Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever

By Frank Cook

Invariably when I go to writer conferences like the New England Crime Bake (Nov. 13-15 in Dedham, MA, with Sue Grafton as this year's guest of honor) one of the most frequently asked questions is “where do you get your ideas?”

And invariably the author’s answer almost always has something to do with some soaring experience or the depth of their soul. Some build their stories around a character they conjure, others fashion them after a recent event.

Those aren’t the answers I’m looking for. When I ask, “Where do you get your ideas,” I literally mean “where are you when you get your ideas?” Are you at the grocery store? In the shower? At the gym?

Whenever I write fiction, I start with the scene. I don’t start with “the character” or “the event.” I start with the surroundings.

The idea for my short story “Liberty” (Seasmoke anthology, Level Best Books) came to me while I walked my dog around my neighborhood. The triggering thoughts were, “What kind of crime could be committed here?” “If a criminal was doing exactly what I’m doing, what kind of crime would he commit?”

Since then, I’ve found that approach has worked time and again. After attending a few author readings at my favorite book store (RiverRun in Portsmouth), I started mulling, “what kind of crime could be committed here?” That question led to “The Greatest Criminal Mind Ever” (recently selected for "Quarry: Crime Stories by New England Writers" being published in November).

Likewise, a spring morning and the annual ritual of cleaning out the basement led to frequent trips to the local recycling center. Those trips ultimately led to the story, “The dump at the Dump.”

My wife Pat Remick’s award-winning story “Mercy 101” (Still Waters anthology, Level Best Books), came from her commute on Highway 101 from Portsmouth to the state capital in Concord.

Again, first came the scene. Second, came the crime. After that, it’s matter populating the plot with the right characters.

The point here is that story ideas need not come from some grand place or exotic situation. Entertaining ideas come from the most mundane places. And let’s face it, we’ve all considered writing, “Murder at the DMV.”

But, awkwardly transitioning back to where I started, one of the great things about going to Crime Bake is listening to other authors talk about where they get their ideas and, of course, listening to experts suggest how to carry them out.

I have listened to Jeremiah Healy discuss the best way to stab people without getting blood on yourself, and I have learned as Chuck Hogan (Prince of Thieves) taught me how to rob banks. And I have been relieved to hear poison lady Luci Zahray assure, “Don’t worry, coroners almost never test for these things.”

It occurred to me then that the greatest criminal minds in New England aren’t in prison. They’re at Crime Bake.

It also occurred to me that the local SWAT team probably had the building surrounded.

1 comment:

Candy said...

Very clever. So what criminal idea would come to someone while grocery shopping? Who could I kill with this can of yams? Could I commit assault with a rump roast and then slow-cook it with some nice onions and potatoes for dinner? The possibilities seem endless....