Where do you get your ideas?
December 20th was a big day for me. My latest novel, CIRCLE OF BONES, became available for the first time on Amazon as an independently published ebook. It has been such a long road; while I’ve been writing, the world of publishing experienced a digital revolution and our country has gone through recessions, elections, and a Wall Street occupation. Through all the five years I’ve spent writing this book, I kept having to change the story as the headlines changed.
Where do you get your ideas?
This is something authors are often asked to explain. Books, of course, aren’t one big idea. They are made up of lots of ideas woven together. That’s the hard part. The writing is the weaving.
I can tell you honestly that this book was born in July, 2006 outside the bar at the Biltmore in Phoenix, Arizona. I was attending the first Thrillerfest conference and I had scheduled a meeting with my editor. I knew that each of the three books of my series had sold fewer copies than the one before, and I wanted to jump in and beat him to saying what I knew had to be said. I was confident that I could write almost anything, and I was looking for a new direction.
“I know my Seychelle series has not sold enough copies for you to want to sign me for another contract,” I said. “So, I want to know what I can write that you will want to buy. How about a thriller?”
“Okay,” he said. “The protagonist should have a strong background in an area that gives her skills for fighting crime.”
I knew I didn’t want to write a police procedural, so I said the first thing that came into my mind. “What if she’s served in the military?”
“Yeah, that’s good.”
“How about the Marines. Maybe she was a U.S. Embassy Marine Security Guard.” I had recently been to a party at Miami Beach Marina, and I’d met a fellow who was a former MSG.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding his head.
In the next few minutes, I pulled these ideas out of my head and kept throwing them at him. After twenty minutes, I knew I was going to be writing a treasure hunt style adventure thriller about a former MSG, now a single-handed sailor, who was searching for a missing wreck.
Over the course of the next year, I got to know Riley, my Marine, and I found my wreck. As I tried to figure out what the “treasure” would be, I grew more anxious as I watched the headlines. I read about the “Surge” of troops that George Bush sent off to Iraq, and I watched the number of dead soldiers rise. I always want to write books with stories and ideas I am passionate about, so I decided that my bad guys would be the people who manufacture reasons to send our soldiers into wars (weapons of mass destruction?) so they can profit from the military-industrial complex. Now my book had grown into a treasure hunt, adventure, espionage, political thriller, and I invented Cole Thatcher, my crazy maritime archeologist who is a daft conspiracy nut.
After a year of research and outlining (and dealing with the publicity demands of the release of book four of my series), I began writing as our country went through an economic tsunami and an election that resulted in a complete change of regime. What could I do now? My story had the bad guys in charge. I figured out a fictional logical conclusion and kept on writing. I would make my story fit this new turn in history’s timeline, but then the new president upon whom many Americans had pinned their “Hope” began sending more troops overseas and his popularity began to drop. I soldiered on and kept writing about my Marine.
Somewhere in there, I began to lose confidence in that idea that I could write anything. The book was taking me too long to write and my story had grown stale as history passed me by. I had switched from a first person narrator in a regional mystery to a big political international thriller with five different POVs – only one of which was female. I had one storyline that took place in 1942 aboard a French World War II submarine, and what the hell did I know about any of this? Who was I kidding to think I could pull this off? I kept coming up with a million reasons why this book wouldn’t ever succeed. And I kept dwelling on the closely-held belief that the (literary) cream will rise to the top, and since my previous books had not been a huge success in the marketplace, it meant I wasn’t a good enough writer.
For nearly a year, as I struggled with my new job as a full-time English professor at a community college and I was buried under the paper load, I wrote almost nothing. During that year, friends of mine began to self publish their ebooks. They were finding an audience and they were selling books in quite respectable numbers. Some were even leaving their day jobs and making a decent living. Meanwhile, I couldn’t interest an agent in me or my new novel, and I saw that my sales history had made me toxic. I had a year long pity party and I was miserable.
Then one day I had an epiphany. I wasn’t really miserable because of the self pity I’d been wallowing in. I was miserable because I wasn’t writing, and I hadn’t figured out how Riley and Cole’s story was going to end. I got back to work on the book and the faster the words flowed, the merrier my outlook on life. Some folks say, “I can’t not write.” I CAN not write, but it sure turns me into a miserable, self-loathing bitch.
It took me almost an extra year to revise and edit mostly because I took off sailing on my boat. Here I was writing a somewhat political novel, and I stopped reading the newspapers or watching TV. As I was driving my boat in the waters around Washington, DC, history took an ironic turn. After over 4,000 US soldiers died in Iraq, after we spent over $700 billion in military spending alone, the same day my novel CIRCLE OF BONES went live on Amazon, our “new” commander in chief ordered the last US forces to leave Iraq.
I know that the war in Afghanistan is far from over. But my story that started in a bar in Phoenix had come full circle.