Now that I write fiction, I get e-mails and letters from folks wondering where the ideas come from. This is a rather interesting situation for me, since I've spent the past twenty-some years writing about real crime cases. You see, when you write true crime, you don't make up any of the details, the characters. The plots are constructed not by me but those involved, from the killers to the investigators who solve the cases.
Fiction, of course, is a whole new set of circumstances. To research a true crime book, I sit in a courtroom listening to testimony and then follow up with often more than one hundred interviews, before I even sit down to write. With fiction, I settle in at my computer, hands poised over the keyboard, stare at the blank screen, a horrible, scary sight, and think: Okay. This is it. Start writing.
Ah, but where to begin?
You know, we all have stories to draw on, tales to tell, based on our experiences. But then again, I'm living a rather strange life, so maybe I have more unusual ones than most folks? You be the judge.
For example, let's look at my second novel, Blood Lines, which just hit bookstores this past week. It's the second in a series about a Texas Ranger/profiler named Sarah Armstrong. In the first book, Singularity, Sarah hunted a serial killer. This time around, in Blood Lines, there are two cases for Sarah to solve: the first, a celebrity is being stalked; the second, did oil-exec Billie Cox really commit suicide? The basis of both plots stem, at least partly, from my own life.
The celebrity plot has its roots on an afternoon shopping trip. Along with writing about crime, I spent more than twenty years writing feature articles for national magazines. Some of that time, I hobnobbed with celebrities, and one rather unusual interview was with Roseanne Barr. First off: she is as funny in person as on TV. She's irreverent and in-your-face, not suffering fools well. And she's unpredictable. The interview took place in her Los Angeles-area home, a big English Tudor with security gates. After we talked, just out of curiosity, I asked, "So, what's it like being a television star? Can you do normal things, like taking an afternoon walk?"
"Sure," Roseanne said. "Let's go." Fifteen minutes later, we were out her front door and trekking through the neighborhood. All went well, until Roseanne decided to stop at a small local strip center, maybe half a mile down the road from the house, to drop in at the bookstore. We arrived, looked through an upscale dress shop, then hit the bookstore, where Roseanne had a book on order, a true crime book on a Mormon murder. Turns out Roseanne is a true crime fan, and growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, hey, why not a book on a Mormon murder?
After the bookstore, we walked through the courtyard area. It was there that Roseanne was spotted. Someone screamed her name and ran toward her, and in less than a minute, we were surrounded by a crowd that grew larger with each passing second. They pushed in, and we could barely move. I was terrified, but Roseanne just whispered, "Kathryn, head down. We're walking." We did, snaking our way through the crush. And we kept walking, fast, while some followed us, throwing their business cards and screaming Roseanne's name.
That afternoon was a vivid lesson in the downside of being a celebrity. On the way back to the house, Roseanne remarked that life isn't always what one expects, and that fame doesn't always open as many doors as it closes. From that experience came the idea for Cassidy Collins, the superstar teen in my new book, who's being stalked by a cunning adversary who calls himself Argus.
Blood Lines' second plot line, the suicide, is also a joint product of imagination and experience.
About fifteen years ago, a woman died a block and a half from my house. An attractive and successful woman, she was found on her bed with a gunshot wound to the forehead. The autopsy report read suicide, but few in my neighborhood agreed. Most whispered of an unfaithful husband who quickly married his mistress and a large life-insurance policy. I walked by that house daily for many years, a beautiful home, meticulously cared for, and wondered who pulled the trigger.
So, perhaps I'm odd, but I think probably not. Whether it's a newspaper article that sparks an idea or something an author sees on the street, my bet is most fiction writers begin by drawing from the outside world and then let their imaginations take over to form their characters and plots. Hope you enjoy Blood Lines. It sure was fun to write.
P.S. For those of you in the Houston area, mark your calendars. My first book signing for Blood Lines will be at Murder by the Book on Wednesday, August 26th, 6:30 p.m. I'd love to meet you.