton and the apple. Get out of the house, sit under a tree or take a vacation. Ideas will be waiting for you.
I am likely the only person you will ever meet who was born in Montana. I grew up on the High Plains of Colorado and moved down to Houston to pick up a B.A. in English from Rice University. After a stint in Chicago, I moved to New England where I spent twenty-plus years as an Information Systems nerd, a natural choice for an English major. Bet you didn’t know that English Lit. and Computer Science go together like tomatoes and basil. That’s because analytic skills are transferable to any occupation and helped me survive Dilbert-like re-engineering projects and the Millennium Bug. In my writing, I like to put a literary spin on technology, and to show technology’s humor and quirkiness along with its scary aspects.
When I’m not writing, cooking or digging in the garden, I’m on a Baltic beach or at Burning Man in the Nevada desert researching my next novel. Some of the groups I belong to are Toastmasters, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and New England Pen. I’m also a founding member of the New England Crime Bake Mystery Conference.