Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How Writers Come Up with All That Stuff

By Chester Campbell

I was talking with a friend about my books the other day, and she said, “I don’t know how you come up with all this stuff you write about. You must have a really vivid imagination.”

Just for the heck of it, I looked up the definition of “vivid.” Among its meanings are:

Full of the vigor and freshness of immediate experience; evoking lifelike images within the mind; heard, seen, or felt as if real: a vivid description. I suppose that pretty well sums up where it all comes from. What we mystery writers write about is the sum of all the things we have experienced, things we’ve heard, seen, and felt. It’s the product of the stuff that builds up in our minds over a lifetime. The longer we live, the more of it there is.

Should I want to describe a sunset, all I have to do is think back over the hundreds of such phenomena I’ve witnessed. Skipping the first ten years of my life, when I wasn’t thinking a lot about sunsets, and allowing only one a month the rest of the time, that would give me nearly 900 to choose from. One I recall vividly (there’s that word again) took place over the Eastern Mediterranean one November evening in 1998 as I watched from the balcony of a beachside hotel in Netanya, Israel. As the sun sank slowly toward the churning sea, through a bank of dark clouds, streaks shot up like flames, turning the sky a blazing red. I sat entranced and watched until the shimmering ball disappeared as if swallowed by the waves.

A lot of what comes out when we sit at the keyboard involves our unique take on things we’ve read about in newspapers, books, magazines. A story about a disastrous balcony collapse in a hotel got me thinking how it might happen at a high-rise condo. The result was the opening scene in Designed to Kill, where two people are killed when a poorly constructed balcony falls.

A neighbor mentioned her visit to the restored plant and office building of a long-defunct auto manufacturer in Nashville. When I made a similar visit, I saw things in a different light, and The Marathon Murders became a reality.

Imagination is a major factor in the process. Without the curiosity to take a set of circumstances and consider what might have been had things occurred a bit differently, these stories wouldn’t have taken shape. All these words seemingly pouring out from nowhere may sound like magic to a non-writer, but they’re all part of a day’s work in transferring those imaginative images onto the page.

Set up a situation, put some characters into it, and turn them loose. It helps to have a vocabulary nurtured over the years by continuous reading and listening to others. Some few authors have an innate ability to shape their ideas into striking patterns of language. The rest of us spend years working on ways to give our prose the extra oomph that we hope will put us in that elite category.

Let’s celebrate our imaginations and continue to give them a good workout. Provide the readers with a good story and take a bow.


Bill Kirton said...

I agree totally with the idea of creating a setting, putting some characters in it and 'turning them loose'. The beauty of it all is that, yes, the words come from our experience and imagination but somehow, when those characters start interacting, it often feels as if something's happening which is actually outside our own perceptions. On a good day it's as if the writing's nothing to do with me. I just jot down what they say and do.

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Been wallowing in where I wanted to go next with my next book and this morning as I arose that setting, character, issue jumped into my head! What fun! Now all I have to do is turn her loose!

Chester Campbell said...

Good point, Bill. Sometimes it does seem a bit like magic, doesn't it? But it takes a little steering from somewhere inside the old cranium to make them go where they should.

Good show, Sylvia. Let her go!

Jean Henry Mead said...

I try not to let language get in the way of telling a good story. When I began writing my first novel, I wrote like a William Faulkner copycat and the flowery phrasing still crops up at times, only to be eliminated in the second draft. And like Bill and many other writers, I sit back and try to type fast enough to keep up with what my characters are saying because they write the book.

Helen Ginger said...

Interesting post, Chester. Since each writer is different with their own experiences, they could each write the "same" scene and have it come out completely unique. We bring our full selves to the table, so to speak.

Straight From Hel

Mark W. Danielson said...

As Jean said, allowing my characters to write the story has proved the best method for me. There is no magic; it just happens -- no different than making up a campfire story.

Chester Campbell said...

Good point, Ginger. I recall one incident back in my newspaper career when both papers covered a speech and the other reporter came up with a completely different take on it than I did. I was called into the publisher's office, but they agreed I had it right. Everyone sees things from a different point of view.