What Is Your Spark?

“He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experience, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art… And when the process is over, when the…novel is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth.”  — E.M. Forster
By P.J. Parrish

Where does it come from?

I’m talking about that original impulse, that first bud of creativity that eventually grows into a book. Can you remember? What was it that tickled your brain and set the synapses glowing? What the very first moment when you knew you were onto something?

I’m not talking about inspiration or muses or the “need” to write. I’m trying to focus way way down to that little thing that got you going on whatever it is you are now working so hard to bring to life. What was the spark?

Normally I don’t think much about stuff from the ether like this. Especially since we here at The Kill Zone tend to focus on practical stuff like building credible characters and sturdy plot structures. But sometimes it’s fun — and maybe even a little instructive — to turn the microscope to its finest setting and examine the beginnings of life.

Every writer starts a novel from a different impulse. Some start with a situation, many by asking “what if?” Many writers are character-led.  Often you can trace it back to something as small as an overheard conversation. Or an old man standing a corner glimpsed as you pass by in your car. It can be a line from a half-forgotten poem or the smell of dime store lipstick.

Sometimes that first impulse is too weak to sustain a novel. Sometimes that clot of embryonic cells never quite grows into a character. But sometimes, when you dip a bucket into the subconscious you draw up something special.

I got to thinking about this today because I was trolling the internet boning up on the history of the detective novel. I am going to be on a panel at the Edgar Symposium tomorrow that focuses on the future of the detective novel. And because I didn’t want my fellow panelists to wipe the floor with me I was, I admit, doing a little brushing up on my genre history.

That’s why I happened upon a lecture P.D. James gave in 1997 called Murder and Mystery: The Craft of the Detective Story. (Click here to read it). I’m a huge James fan; she and Georges Simenon were my guiding lights when I was trying to learn how to write detective novels. Jules Maigret and Adam Dalgliesh…those are the guys I’d want on the case when there’s a body on the slab.

So you can imagine how cool it was to read this paper of hers. It’s a great survey of the detective genre. But what I found really fascinating was the part where she talked about how she got her ideas. For James, it always starts with the setting.

I was gobsmacked when I read that. Because that’s what always gets me going. I can’t see a story until I can see the setting. Our books move between Michigan and Florida. Our settings have been, variously, an isolated island in the gulf, an abandoned insane asylum, an old family farm, a cattle pen overgrown with weeds, and an Everglades swamp way down south where the bottom of the state spreads out into the straits like a tattered flag.

Sometimes I almost feel like one of those weird psychics who claim they can see the place of death. When we are starting a new book, I can’t always tell you exactly where we are. But I can sort of feel it. And eventually the place materializes on the page, sort of like an old Polaroid.

Like right now, we working on a new Louis book that takes him back to Michigan. That’s all we knew when we started, that he had to go home. But where? Kelly insisted it had to be the Upper Peninsula (she went to college up there) and we eventually decided to take Louis as far north as we could — way up to the Keweenaw Peninsula, that strange spit of land that extends out into Lake Superior like a crooked finger pointing the way toward the Canadian wilderness. End of earth sort of idea.

But still, things weren’t gelling. There was a spark but it wasn’t catching. Then I saw a photograph someone had taken of a small abandoned cemetery. Its crumbling headstones are obscured by dense carpets of clover. It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it once the middle of somewhere — a lively town where the copper miners lived and worked in the 1800s.

P.D. James said that once she found her setting all she then had to do was begin talking to its inhabitants. Thus came her characters. So it has happened with us. We’re only ten chapters into this new book so we’re still meeting the natives, still learning their histories, still trying to develop an ear for their odd Yooper accents. (it’s somewhere between the nasal tones of Detroit and the lilt of Canada with some Finnish thrown in).

In a bit of synchronicity, I am the editor of the Edgar annual this year and months ago we decided on our theme — the sense of place in the crime novel. The essays are great — Lawrence Block on New York City, Peter Lovesey on Bath England, William Kent Kreuger on northern Minnesota, Cara Black on Paris — each writer talking about how place colors their stories.

Even as I read them it didn’t really occur to me how important setting was to me as a writer. But it is the thing from which everything else comes. If I don’t know where I am I can’t begin to tell you where my story is going. I need to know my place. It is my first spark.

What is yours?

p.s. Forgive me if I don’t respond right away but I am en route to NYC today. Will catch up when I get into Newark Airport. There’s wifi on the bus! 

27 thoughts on “What Is Your Spark?

  1. I wrote a small ditty on this subject in my blog with — zero followers:)

    Here is my offering

    From where, does our creative content come? It is a mystery.

    Could it originate in an alternative universe, or systems that we cannot comprehend, only to be expressed by our past or future experiences in those universes, or systems?

    On the other hand, perhaps it is tapping into the collective consciousness (all human thought from the beginning) or the infinite collective consciousness (collection of all thought, from all life form—physical, non-physical, animal, vegetable … Everything. ARE we writers, merely putting to paper events from the past present or future and reporting them as we see or saw it?

