When searching for story inspiration, David Baldacci recommends combining a frontpage news story with a back page news story. I have been more or less doing that. My question is: as to one of your books, where did the inspiration come from?
I love Baldacci’s suggestion–and I love combining plot lines that seem to be separate but come together in the end. For my latest book, The Shadow of Memory, three stories came together:
- A recent lawsuit regarding the purchase of a fake Frans Hals by Sotheby’s London from a Mayfair art dealer. Sotheby’s sold the painting in good faith to an American dealer for $10 million. They had to refund the money, of course, and sued the dealer.
- Bill Bryson’s humorous recounting of a summer job he had in a mental hospital in England, which led to research about private Victorian insane asylums.
- A 2002 radio program on NPR’s This American Life about several young boys who broke into and explored an abandoned house in New Hampshire one summer.
My inspirations were a news article, a book, and a radio program. Goes to show that inspiration comes from many sources. Some from within our own heads.
I do like to read obituaries and I get character ideas from that, but I think I base most of my novels and stories on personal experience that I then ratchet up. So, for example, my story, “Banana Island,” began when I went on a walking tour of Long Island City. The guide kept talking about how prices were going up unbelievably and I began to think about how an extended family might be torn apart if one group got rich on their house and another rented. I’m always intrigued by the stress money puts on families.
At the same time I had been reading about scam baiters, who are people who try to trick scammers into spending time on the phone with them in the belief that they will not have the time to go after innocents. So that did come from an article! I just forget where.
That’s a really good idea (re Baldacci suggestion). I haven’t done that, and now there aren’t front pages or back pages, anyway, but I guess top 3 results combined with results 20+ would do it. My inspiration for Hide in Place came from my husband’s years as an undercover detective buying crack in the Bronx. The inspiration for Behind the Lie came partly from my own near drowning at the age of sixteen (guess I’m still processing it) and partly from my fascination with all the crazy longevity research being done right now. People don’t want to die or get old, and are doing insane things to prevent it, down to injecting themselves with experimental compounds that are not approved for testing, near starving themselves, and preparing their consciousness for download.
I knew the answer to this question immediately when it came to No Virgin Island, but it got me thinking about where my stories came from in other books. Sometimes it feels organic, as if the story is already in me waiting, sometimes screaming, to come out.
No Virgin Island had several inspirations. Sabrina’s life has been influenced by her meager childhood and when she finally reaches personal and professional success, it is snatched from her when she accidentally kills her cheating husband. But what really ruins her is the nightly autopsy of her murder trial, dissected and savored by salicious TV host Faith Chase who feeds it to millions of viewers. It’s not hard to guess that Nancy Grace was the inspiration for Faith Chase. I watched the Casey Anthony saga with fascination and in horror, witnessing the power of a media personality had over the lives of others.
The subplot in No Virgin Island where a woman is searching for her children who were abducted by her ex-husband was inspired by the true story of Stephen Fagan, a former Massachusetts attorney who kidnapped his two daughters. When they were finally found in Florida years later (they were in their late teens, I believe), they sided with their father and would have nothing to do with the woman he had maligned and poisoned them against. It infuriated me so much, I took to my pen to do justice, which is why many of us write mysteries. We can create justice where there is none.
My Gethsemane Brown mysteries were inspired by subjects I wanted to learn more about. In Death in D Minor, for instance, I wanted to learn more about The Bray School in Colonial Williamsburg, an 18th-century school founded by Anglican philanthropists to educate Black children. I also wanted to learn more about schoolgirl samplers, embroidered samplers made by schoolgirls to practice and demonstrate their needlework skills. So I made up a story that involved both of those things, giving me an “excuse” to research them. I wove in art and antiquities fraud, another subject I’m interested in, to tie them together and add an element of crime.
My short story, “Happy Birthday,” in Malice Most Diabolical, was inspired by a Cirque de Soleil performance and a Taschen book on the circus. My short story, “Love’s Labor,” in This Time for Sure, was inspired by seeing a bunch of teenagers diving off a bridge into what I hoped was very deep water.
I don’t consciously decide what my books are about before I start writing them so I don’t consciously follow Baldacci’s recommendation about combining a front page news story with a back page news story. But I have the New York Times delivered and I read it over breakfast every day so it makes sense that the news is lodged in my subconscious.
The front page story in Legacy in the Blood, the last book in my NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli mystery series, is white nationalism. The back page story is the use of genealogy to solve crimes but in Legacy I turned it around so a woman looking into her ancestry discovers something that gets her murdered.
In Deadly Solution, I combined a front page story, the mysterious summertime deaths of homeless people, with a back page story, how living on minimum wage is one disaster away from homelessness. In the main story, my protag Maeve Malloy is called upon to defend a homeless man accused of killing his drinking buddy when he was in a black-out. He doesn’t remember what happened. A witness turns up, a young woman who had lost her job after a work-related back injury, couldn’t pay her rent, was evicted from her apartment, living in camps, and lost her kids.
My books are always rooted in personal experience, except I don’t actually know anybody who commits crimes. So by actual experience, I mean from my time in the Cayman Islands. So dive sites in the book are dive sites I’ve been on, or restaurants in the book are restaurants I’ve actually been to. Resorts I’ve stayed at…ditto. The only exceptions are places where bad things happen. If a character is diving on a real dive site, you know they’ll be fine. If it’s one I’ve made up, watch out. As far as restaurants, the meals in real places are always peaceful and delicious. But if one of my characters so much as snarls at another or leaves their meal uneaten–that restaurant is a figment of my imagination.
Not many underwater crimes make the front pages–or even the back pages–of the regular news, although I do check out a site called Underwatertimes, just because it’s a hoot. There’s not usually crime there either, but it’s fun to read.
I guess Fin is just unlucky that she keeps running into all these ocean-based crimes!