When I do a book tour, people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?”
If there’s one persistent question, that’s it. And while I understand the subtext of the question (“How can I write a novel?”), it points to a basic misunderstanding of what writing a book really is, and isn’t.
The newspaper is full of ideas for stories. I always have my antennae out, just in case I run across something that gets me going. But an idea is not a book. So how does it work?
Well, for me, it’s like this:
When I moved to Washington, D.C., one of the first jobs I got as a cameraman was shooting for the National Bureau of Standards, now known as NIST. Some scientists were setting fire to a room, the same room, over and over again, and measuring the rate and pattern of the flame spreading. I remember it got so hot that the Pyrex safety glass in front of my camera lens melted--and the image kind of melted in my viewfinder. I thought I had lost focus!
I did a lot of work at that place, filming robotics, automated manufacturing, lasers, and cool ways to measure the flow of liquids (you guessed it: vortex-shedding flowmeters).
But the most sensational stuff was in the cryptography section. Those guys were making a walkie-talkie for the FBI that was digital, dude. In the early 1980s, that was way out there. And, they boasted, the signal was encrypted.
Now, that was cool. And it got me thinking about encrypted satellite signals. The U.S. military was using a code that changed every 30th of a second, but that was too easy to decipher. Its people were working on an extended code that would be virtually impossible to crack. Hmm ...
Through my contacts, I’ve been in film warehouses over the years, and can tell you that a six-reel print of a feature film weighs about 100 pounds and costs around $1,500. Compare that to a hard drive you can carry in your pocket. The idea of delivering movies into theaters via satellite intrigued me.
Sending something--anything--via satellite is not new. But using it to defeat film piracy is.
It’s hard to get an accurate gauge of how much money film distributors lose each year to piracy, but it’s somewhere between six and twenty. Billion dollars, that is. So you can see why it would be nice to stop the piracy. Encrypted satellite delivery of movies won’t keep out the kid with the handheld video camera, but it would reduce the number of thefts and illegal duplications.
So I had these ideas in my head: the whole satellite thing, and film piracy, how you could defeat the pirates with coded satellites. I spoke with the folks at NIST, who gave me great information, then they turned me loose on the technical director of film distribution at Warner Bros. This lady was terrific, and she also gave me names of other folks to speak with.
Like a lot of writers, I enjoy the research part of the job. Maybe too much. Sometimes I find myself reading just one more article, or talking to just one more person, rather than tackling my manuscript.
But I did speak with other experts. All good stuff. But kinda dry--not a book, not yet.
Then something happened. A friend had told me this story:
I used to work at a firm that makes a consumer electronics gadget. The company was owned and operated by three guys: a father, his son, and a third guy. Just when the company got red-hot, the father and the other guy squeezed the son out. Since the son had signed a non-compete clause, he used that time to develop the same type of electronic gadget. When the non-compete clause expired, the son announced his own company, in competition with his father. The son wanted to drive his father out of business.In other words, payback.
I’m interested in family dynamics. For my first book, Drink the Tea (2010), I imagined a daughter who didn’t want her long-lost father to find her. My new novel, Steal the Show, uses the story I outlined above. The relationship between father and son intrigued me. What kind of people were they? So it wasn’t the idea, or the scenario of what happened, that interested me most; it was the why of it, starting with why did the son get squeezed out?
W. Somerset Maugham was one of the great 20th-century writers. He talked about visiting a prison in French Guiana. He was looking forward to meeting these desperate men, men who had killed out of love, hate, jealousy. What he found surprised him: virtually every inmate he spoke with told him the same thing--and it all came down to money.
Sure, an inmate might be jealous of his woman stepping out with another man, but after close conversation Maugham realized that a man killed because his woman was spending his money on somebody else. Making him a fool, in other words, and cheating on him at the same time. Or maybe a man killed his wife and business partner because they were committing adultery. But then Maugham found out it was the business partner’s mistakes which cost them a fortune--and the partner his life. Again and again, the urge to kill came from feeling ripped off.
From the results of his research Maugham wrote a story called “A Man with a Conscience” (1939) about a true crime of passion, perhaps the only one Maugham ever came across. It’s a great story, but it also puts writers like myself on the lookout. It’s as though Maugham is telling us to probe deeper, to see beneath the surface.
I try to do something similar, layering in motivations for both the good guys and bad guys, and in that way, attempting to make them as dimensional players.
In Steal the Show I try to look deep into my characters. I’m using my own store of human knowledge, using it to texture and shade the people on both sides of the law.
When we read a story, we want to be entertained--that is, we want the writer to hold our attention. But we’d like a bit more, please. We’d like to gain an insight into human behavior. We want the author to show us his understanding of the people about whom we are reading.
So a story may catch a spark from an idea. But the idea is not the story; the story is about what that idea inspires in terms of characters, the dimensional people who populate your book.
Last thing: when I read a book in which the characters are dimensional, they become alive for me. I sometimes find myself thinking about them, long after I’ve finished reading the book. In other words, the characters resonate for me. Has a writer ever affected you that way?