Now that the awful business of creating the Author's Note detailing all my research for "Desert Cut" (due out Feb. '08 by Poisoned Pen Press) is finished, I'm back to normal -- or whatever passes for normal for a mystery writer/journalist.
The time for breast-beating is over. Now it's time for writing tips.
One of the most frequently-asked questions of a writer is, "Where do you get your ideas?" In my case, the answer is simple. As a journalist of 20 years, I get my ideas from the newspapers. My first book, "Desert Noir," came about after reading an article in the Scottsdale Tribune (where I was worked as a feature writer). The article said that an 80-year-old-woman refused to be moved from her house when a big sports stadium was slated to be built on her land. The old woman had been born in that house, as had her father and grandfather, so it wasn't just a "house" to her, it was a link to her heritage. Yes, the multi-millionaire owner of the team that would be using the sports stadium was going to pay her for the house, but only what the house was actually worth, which wasn't much. This meant that the frail old lady would not have enough money to buy another home in a decent neighborhood -- just in the worst, crime-laden slums of Phoenix. She'd probably have to move into a trailer on the other side of town, away from the friends of a lifetime.
After the team owner upped his offer (but not by much), the old woman's family finally persuaded her to take the money, so she did -- not that she had any choice. To help the multi-millionaire team owner along, the city had invoked "eminent domain," the law by which any government (and often private) entity can grab any private residence to use for their own use and profit. The old woman moved out, and was dead within the year. Her family said her heart was broken.
Besides being furious about this whole disgraceful mess, I was intrigued by it. What happens when private ownership conflicts with the great amount of monies that can be made from a land grab? The morality (or immorality) of the issue was fascinating. I began to research eminent domain, and the research eventually turned into "Desert Noir" -- my first mystery novel. (No, I didn't kill the multi-millionaire; that would be too easy).
To get ideas from newspapers, you need to pick and chose wisely. If the headline screams SERIAL KILLER CAUGHT! you can pretty much count on the fact that hundreds of other writers out there will base books on that headline. So never pick the obvious. Pick a smaller story, something where interesting people are doing instresting -- if weird-- things. If the headline says something like, SCOTTSDALE MOM HOLDS METH PARTY FOR KINDERGARTENERS, you might be onto something. But even then, you have to be careful. Find a "theme" in that local story which will resonate to someone on the other side of the country. Debauched kindergarteners will, that's for sure.
Another good way to get ideas from newspapers is, when reading a story, ask yourself, "What kind of person would do such a thing?" This question could arise from a story about a wedding gone wrong (bride runs off), a house break-in (thief takes only the woman's shoe collection), a messy divorce (husband dumps port-a-potty contents into ex-wife's living room), an unusual bank robbery (robbers dressed in Nixon masks), a disputed parking ticket (parker chews and swallows ticket)... the list goes on. Once you've decided what kind of person would do such a thing, ask yourself -- who is the best person to tell this story? In other words, what point of view should you choose? The person who ate the parking ticket? The officer who gave the ticket-eater the parking ticket? The ticket-eater's wife (or husband)? His mother? His coach? His cell mate (if the parking ticket altercation resulted in arrest)? The judge, who has his own problems?
Every day's newspaper holds enough story ideas to fill a bookshelf -- if you just turn your imagination loose on all these unhappy, misbehaving people.
Another great area of the paper to find ideas (and one of my favorites, by the way), is the Dear Abby column. Read the question to Abby, but never, never, never read Abby's answer. YOU are the one who will provide the answer. Just let your imagination play with the dilemma the person is experiencing. Dear Abby, my sister-in-law keeps making passes at my huband. Dear Abby, I think my husband is gay. Dear Abby, I just found out... See what I mean? Come up with a picture of what the letter-writer must be like, and what it must feel like to live with his problem. Give him a family, and give everyone in that family a unique personality -- then center the story around the original question asked by that Dear Abby letter. Guess what? You've got a book!