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.