After the Idea

If you’ve read Alan Orloff, you’ll know that he has a unique, and sometimes, quirky approach to storytelling. I wanted to know, so I asked: Alan, where do you get your ideas?

This is what he said:

People often ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I’ll say I get them everywhere. Because I do. I think that many writers are the same way, we get a bazillion ideas. The trick is finding the time to write about them all.

But…after I settle on an idea, there’s a lot of work that needs to get done before I write a single word of the manuscript. Let me take you through the process using my new book, SANCTUARY MOTEL, as an example.

I’m going to backtrack just a bit to explain where I got this particular idea, which was a confluence of several smaller ideas (idealettes). First, I saw a report on the news about a municipality that repurposed several abandoned motels into housing for the homeless. Which, of course, is a great idea. Second, I’ve always been a fan of quirky (read: cheap, sketchy, seen-better-days) motels. This may have something to do with my father being, uh, frugal and taking us on vacations where we would eschew the chain motels for more individualistic motels (read: cheap, sketchy, seen-better-days). I was always enthralled by the selection of off-brands in their vending machines. Finally, I’d been writing a fair number of darker short stories, where the characters were often bad people doing bad things. I wanted to write about a good person for a change!

So I threw these ideas into the hopper and brainstormed how I could mesh them together. A novel about a local government transforming an old motel into a homeless shelter seemed a little too…snoozefest. But what if I set it in a kitschy motel (like the ones we used to vacation in)? And what if the place still operated as a motel, too, in addition to providing refuge for people in need? I could definitely envision my do-gooder protagonist running a place like this.

Bingo bango boingo, SANCTUARY MOTEL was born-o.

I figured I was on to something with the basic concept, but it still needed more. More something. As all fiction writers know, you need conflict. Plenty of conflict. Back to brainstorming. What if my motel operator ran this place for his absentee parents? And what if he was more interested in helping others than in making money, much to his relatives’ chagrin? I figured that dynamic would provide ample opportunity for conflict within his family. Bonus: it would allow me to incorporate family issues as a subplot (because, really, there’s no better place for conflict than within a family!).

I had one other big thing to consider before I put fingers to keyboard and started writing the initial draft. I wanted this to be the first book in a series, which meant I needed a robust and varied cast of characters. I made sure to include some tropes of the genre and foils to the main character: A trusty sidekick. A love interest. A police detective buddy to provide information that only the police have access to. But I also included a vet bagel shop owner and a bookie and a street snitch named Pudding and Mama, who knows everyone in town, as well as their business.

Once the premise had been hammered out, I began working on the plot. I’m an outliner, so I require a road map in place before I start up the engine. Specifically, I need to know several things: The inciting incident. The ending (in my books, it’s always the hero and the villain who face off, good versus evil. Can you guess who wins?). I also like to know some of the major tentpoles/setpieces along the way. About halfway through, I like to throw in a twist that sets the entire plot on its ear.

Of course, once the writing gets underway, I often deviate from the outline. (What’s that saying? Everyone has a plot until they get punched in the face?)

But that’s the fun, right?


Mess Hopkins, proprietor of the seen-better-days Fairfax Manor Inn, never met a person in need who couldn’t use a helping hand—his helping hand. So he’s thrown open the doors of the motel to the homeless, victims of abuse, or anyone else who could benefit from a comfy bed with clean sheets and a roof overhead. This rankles his parents and uncle, who technically still own the place and are more concerned with profits than philanthropy.

When a mother and her teenage boy seek refuge from an abusive husband, Mess takes them in until they can get back on their feet. Shortly after arriving, the mom goes missing and some very bad people come sniffing around, searching for some money they claim belongs to them. Mess tries to pump the boy for helpful information, but he’s in full uncooperative teen mode—grunts, shrugs, and monosyllabic answers. From what he does learn, Mess can tell he’s not getting the straight scoop. It’s not long before the boy vanishes too. Abducted? Run away? Something worse? And who took the missing money? Mess, along with his friend Vell Jackson and local news reporter Lia Katsaros, take to the streets to locate the missing mother and son—and the elusive, abusive husband—before the kneecapping loansharks find them first.

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About Alan

Alan Orloff has published ten novels and more than forty-five short stories. His work has won an Anthony, an Agatha, a Derringer, and two ITW Thriller Awards. His latest novel is SANCTUARY MOTEL, from Level Best Books. He loves cake and arugula, but not together. Never together. He lives and writes in South Florida, where the examples of hijinks are endless.


  1. Oh, Alan, I think your father and my father would have gotten along famously. My entire childhood is full of memories of run-down, seedy, seen-better days motels. They still have a soft spot in my heart. And the Jersey shoreline is full of motels just like that, that house people in need over the winter and then kick them out for the summer season. Perfect setting for a story! And I love the cover of your book. Thank you for visiting!

    1. There is something *comforting* knowing that if you accidentally spill something on the carpeting, no one will notice.

  2. Thanks for visiting, Alan. I’m happy to say my mother was very, very particular where we ate and slept on our annual trip from New Jersey to Florida, so no run down, sleazy motels for us. On the other hand, my writer’s brain feels deprived.

  3. Alan, I loved reading through your thought process, which is very like mine although our settings and subject matter vary significantly. You call those major plot points “tent poles.” I like that. I’ve always thought of them as destinations on a road trip; i.e. I know where I’m going to stop for the night, but I don’t know in advance how I’m going to get there. And, as you say, things change!
    Thanks for stopping by Miss Demeanors! Best of luck with the new series!

    1. Sometimes I use that road trip paradigm, too. Allows for a lot of side trips down deserted country roads!

  4. Thanks so much Alan! I find it fascinating to hear how other writers find their mojo, and there are always little seeds of info I can glean from their words to help plan the messy meadow of my stories. Half planner, half seat-of-the-pantser, my stories always seem to start with a firm beginning and finish, and certain fence posts along the way, and it’s the character’s job to take me with them on their journey. And believe me, some of them have a terrible sense of direction! Thanks again, and yes I have had my fair share of cheap, sketchy and seen-better-days during my hitchhiking days in the ’70’s!

  5. Even the names of your characters somehow enhance your unusual setting. I toured a local motel as it was being emptied for renovations and conversion to public housing and kept thinking, if this walls could ever talk…

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