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Building a Fire

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

The Initial Spark and Where I Get My Ideas

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Writers notoriously hate this question because none of us quite know the answer. One thing we know for sure is that there is no single place writers go to find story ideas. If there were, we’d all be hanging out at this mythical place at various times throughout the year, dipping our ladles into this well of ideas and greedily gulping from our overflowing steins. How nice it would be to visit this magical well and clink pints with John Grisham and Stephen King!

The truth, though, is that there is no single place writers go for book ideas because no single idea is enough to carry an entire novel.

Writing a 400-page novel is like building a fire—it takes many strikes against flint, and the creation of many sparks, before one catches.

The idea that a hunk of flint can be aimed at a stack of logs and struck once to produce a raging fire is the illogical thinking of many aspiring writers who have started several novels but finished none of them.

Before striking the flint, writers prepare tinder into which the sparks will fly. That tinder is made up of character sketches, ideas for setting, tone, theme, mood, and a dozen other rough ideas we have for the book before any of it is written. Without this tinder, writers can strike flint all day long and produce thousands of sparks that never catch.

Only after our tinder is in place do we furiously strike the flint, over and over again, looking for that specific spark that’s more promising than all the others. If we’re really lucky, that one spark lodges into the tinder and produces a small flame.

"Holy crap!" we say when this happens. Then we work like mad to nurture that flame, feed oxygen into it, stoke it, and add twigs when the flame is strong enough to withstand them. If all goes well, eventually we have a fire to which we can add logs. That fire, the one that burns self-sufficiently and can be made stronger by adding fresh timber, or can be tamped down by spreading the logs out, is our novel.

So where does that original spark come from?

Some Choose Darkness

For me, it’s usually a combination of headlines and true crime stories. For my latest novel, Some Choose Darkness, after I created a rough concept for my protagonist, Rory Moore—a forensic reconstructionist who solves cold case homicides by walking in the footsteps of the dead—I looked for a story that would suit her skills.

Here are a few I came across that helped provide that initial spark:

When I sat down to write my fifth novel, I was urged by my editors to write another Rory Moore thriller. So I started the process with a pre-made mound of tinder—dry and thirsty for fresh sparks.

Here are a few headlines that provided them.

The Suicide House

The Suicide House hits shelves this August, and tells the story of Rory Moore and her psychologist partner, ex-FBI profiler Lane Phillips, as they look into the grisly slaughter of two prep school students, and the popular podcast that is retelling the story.

For Book #6, I’ve been reading about some notorious true crime cases from Illinois.

Will any of these headlines provide that initial spark?

I’m not sure, but I've used this blog post as a little break from outlining Book #6 for long enough. No more procrastination. I’ve got to get back to striking that flint.

—Charlie Donlea

Feb. 26. 2020

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