by James Lincoln Warren
A couple weeks ago Rob gave us an insight into how his creativity gets kick-started. I guess it’s fair to say that the concept for a story has a point of inception from which it subsequently germinates.
Planting the seed, though, is not enough to make sure that an idea grows to maturity and bears fruit. There’s a lot of care to be taken along the way, fertilizing, pruning, watering, and just plain waiting for things to pop out of the ground.
Like Rob, I’m a slow writer, and I spend a lot more time refining what I write than putting it down in the first place. Things need to come together in my head, and there’s no rushing the process. Over the years, though, I’ve learned a few important things about the way my story-telling brain works:
(1) The initial seed of my story’s plot may not be the best idea in the plot. The great ideas usually flow from lesser ideas, because I’ve noticed that
(2) My best ideas come to me either when I’m in the middle of doing research or when I’m physically writing. They usually turn whatever I’m working on in a completely different direction from what I originally envisioned, although the destination is usually the same, because
(3) If I start writing a story without a clear idea of how it’s supposed to end, I’ll never finish it. My problem is never how does this story end? It is always how do I get to the end of the story from here?
So let’s grab our garden spade and our shears and all our other implements, and make a story grow.
The first thing we have to do is look at is the seed itself. What kind of plant is it? The kernel of a novel is going to take a lot longer to grow than the seed of a short story. The nature of the idea tells us how much care we’re going to have to take with it, and may give some indication of how long we’ll have to nurture it, although this is never certain. Sometimes you can look at the seed and have no idea what it is: it could be anything from a tulip to a sequoia. You won’t be able to tell until it has started to grow.
As Rob noted, ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes it’s a something that you’ve known for a long time, but never noticed before.
Like this: cashew nuts never come with shells. In fact, I don’t know anybody who has ever even seen a cashew’s nutshell. Do you?
There must be a mystery in there somewhere. Something I can turn into a crime. A tale that hinges on the nutshells of cashews. Maybe the cashews are a clue. Maybe they’re the solution to the crime. Maybe they are the crime.
Now the seed sprouts and starts to develop. One thing, though, is obvious. We are dealing with food. Crimes involving food lead off into some specific directions. Maybe our detective is a chef, a caterer, or a gourmet. Maybe our villain is a chef, a caterer, or a gourmet. One story element that immediately suggests itself is a meal. Meals are good for mysteries: they are social events that often involve a baroque interplay among those present. A meal may be a formal occasion, or it may be a peace offering or demilitarized zone between aggrieved parties. It may a casual meeting between two close friends in the kitchen. Maybe there’s poison lurking in the salad or dessert.
There doesn’t have to be a meal, of course. The plot may involving smuggling drugs or diamonds or pre-Columbian artifacts among the cashews. Oh. Didn’t I mention that cashews only come from Brazil?
Well, they do. I know that because after I got the idea of using cashews, I started my research. Research does two things: first, it provides verisimilitude. Secondly, it gives you, or at least me, new ideas. Now that I’ve learned that the reason cashews never come with shells is because cashew shells contain an allergenic phenolic resin, anacardic acid, which is similar to the urushiol oil found in poison ivy, all sorts of possibilities open up. What looks like a poison ivy rash may be from contact with cashew shells. Now we even have a good shot at misdirection, which is always a good thing in a mystery story.
Now how do we use the rash? All right, maybe our victim is a chef, a caterer, or a gourmet. He’s murdered, strangled (we’ve decided against poison, because it’s too obvious for a foodie mystery), and he has an allergic rash on his arms. He has no known enemies, but we know he’s fond of traipsing off in the woods to find mushrooms. So the assumption is that he was out in the woods gathering mushrooms and accidentally brushed some poison ivy during his arboreal jaunt. But in fact, our victim discovered that the villain was smuggling cashews in their shells, and discovered the cache of cashews in the bonded warehouse. Once the villain’s secret was known to the victim, the victim was doomed. But the villain has made a fatal mistake: the only thing is that I haven’t a clue as to what it is yet. But I’m on the track. Maybe it’s that he has a passport stamp from Brazil in his passport. Or maybe that’s a red herring.
All right, I admit, it needs work, and if I were actually going to write a story about cashews I wouldn’t have brought it up here. I’m just showing how a story requires nurturing, how it grows in the telling, and how it can unexpectedly and fortunately take a different direction than one might originally have planned. That happens to me a lot—I’m typing away when I suddenly come up with a better idea than the one I had my heart set on. I’ve been treating it as a cucumber when it’s really a watermelon. Of course, I get worse ideas, too, but they all go into the compost heap.
Um, is anybody else hungry?