Several writers have told EQMM that they prefer writing short stories to novels because ideas come to them easily. The late Edward D. Hoch, for example, became impatient with the few novels he wrote because other story ideas had to be put on hold through the long process of completing a novel. Doug Allyn has distinguished himself as both a short story writer and a novelist, but he was already an award-winning short story writer before his first novel saw print, and he has remained a faithful practitioner of the short form. He has received many Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations for his short stories (so many that I’ve lost track) and he has won two short story Edgars. He is also the 2012 EQMM Readers Award winner and he has won that award nine times before. All of which makes me wonder if Doug isn’t one of those writers with such a rich flow of ideas that the short story is indispensable to him. In this post, he talks about the source of ideas for fiction, and if you ask me, he really has nailed it down.—Janet Hutchings
At every writer’s conference, one question always pops up. Where do you get your ideas?
Ask a hundred authors, you’ll get a hundred different answers. Most of them lame.
Writers who are paragons of clarity in print instantly drift into cloud cuckoo land when we try to explain the most basic element of our craft.
Some say that story ideas are everywhere, which is absolutely true, but much too vague to be useful.
Others say story ideas are like Art with a capital A, or porn, (no caps necessary). We know it when we see it.
Allow me to nail this sucker down, once and for all.
Story ideas are exactly like wedding dresses.
Not that I’ve ever worn a wedding dress myself, you understand, but I once married a girl who wore one. It was the luckiest day of my life.
I admit, this might make me overly fond of the analogy. But that doesn’t make it wrong.
Story ideas, like wedding dresses, derive from four components. You already know these famous four by heart.
Something Old? That one’s easy. Every writer begins as a reader. As a kid I read everything I could get my grubby paws on. Ten thousand books? Twenty, if you count comics. So in a sense, everything we create now is based, at least in part, on something old. My shiniest new idea is probably rooted in some forgotten paragraph penned by some forgotten scribe, who jotted it down with a goose quill. On a clay tablet.
How much of our work is rooted in the past? Sue Grafton uses the letters of the alphabet for her titles. I’m guessing she picked up her ABC skill set fairly early in her career. By age three, maybe? Four at the max.
Personally, I’ve dredged up inspiration (and ideas) from childhood sources as disparate as Marcus Aurelius and ZZ Top. I once wrote a series of medieval tales inspired by the cover of a Norah Lofts book I saw as a kid. I couldn’t read yet, so I can’t recall the title. It was a great cover, though.
Nothing is more fun than taking a piece of your childhood and giving it new life in something of your own. Which doesn’t mean we’re not capable of writing . . .
Ever get that stale, ‘seen it all’ feeling? Take my word for it, any edition of a mystery magazine will blow your gloom to flindereens! (Which is a word I just made up, and you grasped it instantly. I rest my case.) New ideas pop up all the time. Archie Goodwin as a computer app, Doctor Watson as a Chinese chick? I’ve known my little brother since I was two, yet his savage stories still amaze me. The list of writers who stun me with the freshness of their work and ideas would take more space than I’ve been allotted here. I’d have to use the freakin’ Cloud. Instead, let’s move onto . . .
Ah. . . . Here there be dragons, because the idea of borrowing can easily be misconstrued. I’m not talking about copping plots or story ideas. No good writer does that, or has to. But every writer consciously borrows inspirations. Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who’s never had the urge to take the wonderful rush of a Stevie Ray guitar lick or a snippet of dialog from a forgotten movie and spin it into something entirely new?
Example: in Lee Child’s wonderful Vengeance anthology, I read a story by Rick McMahan called “Moonshiner’s Lament.” I’d never seen the story before, but I kept getting a nagging feeling of déjà vu—suddenly I realized why it seemed familiar. I’d borrowed this material once myself. Not the story, the inspiration.
Rick and I were both galvanized by the same country song, “Copperhead Road,” a tune written back in the 80s by the marvelously talented Steve Earle.
My story was about insurance fraud. What I borrowed from Steve was the edgy mood of his music. I taped his song on an endless loop and played it over and over again for weeks as I wrote the story. I’ll bet I heard that tune a thousand times. I still love that song.
Rick’s repurposing of Earle’s world is equally fresh. If he hadn’t paid homage to his inspiration by mentioning the hero’s name and the song title in his story, you’d never make the connection.
Still, I think we should declare a moratorium on Steve Earl songs. If mystery writers keep copping his material, the poor guy won’t have a tune left to whistle.
Writers don’t borrow inspiration because we’re short of ideas, (ideas are everywhere, see above) but because we want to share the pleasure we derived from the original. How many retakes on Treasure Island or The Count of Monte Cristo have you seen already? How many new adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade in cyberspace are waiting to be written? I hope that list is endless too.
Which brings us to our final, and darkest, category . . .
Sex in the suspense story? Most classic mystery writers would swoon at the notion. Aunt Agatha never raised a hemline above the ankle. And Nero Wolfe in the altogether? Eeew!
Nobody mooned at greater length over lost love than Edgar Allan Poe, but even when he was coked out of his tree, (which was all too often) Ed never dreamed of portraying the physical act of love. Fifty Shades of Raven? For the love of God, Montressor! Nevermore!
Still, times change. The late, great James M. Cain made his initial reputation by introducing realistic (for the day) sex scenes into classic noir. Then came marvelous Mickey Spillane, and after him, the deluge.
Currently, our finest blue author is Lawrence Block. Early in his career, Larry wrote some soft porn stories under a pseudonym. I once did exactly the same thing for precisely the same reason.
Larry’s blue past came to light when his novels exploded onto the bestseller lists. A publisher released his early work in an attempt to cash in on his newfound fame.
My own blue work suffered a sadder fate. The publisher went bankrupt before the book hit the stands. Trust me, this was no loss to literature. And yet, I do hope to see that forgotten novel again one day.
Not because it’s sexy. Nowadays, Nick At Nite shows racier stuff than mine. But if it ever does show up? It’ll mean that at long last, I have finally acquired a reputation worth stealing.
If that glorious day ever arrives, you’ll have no trouble spotting me on the red carpet.
I’ll be the guy dancing with the girl in the wedding dress.