Writers conferences are times when I know I’m going to get a lot of questions, and the question that stymies me the most often is, “Where do you get your ideas?”
In general, that’s easier to answer, because novel ideas come from everywhere. They hit you when you’re in church, while you’re showering, in those moments when you go suddenly deaf and dumb, right in the middle of a conversation. On rare occasions, they arrive prepackaged. I once had the staggering experience of having an entire novel pop into my head – every chapter, every scene, and practically every line of dialogue – while I was crossing the lobby at my publishing house. But such Moses-goes-to-the-mountain moments are rare. The ideas are far more apt to come in increments.
Take my current novel, In High Places.
If I trace that back to its genesis, I would have to say that it first came to me in my change at the 7-11. It was 1999, and I was buying – I don’t know what – a soda, probably. Anyhow, when I got my change back, I automatically counted it (a habit engrained in me practically since birth by my frugal Irish grandmother).
As I counted my change, I noticed that there was a quarter in it, and I turned it over and looked at it because my daughter, who was nine at the time, was collecting the state quarters. I wanted to see if it was one that she needed.
But it wasn’t a state quarter. It was a Bicentennial quarter – the kind with the Revolutionary War drummer on the back. And while I might have to pause and think a while if you ask me what I was doing in, say, 1983, 1976 is another matter entirely. It was a year of tall ships and fireworks on the National Mall, a year when red-white-and-blue was in vogue and just about everything was lemon-scented. It was a time that was easy to remember, and as I walked back to my van, I got to thinking about that. In 1976 I had just finished college, and I spent much of the summer rock climbing. As I lived in Ohio at that time, the nearest truly challenging rock was in West Virginia: Seneca Rocks, West Virginia.
It occurred to me then that I had, right there, all of the elements of setting. I had a time (1976), a place (Seneca Rocks), and a niche – the athlete-philosopher world of climbing. It was a stage, empty and waiting for its actors.
Who would those actors be? Most good stories are about relationships, and we have in our lives two great mega-relationships. The first is with our parents, and the second is with our soul mates. You only get one set of parents, but your soul mate – or the person whom you think is your soul mate – can change as you grow. And one that always stands out, I think for everyone, is the first love – not the teacher you had a crush on in grade school, but the very first person you ever looked at and truly thought, “This could really be my ever-after.”
Seventeen is a good age for both of those relationships – the age when you’re old enough to have your own car and the trappings of adulthood, but you’re still living at home with your parents. And so, as I already had a hunch that I was leaning toward a relationship novel, I began to get a shadowy glimpse of Patrick, the lead character in my new book. He would be seventeen throughout most of the book, and he would still be living at home. This was a month or two after I got the quarter, and a couple of years before Patrick would have a last name (Nolan).
Now, if I wanted to explore mega-relationships, one of the two was easy. The first love is the first love. But for a parent-child story, I couldn’t be general. For the intimacy that story requires, I really needed to concentrate on one parent or the other.
That was an easy choice, as well. My father passed away in 1985. He was only 65 at the time, an age when most people are just launching into retirement, yet he had already been ill for several years, and it often seemed to me that, although he had seen the world as a young sailor in WWII and come back to raise a family and get his own piece of the American dream, a lot of unachieved potential had died with him. I missed him, and still miss him bitterly, and it almost went without saying that, even though I was now thinking about a story of first loves, and coming-of-age, I was thinking about a father-and-son story, as well.
My father died as a man with gray hair, and I must admit that I put most of them there. There were years when we were very much at odds. Looking back, I felt that I an apology was overdue … and also impossible. But I could find some personal solace by making Patrick an atypical teen – a kid who was tight with his parents, who didn’t sway to social pressures or archetypes, but was individual enough to skip the awkward phase when parents aren’t cool, and embrace at least some of that time that I had so little of with my own father – a time when parent and child can relate as adults.
A story that explored such a father-son relationship would be therapeutic for me, but it would be deadly boring for a reader, because it lacked that most essential element of plot. It lacked conflict. And about a year after getting that quarter in my change, I was straightening my bookshelves and came across a scuba-diving logbook that had belonged to a niece of mine. A dead niece. A niece who had died a suicide.
I hope that you will never have the experience of having someone close to you die by his or her own hand. If you do, I can assure you that the “what-ifs” will multiply and compound your thoughts for years afterward. So will the guilt. It is impossible to lose someone in that manner and not wonder either if you did something to contribute to such an extreme state of despair, or if you failed to help provide some semblance of that essential element – hope – that keeps a person breathing in and breathing out.
That added another brick to the foundation that I was laying. To me, one important element of a Christian novel is that it addresses an issue or question of spiritual importance. And the issue that seemed to be arising as I thought about this still-nebulous book was hope – not where it comes from (to a Christian, that is obvious) but what it really is, its true nature.
The open issue was who it was that should die in that manner. Such a death firmly places an elephant in the room with every survivor, and that aspect would be compounded if the person who died was someone in one of those two mega-relationships with the central character. So I had Patrick and his father come home from a climbing trip in 1976 (that quarter, again) to learn that Patrick’s mother had gone out to the garage that morning, dressed to the nines, and had started up the car and sat in the closed garage until she passed out of this world and into eternity.
When my niece took her own life, I reacted by leaping off the grid. I left the country, and tried to lose my grief in a change of scenery and culture. Of course, the grief followed me. I decided to give Patrick and his father (he had a name by now – Kevin – and a job as an engineer in the auto industry) a similar experience. They would sell their home, Kevin would quit his job, and they would try to start a new life running a climbing shop in the setting inspired by that quarter – at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia. And there Kevin would react to the situation ignited by the lingering questions posed by his wife’s death. He would engage in self-destructive behavior, a self-destructive behavior that I arrived at by remembering a phrase from a Dylan Thomas poem (“… and you, my father, there on that sad height…”) and then taking it absolutely literally. Patrick would be faced with the challenge of trying to heal his father without tearing what was left of his family apart – at the same time that he was falling head-over-heels for his first love.
I could tell you more, but then we’d move into spoiler territory. And besides, we have here all the bits and pieces I needed to start In High Places
– a setting, characters, and a conflict for the characters to resolve.
So if you’re casting around for your own idea, but you only have parts of it, take heart. The rest will probably come in time. Until then, do what good writers do: read, make black marks on white paper …
… And remember to count your change.
-- Tom Morrisey
hangs out in cyberspace at www.tommorrisey.com.