Tag Archives: ice on the bay

An “Ice on the Bay” Milestone

A couple of days ago, I completed the first draft of Ice on the Bay, my third Howard County mystery. Its completion coincides with another change in my life: a job change. For the past 10 months I’ve been making a two hour commute by car, train, light rail, and foot from my home in Baltimore County to northern Virginia. Today is my last day there. On Monday, I assume a new position much closer to home.

Both changes impact my writing. The completion of a first draft is a time to sit back, relax, and recharge. Not that I don’t continue writing. I currently have two other projects in the works: my SF/humor novel Space Operatic, which is about two thirds complete, and the rewrite of a manuscript my father left behind. But now I need to get some distance from Ice on the Bay, so that I can evaluate and revise it.

The job change means I won’t have writing time on board the commuter train anymore. Much of Ice on the Bay was written while riding the rails. I won’t know how my writing life will be arranged until I see what the new position is like in terms of schedule, commute, and work load. In previous positions, I often wrote on my lunch break. That may or may not be possible this time.

Either way, change provides new inputs for writing: new people, new experiences, new settings. All parts of life are interconnected, even if only in subtle ways, and any of it could be fodder for the next story.


Assaulted By Ideas

Based on anecdotal evidence, one of the most common questions asked of fiction writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve never been asked this. I may have been asked a time or two where a specific idea came from, but not ideas generally. But let me answer anyway.

Generally speaking, ideas sneak up and attack without warning. Later, I may not remember in any detail how a given idea arose. Nevertheless, they originate in three ways.

First, they fall out of the environment. A news report, an observation, or an experience might plant the seeds of a scene or story or novel. My third Howard County mystery, Ice on the Bay, arose as I drove over the Francis Scott Key Bridge one January day and discovered the Patapsco River frozen over, a first in the 20 years I’d lived in the Baltimore region. Another idea came to me just yesterday while reading about this weekend’s tragic flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland. It’s possible that incident will work its way into a future Howard County mystery.

Second, other people occasionally offer ideas. My wife suggested one to me many years ago involving the startling discovery of a murder victim in an unusual place. I haven’t used that one yet, but I expect it to appear in a future Howard County mystery. Writers also say they steal ideas from each other, although “steal” is not the proper term. It’s cross-pollination, not theft. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only their implementation in words or images. That flooding I mentioned above? That’s only half of the idea. James Lee Burke’s novel The Tin Roof Blowdown takes place in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep a Secret is set in the midst of tropical storm Irene, which struck Vermont.  I’ve read both. That’s why the weekend news clicked as a potential story element. But I’ll be telling my story, not Burke’s or Mayor’s.

Finally, ideas just pop into my head without any clear connection to anything. Often these are story-shapers rather than story-makers. In the midst of writing a scene, I’ll throw in some spur-of-the-moment thought to add interest. Sometimes that’s all it turns out to be. Sometimes I remove it later, because it doesn’t work out. Sometimes it proves significant. In a fantasy novel I wrote in the late 1990’s, the heroine finds herself wondering about her vanished family. Until that moment, I hadn’t given any thought to her family, much less known that they had vanished! Later, they proved important to the plot.

Bottom line: when all is well, ideas tend to crawl out of the woodwork. And when they don’t? Well, then it’s time to do something else for awhile. Sometimes the best way to attract ideas is to avoid looking for them. They don’t like to be ignored, and sooner or later they’ll let some passing writer know it.