After I finished my most recent manuscript, I spent a fair amount of time worrying that a new book idea was not presenting itself for my consideration. Usually I have to beat back the ideas before I’m halfway through writing the current one. I scribble notes and I see my main character and I know what she wants. I catch glimpses of the whole, and they fill me with excited anticipation.
That’s the way it’s always been but it didn’t happen like that this time. This time I had to sit in my writing room and just start somewhere. I thought maybe a short story. One member of my writing group wrote a whole book of stories while waiting for the next novel idea to appear. And it worked. He’s writing a longer piece now. Maybe it will be a novella, he says.
I can write a story. Even if it’s crap, I can do it. I’ve done it plenty of times before. I primed the pump by reading the best mystery short stories published in 2015. Some of them, although they were good, did not seem at all like mystery stories, but then what do I know? Maybe it would be easier that way. Not to have any of the rules that kind of had my creative side in jail. Just go for it.
When I sat down that first day to write, I had something on my mind. It was personal. So I ranted for a couple of pages. Caring about your conflict is excellent. Then I spent a few days thinking about how I’d resolve things. It felt imperative to solve this problem, which as I said, started out as a personal kind of rant. In fact I thought it was too personal. Then my friend read it and said “Why don’t you change the gender? That way it’s not you.”
Wow did that open up a world of possibilities. I basically wrote that story in two sessions over a week or so. After I changed the personal part of it, and allowed my imagination free choice, it all came together in a very satisfying way. Nothing about it was real anymore, which was a relief, because it had started out as something so private and not something I was inclined to share. I’ll share now, because I hate when people write but remain obscure.
So here’s the story behind the story. My husband has a hard time getting rid of things. Our basement is a hoarder’s paradise. We moved a few years ago and for a long time if we needed anything we’d go down there and find something that worked. But now, it’s just stuff we don’t need. Like the 15 year old sofa bed my husband kept insisting we take to Florida for our new place there. It’s a nice piece of furniture. I chose it. But it’s not practical to move an old sofa to Florida.
That was the conflict. He was holding on to the old, I wanted to let go and seek the new. In the story I made the female in the marriage the one who held on to stuff. My friend suggested lots of Christmas trees. I threw that in there. So that crabby rant of mine turned into a husband mulling over the many ways his wife irritated the hell out of him. He’s mad because she’s working late (again) and he has to microwave a frozen dinner. The microwave won’t work, but there’s another one in the basement. He goes down the stairs.
Then I switched to the female pov. She’s doing her best in a bad situation. Caught in the storm from hell, she can’t get home. She can’t get in touch with her husband, either. She’s too exhausted to worry so hears nothing until early in the morning when a police detective comes to her hotel room to inform her that her husband has died of electrical shock. She discloses to the detective that her husband had wired the basement himself. So, suicide by DYI.
That was the plot. Of course the plot is not the whole story. There’s character and dialogue and description and tension and subtext. I really liked the female character. I thought she might be good for the Florida setting I wanted to use in a new series of amateur sleuth mysteries. I’d had the setting idea for almost a year, but no characters. No plot. No juice to get me going into the other stuff. Now I had her.
Instead of immediately leaping into the new book, I wrote another story. I got this idea from watching Out of Sight, a movie based on an Elmore Leonard short story starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. I’d seen it before but I wanted to watch it again. I knew my husband would like it. Elmore Leonard was the inspiration for my Detroit crime novel, so I thought, you know, maybe he’d help me again.
In the film, George Clooney was a charming criminal. I thought it would be fun to try to do that. So I thought about it for awhile and then I wrote that short story in another couple of days. It doesn’t have as tidy of an ending as the first story, but that’s okay, by the end of that story I knew my character (I named him George) could be the secondary character my main character plays off. He’d be perfect. And there was another female character in his story who could easily come into play.
This morning I figured out the first scene and the inciting incident, the thing that sets the plot in motion. And that is good enough for me. I am ready to write my next book. The short stories are pretty much my characters’ back stories. At least for now. If you’re looking for story ideas, find a location or a character or both. Then write a backstory. I think both of my short stories together were probably 20 pages. And no actual husbands were killed in the writing of those pages.