Some writers are great at plotting, others great at building worlds. While others create characters that their readers can understand and relate to.
No matter what your good at, it all starts with an idea. A spark of inspiration that stirs the imagination. A curiosity that captures your attention.
For me it usually starts with what if? Haunting Amanda started with; what if a spoiled/rich heiress lived in a house haunted by the ghost of the man she loved and killed. The idea for this, what if, came from my own house. We moved into our home about four years ago. Almost immediately weird things began to happen. Noises at first. Things crashing, but nothing was broken. Then came voices. A woman wailing incoherently, a child’s voice saying Hi through the patio windows. Our prized Siamese cat, Mushu, sustained an inexplicable injury to his leg. We did a background check to see if anyone
had died in the house. We talked to our new neighbors. I’m afraid some of them thought we were nuts. Nobody knew a thing. Being skeptics, we blew it off and moved on. Then it got really weird.
While preparing for a birthday party, I hung a rope over the top floor balcony to hang a piñata. Everyone else was downstairs preparing the back yard. By the time I skipped down the stairs and grabbed the piñata the rope had been pulled up and was back on the balcony. Ok, now it was getting hair raising strange. And it would get stranger. Ideas began to percolate.
Our family began to freak. Heated discussions of moving started. Unfortunately, we live in Southern California and the housing market is sparse, at best. The noises continued. Things began to move, then came one of the strangest events I’ve ever experienced. One evening, my partner and I where relaxing in front of the tv. The show we were watching ended at eleven o’clock. I climbed upstairs to use the bathroom while she flipped channels to our favorite local news. I finished peeing and walked down the stairs to see Jimmy Kimmel on the tv. Everything seemed off. By off I mean, disjointed, lan unseen fog in the house. Like looking for your lost car keys only to find them in your pocket. Only, it wasn’t car keys that were lost. It was a half-hour of time lost.
We looked at each other and simultaneously said, “What happened?” She had no recollection of what was on the news and I don’t take thirty minutes to pee. To say we were bewildered is an understatement. To this day we can’t explain or understand what happened. For me, it prompted ideas.
Since I was a boy I’ve always loved haunted house stories. One of my favorites was The Haunting. It scared the crap out of me. I didn’t know at the time that it was based on a fantastic novel, The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. The idea of writing my own haunted house story took hold. After all, I was living it.
I wanted it to be a bit different, modern, with a subtext that would allow me to make social comments about the uber-rich. So I put other projects aside and dove in. The screenplay came first. As of this writing it’s being considered by a number of production companies. As I usually do, I used the screenplay as my outline for the novel. Fortunately, our ghost kept making it’s presence known. Smoke alarms would wail then turn off. One night I jumped out of bed at the sound of screaming. I stood on the upstairs landing looking down at the empty living room and listened to a mournful cry. Did I mention this was three in the morning and the living room was empty?
Each event prompted more ideas. What chilled my bones? How did I react? What the hell could I do about it? With all that was happening around us I was motivated. It took roughly five weeks to write Haunting Amanda. I think it turned out pretty good. I had used personal experience to gleam the idea.
I keep a notebook. Some call it a diary, some call it a journal. It’s just a notebook. Thenotebook is titled, Bret’s Ideas. I keep it with me always. Whenever a thought, a news piece on the radio, an overheard conversation, strikes me as a fresh idea, it goes into the notebook. My morning routine is a cup of coffee and my iPad, which takes the place of the newspaper. Odd, quirky, stories are my favorite. If something intrigues me I write down every thought about the subject without self-censorship. I even keep it next to my bed. A dream can be a fantastic source for a ideas.
There’s always a tingle in the back of my brain when the idea hits me. The what ifs begin to flow. That’s the fun part. Here’s the not so fun part. I’ll move on to another idea and a week or two later I’ll go back and review my thoughts. After a second look, some are not bad. Others are so stupid that I can’t believe I bothered to write the idea down. And others still give me that brain tingle.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Deciding which idea has the depth worthy of spending countless hours laboring over the keyboard. I feel like a gold miner digging in the dirt. But I have come to understand myself through trial and error. There’s been many times I’ve taken an idea and smashed my shovel into the ground, only to discover, shit, there’s no gold in this hole. A hundred and fifty pages into a novel is the worst time to figure this out.
