Getting Started

August 15th, 2007

People always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” The question seems to suggest that they think a writer gets an idea and then sits down and writes it. For me, though, it’s usually the other way around. I write to find out what my idea is.

I just got back from the Novel Cafe in Santa Monica, which is one of the places I work when I’m in California. (Another is Lollicup, over in the Japanese area of Sawtelle Avenue, between Santa Monica and Olympic Boulevards. The coolest thing about writing there is that everyone is speaking Japanese, and since I can’t, it’s not distracting.) Today was the ninth day of working on the new book, the third of the Poke Rafferty series that begins with A Nail Through the Heart. And, as usual at this stage of a book, I’m writing literally everything that comes to me, sort of circling the drain until I can begin to center in on whatever will prove to be the heart of the story.

The Bangkok books all tell two or three stories that are sort of braided together into one big story, and they often begin with what, for want of a better word, I’ll call an image. One of the images I started this book with is a young girl — seventeen, eighteen — who has run away from the poverty of northeastern Thailand and has been in Bangkok such a short time she’s still not sure which way to look when she steps off the curb. She literally doesn’t know how she’s going to live, and then , out of nowhere, someone hands her a baby. I thought it would be fun to see whether a relationship would develop between the girl and the baby, and if so, how it would develop.

But then, of course, I had to ask myself, who would hand her a baby? And why? The answers to those questions led me to several new characters who have proved to be interesting. And writing the girl gave me some questions about why she had left the northeast, and who might be looking for her, and that opened up some more potentially interesting areas. So here I am, nine days later, with the beginning of a story about a girl and a baby cast adrift in an enormous city, surrounded by people who don’t necessarily wish them well.

And just now as I was writing this, I asked myself who the baby is. Something else to explore in the next few days.

So it may be that one of the stories in this book is about a girl who is handed a baby as though it were a bundle of clothes.

Or it may not.

One of the wonderful things about writing a series of novels is that your characters’ entire world is fair game. In the case of Poke and Rose and Miaow (and a couple of new characters you haven’t met yet, because they won’t appear until The Million Dollar Minute is published) that means Bangkok in all its teeming profusion, from beggars to gangsters to millionaires. And it means the northeast, which Rose fled (like the young girl with the baby) and the South, with all its present troubles with Islamic terrorists, and it means Poke’s America, which he can never quite shake off. A story can have its roots in any of that, or it can come sailing in from China, as one of the plots does in The Million Dollar Minute.

So the question isn’t so much where the stories come from as it is how you fight them off. But for me, they usually begin with an image: a girl who’s been handed a baby; a crooked poker game; a chase through the model kitchens of a department store. As I write those things, they expand to include new characters, new ideas, new possibilities. Sometimes they connect. Sometimes they harmonize: they come together to make something like a chord. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, they won’t get anywhere near each other, and I have to toss one of them and try something else.

My responsibility is to show up every day with my fingers on the keyboard, and work. I need to follow the thread, to expand the area of the characters’ lives that’s got light on it, and figure out where the light should go next. I’m not so much making up the story as trying to explore it. It feels most of the time like it’s actually happened and my job is to uncover it. I need to tug on the thread, but not hard enough to break it.

This may sound kind of woo-woo, but for me it’s just a combination of work and fun, and it’s what I do pretty much every day of my life. My publishers never read this blog, so I can tell you in confidence that it’s so much fun I’d do it for free. It’s like walking a high-wire, but without knowing where the wire will lead me.

So I’ve definitely gotten started on my new book. What’s it about? Ask me in three months.

3 Responses to “Getting Started”

  1. Sharon Hurley Hall Says:

    I’ve just discovered your blog by stumbling and this looks like good advice. Even if you’re freelancing rather than writing a novel, the only way to write is to write.

  2. Susan McGarvey Says:

    Love your blog, very inspiring. However, you need an RSS feed, so I’ll be able to keep up with your new postings. Thanks and keep writing!

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Susan — Thanks for the suggestion. Will work on it ASAP.

    Tim

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