The Last Word : Wherefore art thou, O muse?
After 14 months of writing, revising, editing, pitching, blurbing and marketing plans, all I have left to do is make corrections in the galley proofs that are imminently to arrive, and wait till next winter when my publisher will - finally - bring out "One Good Dog."
Ah, let me just sit back and relax. Put my feet up, read, maybe find some hobby to occupy my spare time. Not so fast. I open an email from my beloved agent and there it is, the first indication, like the tender buds of spring that are shyly making their way to full bloom, the question: What do you have in mind for your next book? Next? You mean I have to do this again? Isn't this one going to be so successful that I need never write again? Guess not.
So I cast about, sniffing for potential ideas like a hound dog on hot pavement. I read the papers, gleaning them for inspiration. Maybe a story about something that's topical in the Styles section; for example, some witty tale about women whose entire raison d'etre is to spend their stock broker husbands' money who are suddenly looking for bargains at Target, and may have to send their precious infants to, gasp, public school. Nope, been done, and not my genre. Pirates on the open sea? Tried that, 18th century style, no go. Not my genre. Sugar Babies offering themselves via an online service to Sugar Daddies. Maybe. Maybe not.
I listen to music. Pop radio, country western, Gaelic ballads. One song in particular offers the shade of an idea, a little ballad of lost dreams rekindled. Is it enough to launch 350 pages of passionate prose? Can the manufactured emotion of a C minor chord be sustained throughout a whole book? Is there enough story?
What am I looking for? Simple, the bolt out of the blue that screams: this is your subject, these are your characters. Pick me! Pick me! Each time I have arrived at a story from a different route. A fairy tale, a whimsical notion, a forgotten event in history. Each time a half-formed notion has captivated me until the whole story is told. As a sculptor takes away all the marble that doesn't look like a faun, I tap away at the words that will form a story from the raw clay of a vague idea.
Unlike my brethren in the thriller genre, my stories are all different in that they don't have a prescribed structure. Genre writers follow a format, a rough expectation of what their characters will have to encounter, do, say, react to and suffer from. Romance writers must, at the very least in order to remain romance writers (and I speak of Barbara Cartland, not Sir Walter Scott), have a pretty heroine, a handsome hero, a sometimes equally handsome antagonist, and something that said heroine must overcome or be rescued from or have her eyes opened about. Okay, maybe Sir Walter Scott too. In thrillers, and I've only just begun reading them on a regular basis, there must be the red herring. I love the red herring, a term that comes from the arcane practice of dragging a red, or smoked, herring across a trail to distract hunting dogs off the scent of fox or badger, presumably to teach them the difference. This is the character that seems to have all the right motives, opportunities, grievances to have been the evildoer. But, as it so often turns out, the real villain has been such a secondary character, that his or her sudden exposure as either 1) the bad guy or, 2) the good guy, shocks the reader. Like the stable boy who stands around with a pitchfork for six-eighths of the book and then, while grappling with the hero, confesses that he's the mastermind behind the jewel heist. Well, you get my drift.