The idea for a novel or a character can come from anywhere – a conversation, a line of poetry, a news story or even a piece of junk mail. An idea, a spark, maybe. But really it’s more like a germ, something that gets into your system and takes hold, doesn’t go away. It stays, coughs up when you least expect it, onto the page. Sometimes the germ travels through your blood for years until finally the symptoms present themselves.
I caught the germ for THE RED HUNTER more than fifteen years ago. Actually… it’s closer to twenty, though that seems an embarrassingly long time to have an idea, or the shade of an idea. I was in my late twenties, in a dark place, when I discovered the martial arts. I had just come through a brutal break up, my dreams of writing lay fallow. I was disconnected from myself in almost every way. The martial arts changed me, introducing me to a new version of myself, someone stronger than I thought I could ever be. That place and moment in my life was the germ for THE RED HUNTER, and for one if its main characters, Zoey Drake: a victim turned fighter, someone looking for revenge.
Many, many years later, my husband and I gutted and renovated our 1968 home. Let’s be clear: we hired someone to do this work. (We’re not crazy!) But we lived in the house while it was under reconstruction. (Okay, we’re a little crazy.) It was cathartic to watch our home, a place we’d loved for more than a decade, torn down to the studs, and recreated as something new and uniquely ours. But it was also stressful, unpredictable, and incredibly challenging. It was not an experience I planned to write about; rather one I swore I wouldn’t repeat and tried to forget. But then, three years later, as I started on THE RED HUNTER, another major voice in the book, Claudia Bishop, emerges. Guess what? She’s renovating a ramshackle old farm house. And she’s blogging about it, a way of moving forward from the trauma of her past, and recreating her future. Another germ, an intense experience that hung on, maybe waiting until my resistance was low.
Sometimes ideas are like food poisoning, coming on strong and undeniably. The germ for BEAUTIFUL LIES came from a piece of junk mail, and I was writing that story within hours. But more often ideas lay dormant, waiting for their rightful place in my fictional world. I was speaking on stage with some other authors, and I was describing the inspiration for a character named Emily in HEARTBROKEN. I was pregnant and had an encounter with a troubled woman in a grocery store, which almost led to a car accident. “But your daughter is five,” one of the authors, a friend of mine, said. It took me by surprise; it was true. It took nearly six years for Emily to find her way onto the page. The idea for HEARTBROKEN came from a family trip to an island that same year, but the germ for Emily took hold long before.
The desire to write is a congenital condition (for more on this read: http://lisaunger.com/2008/03/disease/), and I mean this in the best possible way. Writers are born, not made. Likewise, ideas, if they find the right conditions, can take hold and move through your blood. Maybe they present themselves quickly, maybe they linger waiting for their opportunity to flourish. I’m not looking for a cure.