Some writers get their ideas or inspirations from life experiences. Everyone writes differently, but I think mine come more from my imagination. So far, that’s been what has worked for me. I start out a simple one-line concept or situation that sets the tone and the main hook. In screenplays, they call these one-liners ‘log lines.’ As with the others, the log line needs to be incongruous, immediate, and jarring, like, “Snakes on a plane.” That is one of the very best. Screenwriters and producers use them to sell a story, but it is equally useful to help a writer to keep his story focused. Call it a concept, premise, or log line, but all successful novels are based on a strong one; and no amount of writing or re-writing can make up for a weak one.
“A guy opens the newspaper one morning and sees his own obituary.” That is the one-liner that came to me one day and evolved into The Undertaker, my new E-Pub novel. Once you have that down, you begin asking questions and fleshing it out. How did that happen? Was it a mistake? If our guy is alive, then who is dead? All the details in the obituary are spot on; it is him! Worse, there is a companion obituary for his wife! Who is doing this? And why? I then start filling in a basic plot – what’s going to happen to who, and where is it going to end. Someone with a penchant for sharp scalpels and embalming tables is planting bodies under other people’s names. That adds a spooky, terror twist that takes the reader from a funeral home in Ohio, bumper-tag on the Dan Ryan, snipers in New York’s Washington Square, a bloody Back Bay townhouse, sleazy lawyers, corrupt County sheriffs, mafia hit men, the FBI, an army of Chicago cops, and the upper berth of an Amtrak train.
The novel I am currently working on begins with another one-liner, “A guy’s in the window seat of an air liner coming in to land at O’Hare. He looks down, and sees a man strangling a woman on a roof top as it flashes by below.” Who are they? What building was that? Why would he kill her? What’s at stake? A crime of passion? Was he hiding something, or trying to shut her up? Next, who is our guy in the airplane? Who are his friends and enemies? What is going on in his life that this situation will make even worse? I keep expanding those threads until they form a plot, and simultaneously keep growing those stick figures into unique, well-rounded characters. In the end, they are what drives the story and make it logical and inevitable.
My most successful novel, Thursday at Noon, is a period-piece spy novel set in Egypt in 1962. The concept is, “A burned-out CIA agent in Cairo stumbles home one night and finds dead body and a severed head sitting on his rear stoop.” Obviously, who is the dead guy, why is he there, and who put him there? What is our protagonist going to do about it? I then populate the story with characters that are mostly out to stop him, to frustrate him, to create hurdles, or to kill him. These include a top Egyptian police detective, the radical head of the Moslem Brotherhood, and his own Embassy and CIA people.
As they say, you stir vigorously and put in a 450-degree oven for 12-24 months, and hopefully you have a fully baked novel. To see more about my books, take a look at my web site, http://billbrownwritesnovels.wordpress.com/