by James Lincoln Warren
The other day I was asked by a fellow blogger if I ever ran out of ideas for Criminal Brief topics. Not the first time I’ve been asked this question, and I have frequently witnessed other bloggers bemoaning an impending deadline because they had no idea what they were going to write about. But the truth, for me, at least, is that the one thing I am never short of is ideas. The beauty of being a story-teller is that there is always another story waiting in the wings to be told, and short essays are just another form of spinning tales. For me, the big question is always how to tell a story.
The most closely related question to “Do you ever run out of ideas?” is, of course, the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas?” that all writers get asked at one time or another. My friend Paul Guyot says he gets his ideas for writing from “a large black Newfoundland dog. I never know when he’s going to show up or how long he’s going to stay. He is a talking dog, but tends toward lax grammar.”
If nothing else, it is always possible to take someone else’s story or topic and look at it from a different perspective—witnesseth whereof T. S. Eliot’s famous dictum that “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” This precept applies equally to non-fiction—all of us here on Criminal Brief have touched upon subjects covered by other of our colleagues at one time or another.
Sometimes writing can be very difficult. I have suffered through long and debilitating bouts of writer’s block. (Anyone who says that there is no such thing is like a sailor who claims he’s never been seasick—he’s either lying, deluded, or he’s never been to sea in bad weather.) But it wasn’t because I had no ideas.
You see, for me, writing a story or a column is nothing more or less than writing a love letter. When I’m depressed or exhausted, the words fail. But when my heart is filled with passion, when I close my eyes and willy-nilly behold the image of my beloved, I’m as loquacious as Keats (if not quite so brilliant and sentimental).
“Shanghaied” was a love letter to RLS and Mark Twain. “The Warcoombe Witch” was a love letter to Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Samuel Pepys. The Treviscoe stories are love letters to a time when gentlemen behaved with manners, thought with discipline, spoke articulately, and carried swords. The Cal Ops stories are love letters to Raymond Chandler, Joe Gores, and this crazy many-cultured city of Los Angeles. All my stories are, in addition, love letters to my wife, Margaret, with her acute lawyerly logic, astonishing critical acumen, and still-fecund literary insight acquired via her M.A. from UCLA in English Literature, who first prodded me to write crime fiction and whose refining touch informs everything I write.
And my Criminal Brief columns are love letters to you, Gentle Reader, as much as to my inspiring colleagues and co-conspirators: Melodie Johnson Howe, Robert Lopresti, Deborah Elliott-Upton, Steve Steinbock, John M. Floyd, Leigh Lundin, the Zemans, the fabulous editors at Dell, Ed Hoch, Charles Ardai, Jas. R. Petrin, R.T. Lawton, Doug Allyn, and all the others. And Eddie, of course. We must never forget the melancholic and mercurial Eddie.
But especially to you, Gentle Reader, because writing is not a monastic activity but a social one. It celebrates the connections between us all, and nothing connects people like love for a good tale.
So Happy New Year, everybody, for the love of mystery, for each other, and for Auld Lang Syne. And if this collective kiss inspires you with any ideas, well, that’s the point.