    And… Since there is no end, only an expanding now—isn’t there endless scenarios of our soul’s experiences.

    Pretty cool to think about it — what do you think?

    • Hi Dave!
      Yup, I agree. It is, indeed, cool to think about it. A little navel-gazing is always a good excuse not to write! But then it sometimes leads to writing, no?

  2. I once wrote a poem, and in the poem I used concepts from a game I was playing. The poem was obscure because I didn’t want anyone to know where these concepts were coming from, mainly because I was ashamed that I’d gone down that path, so I made it very generic.

    I’d read the poem again, almost two years after I’d written it and it spoke volumes to me. If I could sum up that poem only using one word, it would be ambition. And that’s what the name of my poem is today.

    The writing bug has stayed with me ever since, and I now realize that everything I write is part of who I am. I think the fear of becoming invisible is what drives my desire to write. Fiction is just a way for me to get mean and nasty about it.

    • Diane,
      I totally understand that impulse about invisibility. Not long after my first book came out I was in Washington D.C. I decided to go to the Library of Congress and just see if that line on the copyright page was true. It took the lady a half and hour but she finally emerged from the depths with my little book in her hand. It was maybe one of the coolest moments of my life.

  3. Setting is the heart of things for me too. My goal was and always has been to write a string of novels set in Arizona’s past. Now not every single novel I plan to write will be in Arizona because some of the characters who are touched by her don’t start out there.

    But for me, place is the thing. The characters develop naturally after.

    • BK: It’s odd, too, what DOESN’T inspire you as a writer. My sister and I tried to set a book in Arizona but it never got traction, despite the fact she had lived there for years. I don’t like deserts and I am convinced this is why it failed. Nothing there spoke to me. The beauty is, it DOES speak to you.

  4. I’ve been stunned by the number of times I’ll find the germ of an idea in my working life. Now, it wasn’t so stunning when I worked in a shop that produced dash mounted video cameras for police officers. I saw tons and tons of videos that would make for terrific stories.

    But now, working for an industrial cleaning group, I’m still running into ideas that could make great stories. In fact one of these real life stories was the impetus behind my last year NaNo entry. I blogged about it at my blog (if you’re interested search for “ideas”)

    That being said I think it takes a different sort of mind to pursue an idea to the point where it could become a novel. So many times I’ll find friends or relatives will bring up an interesting story then never follow it down the rabbit hole to figure out where it might lead. Natural curiosity? Maybe. I think all these ideas and writing about them just makes life more fun to live though.

    • I’ve been down that same rabbit hole. A couple times it led me to a short story but that was all. And another rabbit hole gave me a novella. Some rabbit holes are just deadends and you have to give up and just back out.

  5. Setting is never an issue for me: I use Los Angeles, present and historical. I grew up and still live in the greatest noir city of all time. Why mess with that?

    For me, the spark is almost always a “What if?” When that happens I immediately “see” people (characters) and they are somewhere in L.A.

    The nice thing about my town, too, is that it’s not one place, it’s many places within a contiguous locale. There’s always more to explore.

    • James,
      Just curious: Because LA is such a fertile ground do you worry about it getting overplowed? (Geez, excuse that metaphor!) It is hard to write about iconic cities…had that issue with our standalone set in Paris. The answer was to stay away from every famous landmark and explore the city’s darker streets.

  6. My own process has of late been refined by the writing books of James Scott Bell and Nancy Kress. Excellent all and highly recommended.

    I’m going through this process now. The book won’t be written for a while. Heres what I found

    In Laos, there is a high area called the Plain of Jars. The name fascinated me. I knew it was involved in the Vietnam war. During that war, I spent some time in Dong Ha. While I was there, a Cessena (called a Birddog) landed. I couldn’t find out much about the pilot or the plane. But I never forgot him.

    Lately, I remembered that incident. I did some research. I found the following:

    A megalithic archaeological area that is both interesting and eery. The area is covered with large, stone jars maybe used for buried. They dated back to 500 BCE.

    In the Vietnam war, that area became the site of a Secret War paid for my the CIA. American pilots were recruited for a “dangerous, secret mission that will probably get you killed and you don’t have to put up with politics of the war.

    These men did not wear uniforms, had fake ID, had to get their own weapons, and had phony cover stories for why they were there. They were forward air controllers flying old Cessena airplanes to direct the bombing of enemy troops. They had the highest death rate (30%) in the war, and were disavowed by their government. They marketed Pathet Lao and North Vietnam troop locations near the Ho Chi Minh trail. They flew out of Thailand and came back when possible.

    Let’s see, a bunch of pirates flying cardboard airplanes over enemy positions. I wondered what type of man would do that.

    If I can’t write a story from that, I need to get a job in a cubicle.

    • Wow. Plain of Jars. How can you not pursue that one? We had a whole plot emerged from a dot on the Florida map I found one day while I was just looking at random. It was called Devil’s Garden. Drove out there (it’s deep in Everglades) and it was nothing but a four-way stop with a little green state-issue sign. But I got out and found an abandoned cattle pen. The story came from there.

