Where I get my ideas, Part 479: Driving down the highway


Where do you get your ideas?

Writers are asked this question almost incessantly. It makes us groan. That’s because writers don’t think coming up with ideas is strange or difficult. Ideas are everywhere. They accost us when we blink. Finding ideas is not a challenge. Finding good ideas is a challenge. Finding shit-hot, blow-the-doors-off-your-mind ideas is the challenge. But ideas themselves? They’re in the air we breathe.

I have a couple of standard answers to this question:

1) I have a T-shirt that I picked up in Haight-Ashbury. It says: “Everything I need to know I learned from the people trapped in my basement.”

2) And there’s my website FAQ:

So where do your ideas come from?

Prophetic dreams.

No, seriously.

I start vicious rumors about my relatives, then sit back and watch the fur fly. After that, the books write themselves.

You’re starting to annoy me.

Oh, all right. Headlines. The human heart. My deepest fears. The inner voice that says: if it scares you, it’ll scare readers too.

But to be non-snarky for a minute, ideas drive past me at all hours of the day and night. I just have to keep my eyes open for them.

My daughter sent this photo. Now that I know such a thing exists, how can I not write a scene that makes use of the Grumpy’s Bail Bonds van?

The van could come to the rescue of a wrongfully arrested heroine. It could lead a parade. It could put the pedal down and arrange bond for the driver of a getaway car while the police chase is still in progress. See what I mean?

In other words: Send me crazy photos. You never know when they might end up sparking a scene in one of my books.

The Burning Mind: Phantom Instinct UK edition


Here’s something shiny and new: the cover for the upcoming British edition of Phantom Instinct. And yes, the novel has a different title for the UK. Just as translations usually have different titles (in Germany The Dirty Secrets Club is called Die Biechte — “The Confession”), different countries sometimes give a book a new title that the publisher thinks will connect the best with local readers.

As for M.G. Gardiner — British readers also love authors with initials. It’s me.

And the novel is exactly the same. From the opening shootout where Harper Flynn and Aiden Garrison fight flames and gunmen, down to the American spelling.

It will be published in the UK on 20 November.

You know, just in time for the holidays. Because what’s a better way to spend a chilly dark December in Britain, than reading a rip-roaring thriller?

Coming up: Bouchercon in Long Beach


I’ll be attending Bouchercon from November 13-16. This year it’s in Long Beach, California, which should be a great place to hang out and talk about mystery fiction for a long weekend.

Here’s my official schedule:

Kick Ass Women: Solving Crimes and Taking Names
Moderator Hank Phillippi Ryan
Laura DiSilverio
Meg Gardiner
Terri Nolan
Karen Olson
Ingrid Thoft

November 15, 2014 Saturday 11:30-12:30 Promenade A

Here’s my unofficial schedule: Talk, laugh, meet everybody I possibly can, eat, attend panels, stay up late discussing books, enjoy the sunshine and cool Pacific breeze. If you’re planning to attend, please let me know.

Interview: Where to start your book? How to twist your plot?

This summer I was interviewed about Phantom Instinct and thriller writing by Keys to the Page. Here’s the interview in full.

1. I loved all the plot twists and turns in “Phantom Instinct.” Many of your thrillers have a breathtaking storyline. Do you outline your books prior to writing them or do you just write the story first?

I outline, because otherwise I find myself miles up the creek without a paddle, a canoe, or a path out. Before I start writing, I need to know the beginning and end of a story, and several big turning points along the way. That way I can work in twists, set-ups, payoffs, foreshadowing, character development, and make sure the story holds together as a whole. The seeds of a story’s ending need to be sown at its beginning.

2. The first few pages in Phantom Instinct instantly drew me in. Obviously, you start in the middle of the action. What further advice would you give to a future writer for when they start a book?

Figure out what the chase is, and cut to it. Start your story as close to the ending as possible.

3. I love how Phantom Instinct is broken up in separate scenes. It makes for a quick read. It’s almost cinematic. Did you choose to do this for pacing purposes? Why or why not?

