Flashback: Where Do Ideas Come From

From Crimespree 21

Where the Ideas Come From
By Gabriel Cohen

Whenever I attend an author talk, the audience always seems fascinated by the process of writing. Do you write every day? they ask. How many hours? Perhaps the most popular question, though, is Where do you get your ideas?
Every act of writing begins with a snowy field, the enormously vague white space of a blank page. Into that field a writer can put anything: drop a dead body there, and you may be starting a mystery; drop an unhappy family there and you may be sledding off into a Russian tragedy. So how do writers get those initial ideas?
Sometimes, they just seem to drop out of the sky. More accurately, they bubble out of the writer’s Unconscious. Take Paul Scott, for example. Unbidden, an image came to him of a half-dressed woman running across an Indian garden late at night. Now, he could have just dismissed this as some useless random product of an overactive imagination (or attributed it, as Scrooge does the apparition of a ghost in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, to the effects on his digestion of “a bit of underdone potato.”) The vision stuck with Scott, though; it puzzled him, it troubled him, and—most importantly—it compelled him to explore it. It presented mysteries. Why was this woman half undressed? Who was she running from? What was she running toward? That image continued to expand, and provided the germ for the four novels of Scott’s Raj Quartet.
My latest book, THE GRAVING DOCK, also began with a perplexing vision. I had been spending time near Brooklyn’s waterfront—New York, after all, is a city surrounded by water—and one day I imagined a small, homemade wooden coffin drifting to shore. It contained the curiously peaceful-looking body of a boy.
Where did that image come from? I have no idea. The key was that it led me toward a world I wanted to explore—New York Harbor— and that I found it provocative enough to make me want to spend a year or two solving its accompanying mysteries. Who was the boy? Was this a murder, or something less harsh? Who built the box and set it in the water? Where did it drift from?
Before I ever touched a keyboard, I was beginning to write: an image was turning into a story.

* * *

The actual writing day doesn’t begin with ideas for a whole book; it starts with ideas for a specific scene. Where do those come from?
Some arise out of a simple progression of logic. If I start a book with a drifting coffin, then I’m going to need a scene where the box is discovered, a scene introducing my detective, and scenes that show him trying to figure out what might have happened. I might need scenes that show him wasting his time on red herrings.
But what about the specific ideas within each scene?
I might start with Unconscious-gifted images or situations, but I like to develop them by doing everything I can to give them plausibility. That requires research. Some talented writers don’t bother with such background work, but I write police procedurals, and I’m always glad when a real cop says that I got the details right. I research forensics and other topics. I talk to cops, I read cop blogs, I read about cops and what they do. When a Lieutenant Commander of the Brooklyn North Homicide Squad wrote a Graving Dock blurb saying that “You will be treated to a behind-the-scenes look at a world known only to the New York detective,” I was as thrilled as if I had won a Pulitzer Prize. (Well, almost as thrilled…)
I love to actually visit the settings in my books; I think that provides a richness of detail that extends beyond the limits of my imagination. For example, one time I was riding my bike along the Brooklyn waterfront and I stopped to check out a fishing pier. I overheard two young fishermen who had just caught a flounder. They had probably eaten frozen fish sticks before, but they had never seen the live fish in its whole state, with both eyes on the same side of its flat body. They were flabbergasted, convinced that they had just caught a mutation, perhaps a fish that had grown up near a nuclear power plant. I borrowed their dialogue, and put them in the first scene of The Graving Dock—where they became the first witnesses of the floating coffin.
A second kind of research explores technical issues. Once I had my image of the boy in the drifting coffin, I set out to investigate the real-life aspects of the puzzle. Does the New York Police Department deal with crimes involving the harbor? What’s the job of a Harbor Unit cop like? How do the tides and currents work? Would small boats still be found in the harbor in January? What’s the story behind Governors Island, the mysterious, sequestered isle that sits in the middle of the harbor, just a stone’s throw from the Brooklyn and Manhattan shores?
I’m not saying that such research is absolutely necessary. And I have certainly had times when it actually got in the way of my writing process. It’s all too easy to noodle away writing afternoons by chasing obscure, not-very-relevant bits of information all over the Internet. And it’s easy to come up with masses of information that can sit in the middle of a fictional scene like cold, undigested lumps of potato.
But I love reading about worlds I don’t know, finding out how things work, discovering what other people’s jobs are like—like what it’s like to be an NYPD scuba diver searching for a gun at the bottom of New York Harbor. Such material can add a lot of texture to a book.

* * *

Okay, now that I’ve got a sense of where the overall story is going, what the settings are really like, and what the factual details might be, do I sit down and start writing?
Actually, no—I tend to go back to the well of the Unconscious. Believe it or not, I have four main ways of accessing this mysterious source: going for a run, taking a shower, washing dishes, and drifting off to sleep. (Luckily, those are all things that I do as part of my normal routine.)
I’m looking to accumulate four or five good specific details that I can build into a scene. Somehow, those details seem to emerge better when I’m not consciously trying to come up with them. My Unconscious seems to know that they’re needed, and it often works on discovering them while my body is engaged in some basic, uncomplicated activity.
Let me give you an example. While thinking about writing this article, I decided—quite consciously—that I ought to explain how I come up with ideas for scenes. As I was drifting off to sleep last night, the idea floated up that there’s something about this process akin (humbly) to writing a symphony: a sense of balance and proportion and rhythm is required. If I have just written a very tense, action-filled scene, I might want to follow it with a quiet, more contemplative scene. If I just wrote a scene about my detective’s personal life, he should probably get back to work in the next one.
I scribbled this symphony notion down on an index card—along with several others—and went to sleep. When I woke up today, I didn’t have to sit down and face a snowy blank page; I had a little stack of landmarks that I could ski toward as I began to write.
Now that I’m writing what will be my fifth book, I have some confidence that if I keep on traveling, through all of the big ideas and all the little ones, all the technical research and all those place visits, all the puzzling images and all the explorations of what they mean, eventually I’ll end up with a novel. It’s a lot of work, but I love the process, turning ideas into words.

Gabriel Cohen is the author of THE GRAVING DOCK, just released by St. Martin’s Minotaur; the Edgar-nominated first book in that series, Red Hook; and Boombox. His next book, coming in May from Da Capo Press, is a nonfiction book titled STORMS CAN’T HURT THE SKY: A BUDDHIST PATH THROUGH DIVORCE. He is currently at work on a third mystery featuring Brooklyn South Homicide detective Jack Leightner.