  7. Brian, that’s great idea for a story. There was a program about the Raven Forward Air Controllers a few years ago on the Military Channel. I remember, in 1963, an Army pilot landing his L-19 Birddog at our airstrip on the East German border. He was upset because the Air Force controllers made him stay airborne while they scrambled fighters to counter a Mig that was tracking him. My latest novel features characters that flew for Air America in SE Asia and a French mercenary pilot flying Skyraiders for the Chadian Air Force against Gadhafi in 1980.

    For me, setting has three elements: place, time, and situation. My stories always start with a place, somewhere I have been: East Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, and the Sahara. Google earth and internet research fills in the blanks. They must fit within a certain time-period, the late 70’s, and early 80’s. The situations revolve around historical events that happened during the Cold War.

    The spark doesn’t come easy. It’s more like rubbing two sticks together to start a fire, a long and sometimes frustrating process. It works best if you have the right kindling. Research is my kindling. The spark often comes from an ah-ha moment when reading a blog, novel, or watching a movie.

  8. Great post, PJ.

    My novels always start from the flimsiest of premises. One novel sprang from two lines of the Marty Robbins song, EL PASO (maybe the greatest noir song ever written, by the way).

    Another one came from a friend’s comment 20 years earlier: “If I ever wrote a novel, this would be the first line.” She said the line and I never forgot it. I changed it up a little and it ignited my first Key West noir, SETUP ON FRONT STREET.

    My work in progress stemmed from a title, THE GUNS OF MIAMI. I loved the title so I sat down to write a novel surrounding it.

    i might add, when one of these “ideas” (I’m not sure I would grace them with that word) comes to me, it’s literally all I have to go on. No characters, no plot, no hint of a story (except for the lines in EL PASO), and no idea where it’s headed. I just take the thread and start sewing.

  9. My spark almost always comes from a character that walks into my head. Sometimes this is set off from something I’ve read in a history book or sometimes it’s just a spark that ignites apparently all by itself. So usual it’s a vision or a voice of a character and then I take it from there…

    • Yeah, you’re a character person definitely. I listening to a panel of first novelists at the Edgar Symposium yesterday and 5 out of 6 said they started with charcacter.

  10. My current project is 100% character driving. I was playing a video game and taking something like a half hour to customize the look of a solider, her name, her nationality, everything, and then I thought “wow, this woman has way more story to her than this game let’s me see”. And that got me thinking about how best to tell that story.

    But if that was the spark, the accelerant was meeting the woman who would play that character in the between chapter multimedia’s. That pushed me more to explain her back story and thus set up her forward story.

  11. PJP–
    Thanks for this post. It is the best kind of food for thought. And as a Michigander (some insist it should be Michiganian) whose stepdaughter went to Northern Michigan U in Marquette, I am definitely pumped to read your book set in the U.P.

    On the importance of setting: reading what you’ve written convinces me of something about myself: setting is so important to me as a writer that I’ve given almost no thought to its role. I think this must have to do with the importance of atmosphere in my fiction. How a point-of-view character perceives the world of the story–the setting–is a key way of exposing and developing that character for the reader. Or so I hope.

    • Barry,
      Yesteday I listening to Ken Follet here at the Edgar Symposium talk about where his ideas come from and for him, it is almost always place. He is working on a trilogy now that takes place in the American South during the civil rights era and he actually took the same route as the original Freedom Rights. Fascinating to hear him talk about it.

  12. I love this post, Kris. Starting with setting is interesting too. With my crime fiction books, characters usually come to me first, but with YAs, the plot or character hook comes first–so I don’t keep writing the same teen in each story. (I can relate to adult characters easier than teen ones, so it takes more effort for me to set up a YA.)

    I am also a big follower of the NOVA science channel. Most of my ideas come from 7-8 sources and only I know when a concept is ready for plotting.

    Every book is different & I love being open to all sorts of ways.

  13. Good post and good comments.

    My previous novels all started like Clare mentioned, with a character popping into my head. My current WIP though as has taken off from a new place for me, namely how would I and my own family personally react to a specific situation. In the case of this story, the situation is a war on our home soil that finds the children, the father and the mother all separated over forty miles of city and mountains as it begins and unsure if the others survived. It’s the first time for me to try and see the majority of the story and the actions taken through my own eyes, what I think I might actually do. Sort of a fictional autobiography of life not yet lived.

    Not sure how its going to turn out yet, I’m only a quarter or so into the draft, but thus far it’s been a source of a lot of introspection and reality checking.

    I hope we survive it…

  14. When I wrote Nancy Drews, it always started with a setting. I imagined Nancy hanging out on the beach, and that became Mystery on Maui. I imagined her in a newsroom, and that became Update on Crime. Imagining her doing high tech treasure hunting became Sea of Suspicion, and seeing her at a rave became Dance Til You Die. With my books now, I am more likely to visualize a type of crime, and work the story outward from there. For example, I had a clear vision of a diet doctor dead with a pair of fondue forks stuck through his eyes; that developed into Dying to be Thin. ๐Ÿ™‚

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