I visited with a book group that read In Flight. It’s been a while since I’ve spoken with a book group and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy the experience (hey, readers talking about my novels—what’s not to enjoy). But I’d forgotten about the first question many readers ask: “How did you get the idea?”
No matter how many times I’m asked that question, and no matter which of my novels is being referenced, I never have a good answer. That’s because I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten an idea for a book. I’ve gotten ideas for a story premise (What if in a futuristic, high-security police state someone wants to escape to freedom?), or for a character who gets in a fix (Respected suburban mom is arrested for drug possession), or for a vivid scene or sequence (The opening plane crash sequence of In Flight)—but these are far, far away from having ideas for a book.
I’m one of those writers whose books build slowly and grudgingly over many hours of writing myself into dark holes and then out the other side, and then sideways into a tunnel and through the surprise escape hatch, right turn, left turn, u-turn, sharp curve, until finally I figure out what I’m writing and where I’m going. At that point, I might have forgotten or abandoned whatever original idea prompted me to write.
The writer E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.E.L. Doctorow
I love that quote because it’s applicable to me. I never have a clear view of what lies far ahead. I rely on my intuition, I take it as it comes, I discover as I go. Eventually, the narrative path reveals itself, and then I spend three times as long rewriting everything. Or the path never reveals and I move on to something else.
Nonetheless, all writers have to start somewhere. There’s only so long you can stare down an intimidating blank page before you finally have to take a swing at it. That sounds too pugilistic. Instead: writers must find the seeds of ideas that if cultivated with imagination, research, and endless typing might turn into something worth reading.
Those little seeds are everywhere: snippets of conversations, personal experience, the awkward thing I said to someone, observation, trees swaying in the wind, reading, researching, imagining, playing the What if game.
There are a million What if possibilities. The one from above: What if in a futuristic, high-security police state someone wants to escape to freedom? That was one of about 50 What ifs I wrote in my notebook in 2011. I didn’t start writing The Culling until 2018. Many of us know that Respected suburban mom is arrested for drug possession helped me kick off Stash.
With the book group the other night I ended up fumbling my answer to where I got the idea for In Flight and making use of a fugue state.
I said I wanted to write about this successful business executive and dedicated family man, but that wasn’t a satisfying answer. Then I remembered something else and I told the group that around the time I was beginning to write of Robert Besch, I came across the news story about a young woman named Hannah Upp who had experienced a dissociative fugue, went missing from her life for days, and when found clinging to a buoy in New York harbor remembered nothing of the experience. I conducted extensive research into dissociative fugue, a rare disorder that can be triggered by extreme psychological trauma. I was fascinated. You could do a lot of things in a fugue state and maybe not be responsible for them.
I decided Robert Besch would experience dissociative fugue. To use a plane metaphor: it was wheels up on the story.
The book group turned out to be a lot of fun. I would love to have been there in person because it looked like the wine was flowing free. And they had this to tell me afterward:
If you want to know about my journey, just read this blog. It’s painfully personal at times. And on a sad note: Hannah Upp disappeared again, this time from a Caribbean island during a hurricane. It’s been a few years since anyone has seen her, and she’s presumed dead. It makes me worried about Robert Besch.