Sunday, November 2, 2008

Where do you get your ideas?

by guest blogger Carla Neggers

neggers-carla1My latest book, COLD PURSUIT, just hit stores, and I swore this time I wouldn't get caught by surprise when I'm asked: Where did you get the idea for this book?

It's a natural, legitimate question that's just not always easy to answer. I can't always look back to a light bulb "ah-ha" moment and say, "There. That's where I got the idea for this book."

cold-pursuitWith COLD PURSUIT, the main characters – Secret Service agent Jo Harper and Special Forces soldier Elijah Cameron – jumped onto the page for me. I could see Jo fixing up rundown, one-room cabins on a chilly day on a small lake in the heart of the Green Mountains, and I could see Elijah, home from the war. But what are they doing there? Are they from Vermont? Do they know each other? While these questions were simmering, I realized Jo and Elijah would be called upon to find a teenager missing in the mountains before a killer finds her first.

9780778324836_HC_SMP.indd And off I went. That answer isn't as straightforward as saying the idea for THE ANGEL, my most recent novel, started percolating when I stood in the ruin of the Irish stone cottage where my son-in-law's great-grandfather was born.

For me, the idea question is almost like an arson investigation digging back to the cigarette butt that started the fire. But even if we find the butt and know where the fire started, conditions had to be right for the cigarette to cause the conflagration. Toss it into a puddle – no fire. Toss it into dry kindling on a hot, dry, windy day – big fire.

Did I know a story had sparked when I was in the Irish ruin? No, but I can look back and see that's where the creative fire that became THE ANGEL started. COLD PURSUIT is a bit different. I can't trace that creative fire back to a specific spark, but I do know the conditions for it to catch were perfect. I live in Vermont, I know cold weather, I hike, I snowshoe and I was gripped by these characters, Jo and Elijah.

In his brilliant book, A Writer's Time (W.W. Norton & Co., 1995, 1986), Kenneth Atchity puts it this way: "…the imagination helps us scout out where we're going to be before we actually go there. It's set up to do the advance work for us—feeling on all sides, trying to determine the best path before the rest of us becomes committed to, and endangered by, the multiple choice of available perils."

This helps to explain why the question of where we as writers get our ideas can be tricky to answer. The process often starts without our knowledge or our permission!

Michelle, John, John, Clare, Kathryn and Joe, thanks for this opportunity. Keep up the great work with the Kill Zone. So…where do you get your ideas?

Note: Join us on Sunday, November 9 when our guest blogger will be New York Times bestselling author, M.J. Rose.


  1. Hey Carla,
    I usually tell everyone I subscribe to the Great Idea Of The Month club. Of course, when they ask how they can join, I say the members are sworn to secrecy. :-)

    In reality, we are bombarded with ideas everyday. The skill is always in choosing the right one. Obviously, you've made some terrific choices in your career. Thanks for being our guest today.

  2. Sometimes my stories bubble up from something in my experience, and sometimes a situation strikes me from the news that I just can't shake. Then you start playing the "What if" game...what if this happened, and then that? What would happen next? And then what? Next thing you know, the story unfolds.

  3. Ms. Neggers,
    Great stuff. I posted about the same thing here:

    My idea, as I said in the post, started with the villain and the current climate of fear in this country. From there I just kept reworking it until I got through to the final scene. Now I'm revising to make sure it's (I hope) saleable.

    My next one, conversely, started with a protagonist I really liked. I recognized that, in my opinion, there are a lot more female protagonists of the cozy variety, and not enough don't-mess-with-me-or-it's-your-ass types. So I created Dylan Videtich, and she and I are discussing the story now. :D

  4. I second Joe's idea -- the real question is how to keep ideas at bay, to sift among all that bombard us and focus on one enough to turn it into a complete piece.

  5. This was fun to do. Thanks for the great comments! Part of the reason it can be difficult to pinpoint the origin of an idea is exactly because we're "bombarded" with so much. Helps when inspiration and intention coalesce...but that's another blog.

    Happy writing!

  6. Hi Carla
    Thanks for stopping by and being our guest today. I find ideas are always rearing their heads but in unfinished form so I stop and think "aha!" only to spend months trying to figure out what to actually do with it!

  7. Hi Carla-

    Thanks for joining us! Can't wait to read the new book. The idea for my latest came from a conversation with a friend of mine in the FBI who said that he was afraid the likelihood of another Oklahoma City was much greater than another 9/11. Hate groups in the US have doubled in membership over the past decade, while these groups are far less monitored than they were in the past since most government resources are now dedicated to watching foreign nationals on our soil. Whew. I'll have to come up with something pithier for readings...and I still need a title, since MIRA vetoed my working one! Any siggestions are appreciated.

  8. I play the "What if?" game quite a bit, sometimes in real life. ("What if I hadn't married Lady Voldemort?" comes up quite a lot.

    Robert B. Parker tells a great "Where do you get your ideas?" story. He was appearing on one of those local "Good Morning [insert city name here] shows with Stephen King. The perky hostess, who might have known who King was, had no idea who Parker was, had a list of questions to ask, and she was going to ask them no matter what the answers were.

    King and Parker had been discussing their least favorite questions in the Green Room, and "Where do you get your ideas?" won. So, of course, that was the first question she asked King.

    He replied, "Utica. There's a store there, off an alley. Sells great ideas. I get them all there."

    The hostess, unfazed, then asked Parker the same question.

    He replied, "Same place. They have a mystery department."

    Then she moved on to the next question without pause.

    I heard that story from Parker himself at a signing several years ago. I'm going to Utica some day myself.