So, the two sides of me have come to an agreement. The creative Bret, who jumps in with both feet, even though he might be jumping off a cliff, and the practical Bret, who takes his time and looks over the cliff before taking the plunge. I fill my notebook with anything and everything that interests me. Story ideas, location ideas, character ideas, dialogue ideas. Then, I take my bleeping time to see if any of these ideas are gold.
When I started writing the mantra was “write what you know”. That’s what I tried to do. But what did I know? I played sports. Baseball, football, basketball, track, and golf. My first screenplay was about a football player, The Last Angry Man. And, it was pretty good. Yet, nobody would touch it. Sports movies ‘never made money’. Fine, I have an idea, I know other sports. I dabbled with a magical story about golf. It was terrible and never saw the light of day.
My screenwriting mentor, Ken Rotcop, convinced me that ‘write what you know’ is a pile of crap. Jules Verne would have never written Journey to the Center of the Earth. How would he? He’d never been to the center of the earth. How did Mary Shelley write Frankenstein? She was not a doctor looking for immortality. How about a contemporary author, Stephen King. Does anyone believe he’s telekinetic? From what I understand the seed for the idea behind Carrie, his first published book, came to him from a newspaper article about poltergeists. Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park, which started out as a screenplay, came from some wild idea of creating dinosaurs. Mr. Crichton was many things, but a geneticist, no.
So a spark hits you, but you don’t know a bloody thing about it. What to do? In the past the library was the place to be. Today, anything you want to know is at your fingertips. It’s never been easier to research an idea. And being someone who loves to learn, I really enjoy discovering things I’d never known.
The idea behind my first novel, Gabriel’s Rule, came to me as I was taking care of my mother, who was battling cancer. During quiet moments when she was sleeping, I did a great deal of research on cancer cures. A huge idea hit me. What if there was a cure for cancer but big Pharma kept it from the public because chemo is big money? And what if a certain kind of person lost his mother because of the greed of those companies? Would he seek revenge? It was a great idea born from my mother’s sickness. I shared my idea with my mother. It brought a smile to her face. She urged me to push forward. At that time I’d only written screenplays. I had optioned several of them, but none ever reached the silver screen. So with her encouragement I dove in. She was always my biggest supporter. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish it before she passed. It breaks my heart that she never had the chance to read it.
Here’s where the practical Bret jumped in. I wanted Gabriel, my assassin, to right wrongs. To stand up for the common man. But, I didn’t want him appearing to be a lunatic. The war in Iraq had just ended. There were rumblings of corporate greed everywhere. Another idea, what if my hero was a soldier abandoned to die by the profiteers? Would that make for a more sympathetic character? If he was an elite soldier, with special training, it would certainly be more plausible that he could pull off what was to happen. In doing so, I could raise the stakes for Gabriel and put him at odds with the rich and the powerful. The idea of revenge was taken to a higher level. The original idea of revenge remained but morphed to include people and places across the globe.
Ideas come from everywhere. Look at people. Listen to people. Watch the news. Read weird stories. I watch certain shows; The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, The Science Channel and the ID Channel. I find them rich with ideas and full of what ifs. Don’t be afraid to look deep inside and re-discover lost loves. Get inspired by the extra ordinary.
Here’s my two sides looking at an idea. Creative Bret is hit with a wow moment. I put it to paper because my mind has a tendency to quickly jump to the next idea. Any thoughts are scribbled as fast as I can write. Then practical Bret puts it to the test.
- Is the idea unique? A little research on Google will tell you that.
- Do I see interesting characters? Are they speaking to me from the start?
- Does the idea have space? I mean, is there room for the idea to travel. A twisty mountain road is a lot more fun to drive than a straight stretch of highway.
- Can I see putting in countless hours into the story?
- Is there an audience? Will anyone else be interested?
- Finally, does it grab me where it counts. If it doesn’t it probably won’t get finished.
Or, if it does, it won’t be very good.
While writing this, I thumbed through my notebook. Ideas from years ago, that I’d X’d out, once again looked promising. Others that I thought were fantastic don’t look so fantastic now. Funning thing about ideas, some are like a passionate love affair, so hot they burn your soul. But they lack depth and fizzle quickly. Others take a little time to heat up. They burn slowly, but they burn forever.
Thank for traveling down the road with me.