Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Plot Ideas: Where They Lead

Authors are fond of saying, in answer to the inevitable question, that ideas for stories can be found anywhere. In an interview here the other day, Michelle Gagnon said she got the inspiration for her book Boneyard while doing research on Ted Bundy. I came up with the idea for my first published mystery on a trip to the Holy Land.

True, the world is a cornfield of plot kernels, but what happens after we pick a few? As Bobby Burns put it so aptly many years ago, the best laid plans "gang aft agley." Or often go askew. My colleague here, Ben Small, started working on his latest mystery by setting it in southern Arizona near the Mexican border. But before he got too far along, he took a trip to the Dalmation Coast and changed gears.

What makes us choose one subject over another? For me, part of it is probably laziness. I normally do research as the story unfolds in the computer. When I got into Secret of the Scroll, I found myself doing a prodigious amount of research in libraries and bookstores, online and elsewhere. The second book in the series involved a high-rise condo, which required delving into construction techniques, as well as pursuing information relating to the murder.

By the third book, I looked for more familiar themes that wouldn't require so much digging. I chose to stay close to Nashville, where I had grown up, worked as a newspaper reporter, and spent most of my life. I chose a plot that blended a lot of my experiences, such as an involvement in rental properties and a military background. I used the Opryland Hotel for the murder scene since I had been there many times and my son had worked there and knew a lot of inside stuff.

A modest amount of research was still required, of course. I had to bone up on the Federal Reserve chairman (who I killed off in the book), and a brief interview with a restaurant manager provided all I needed to know about waiters handling dinner checks. A ride-along with a homicide detective filled in some blanks for a key character in the book.

For the fourth book, I chose a subject that was easily covered by a couple of visits to the restored Marathon Motor Works buildings just beyond downtown Nashville. Most of the other details came from my long experience in working around the city. One fun part was researching Trousdale County, a small county to the northeast, and visiting the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation headquarters in preparation for including a TBI agent in the story.

By the fifth book, I had pretty well honed my plot choice style and picked up a  ready-made story from a PI friend who told me about a case she had worked. It worked for me. Except for a couple of visits to a small town nearby, where a key element of the plot (a massive toxic chemical dump) was set, I did most of my research on the Internet. I practically Googled the book.

With number six, I'm pulling most of it out of my head. I've used the Internet a lot and pursued only one interview. Since the other books had occured in spring, summer, and fall, I wanted this one set around Christmas. I wasn't sure how to work that in, but it came along when I needed it.

To me, the fun part of writing is watching the story pour out with hardly any idea of where it's coming from. I guess I'll keep doing it as long as it remains fun to do.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I write the same way, Chester, and rarely find myself painted into a corner although my current novel, Murder on the Interstate, has been a real challenge. When my two protagonists find themselves in the middle of a flash flood during the first half of the book, I'm really going to have to brainstorm to not only get them out of it, but push them into greater danger before the book's conclusion.

Beth Terrell said...

Funny, Chester. My books are becoming more research-intensive, not less. After two books, I've used up everything I know.