A thriller has to thrill. That means the story has to move forward at all times. Tightly paced scenes help propel the narrative ahead. More than that, though, scenes bring the story most vividly to life—they show instead of tell. They make readers feel they’re in the midst of immediate action. That’s why scenes can seem cinematic—because readers can see and hear them happening as they read.

4. You do an amazing job in blurring the line between a plot driven story verses a character driven story. How do you make a person care about a character when you’re writing a plot driven book?

Plot is what the characters do. In a thriller, plot is about the choices the characters make when facing deadly threats, under increasing pressure, often with time running out. To get readers to care, I follow the advice given to me years ago by mystery writer Leonard Tourney: Create sympathetic characters and put them in jeopardy.

5. When you come up with a character do they come to you or do you draw images from people you know or have known?

I draw on human nature, people I see on the street or at the airport, and my deepest imagination. It takes a while for characters to come to life—I have to write about them, let them speak and run around and get in trouble, before I know who they really are.

6. The relationships between Harper, Aiden and Piper are so vivid. How did you create such believable relationships with the characters?

I’m a woman married to a man, so I have a head start on the girl/guy thing. As for Piper, I was once a seventeen-year-old myself.

Also, I rewrite until I get things right.

7. It’s interesting you give each character a flaw to hinder their ability. You give Aiden Fregoli Syndrome and you give Harper a criminal background. Do you do this so the characters have to struggle or do you do this because it makes for an interesting story?

Both. Unless the characters face a challenge, the story will be dull. In Phantom Instinct, the characters’ struggles complicate their desperate quest to catch a killer. Harper’s juvenile record leads the cops to mistrust her. Aiden’s Fregoli Syndrome, caused by a traumatic brain injury he suffers in the opening shootout, leaves him with a kind of face blindness that means he sees enemies everywhere. For a cop, that’s a nightmare. Unless Harper and Aiden can find a way to trust each other and work together, they’re doomed.

8. The concrete details you provide really create a strong visual image. The word choices you use are fantastic. How do you choose those specific words? Is it because of your legal background?

My background as a lawyer taught me to choose the right word. The rest is practice. Endless practice, trial and error, failure, and rewriting.

9. My favorite metaphor is: “the Pacific sparkled with firework brilliance.” How do you take something that could be cliché (like the sparkling Pacific) and give it a fresh twist?

If you’ve heard a phrase before—if it’s the first description that pops into your head—it’s almost certainly a cliché. Rewrite it.

10. What is the best advice you can give to a writer?

Sit your butt down at your desk, set your fingers on the keyboard, and write. Write until you finish what you started.

Saturday: Texas Book Festival


Tomorrow I’m speaking at the Texas Book Festival. Which is a big damn deal, y’all. I am stoked to have been invited. Details:

11:00 AM — 12:00 PM Saturday
Location: Capitol Extension Room E2.014
Mark Pryor
Jay Brandon
Meg Gardiner
Chris Mattix

From the Festival program:

Thrillers boast some of the best plot twists, cliff-hangers, and spy gadgets in literature. From assassinations to international security, what’s not to like about a little trickery and espionage? Join Mark Pryor, Meg Gardiner, and Jay Brandon as they discuss their tales of uncovering blood letters, preventing terrorist attacks, and even searching for a killer no one believes exists.

That last one would be my tale, Phantom Instinct. Come on down if you’re anywhere in the Lone Star State.

Reminder: Dripping Springs Library fundraiser on Sunday

This Sunday I’ll be speaking at a fundraiser for a good cause, the Dripping Springs Community Library. The event is open to everybody who’s willing to contribute. What’s not to like about literacy, books, wine, and music?

Pouring Over Books
Fundraiser for Dripping Springs Community Library
Sunday, October 19, 2014
4 – 6 PM
Triple Creek Ranch
Dripping Springs, Texas
Featuring: Wine tasting, and a talk about writing by yours truly.
Bonus: Music by the Hill Country Ramblers.

A few photos from Italy

I have returned to Austin from Tuscany, where I taught a crime writing workshop. While I sit on the kitchen floor eating coffee beans from the bag to recover from jet lag, have a few photos from Fivizzano and Pisa. And yes, when you’re on foot in a foreign city, it helps to spot a landmark. Right there: PIZZERIA.