Questions about writing: Do I get ideas from the news?

I’m an instructor for ITW’s 2016 Online Thriller School. My lecture went live last week, on Plot. Since then, I’ve been answering questions from students. Their queries have been really interesting, so I’m going to re-post a few for everyone who wants to know more about plotting a thriller. Here’s one:

Shadow“Do you ever find ideas for your fiction in the news? If so, can you comment on how you used them to develop your plots?”

I do get ideas from the news. I read about a French company that will kidnap you off the street — for fun, and for $1000. That kickstarted my novel The Nightmare Thief, about an “urban reality game” that goes wrong when the “kidnappers” at a 21st birthday party turn out to be real kidnappers. And I read about the NSA’s huge new data center in Utah, and wondered: Is it truly possible to go off the grid in 21st century America? That grew into The Shadow Tracer, where a skip tracer has to disappear and go on the run with her five-year-old daughter.

Ideas are everywhere. Spinning them into compelling narratives takes lots of practice.

“Could you detail how you transfer a real news item into a detailed plot say for one of the two books of yours that you mentioned. Obviously, the reality of what happened in the real news item is not used verbatim and has to be re-massaged. What is the process you go through and how does your new plot develop?”

Sure. Let’s look at my novel The Shadow Tracer. I read about the NSA’s Utah facility, built to store a bajillion terabytes of data and metadata. I knew that personal, private information about all of us would probably be stored there without our knowledge. I thought about how often we hear talk of “going off the grid.” I wondered: in a high tech, highly connected western country, is that actually possible?

That “what if” got me brainstorming. Suppose somebody wanted to go off the grid. Who? Why? I decided that the person who wanted to disappear would be the heroine in the novel. So I had to give her a compelling reason to vanish. Bad guys were after her, obviously. Who were they? How far would they go to find her?

From there, I decided that the heroine, Sarah Keller, needed to have serious skills. That’s why I made her a skip tracer. She chases down fugitives for a living. She learned how to do this job because she wanted to know how to disappear if the time ever came.

This led me to research how to disappear. Which then led to writing scenes where Sarah plays cat-and-mouse with people she’s tracking. Those scenes reveal a secret world, which is fun to read about.

But the surveillance state, and skip tracing tricks, form only the skin and bones of the story. They’re the background. I had to come up with a compelling reason for Sarah to flee from the life she has carefully constructed. The most compelling reason I could create was: She goes on the run to protect her five-year-old daughter.

This complicates the story — which is good. It’s one thing for a single adult to skip out on her life. It’s harder for a mother with a young child. They’re easily identified as a duo. And keeping a child out of danger limits the places Sarah can go and the actions she can take.

Then I had to figure out: Who wants this little girl, and why? Well — it’s her father’s family. They want to bring her home to the clan. And they’re an evil clan, twisted by religion and their methamphetamine business.

Then: What if the FBI has been trying to bring down the clan, and sees Sarah and little Zoe as the perfect bait? Now Sarah has two sets of antagonists.

Then: Does Sarah have allies? Who can she call on — while racing across the Southwest — to help her? Well, how about somebody who also deals with fugitive apprehension: a U.S. Marshal?

Then: How did she meet the marshal? Under what set of stressful circumstances? What isn’t Sarah telling anybody? What are her secrets?

The story was spun from all these ideas.

A news item can spark a novel, but I don’t ever try stick to the facts of the item. It’s ONLY a spark. It’s the ignition source. I have to pour my own gasoline on the fire, and see what burns.

(If you’re interested in next year’s online course, you can check it out via International Thriller Writers.)

Creating dread and portent with a single image: Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul.jpg

If you know me, you know I injured myself while watching Breaking Bad in a frenzy of suspense and anxiety. I love that show. I think it’s the best television series of all time. Even though it put me in the ER.

Now I’m watching Better Call Saul, the prequel centered on the sleazy, endearing attorney from Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman. Like BB, this show is a character study. It’s sharp and blazingly funny and occasionally heartbreaking. It has built its own world, which only occasionally crosses paths with characters from BB. So when it does, it jolts us. As in the image above.

Ex-cop Mike Ehrmentraut is being drawn into Albuquerque’s criminal underworld by doing occasional protection jobs for low level criminals. But he’s gotten in deep, and some very bad guys are putting pressure on him. He has resisted, but in this scene, he sees how badly he’s outflanked. He’s watching over his little granddaughter as she splashes in the pool. Then he looks up and sees two tiny figures on a distant rooftop.

Watching at home, all the hairs stood up on my head. Mike has never seen these two before, but the audience has. They’re the Cousins, hitmen who’ll shoot and kill twenty migrant workers in the back of a truck with the same dismissive ease with which they’d discard a gum wrapper. With their shaved heads, richly colored suits, their cowboy boots with silver skulls on the toes, they personify casual, hungry evil. We first see them in Breaking Bad, crawling on their bellies across a Mexican desert to the shrine of some dark, twisted saint, where they pray for divine help to kill Heisenberg.

When they appear — tiny, motionless, like toy plastic Army Men set on the roof, dread falls heavily over the scene. In the bright sunlight, positioned before the spire of Albuquerque’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, they’re like demons summoned from the Beyond.

That’s because this scene is an example of Dramatic Irony. In literary terms, dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows events before they happen. We know what awaits all these characters, years in the future. They don’t. Because of that, we watch — riveted — not because we’re curious about what’s going to happen, but in dread of the disaster that lies ahead, and with compassion for somebody who’s heading for a cliff.

The writers handle this brilliantly. This scene — minimalist and foreboding — weaves together plot threads that go back, and forward, for years. It amplifies and deepens them. If any of us can approach this level of impact with our own writing, we’ll be lucky.

When this image appeared on my TV screen, I shouted, “Oh, my God.” But this time I didn’t wave my hands wildly and stab myself in the eye. I know what’s coming. I can wait.

You know what to do


It’s spring, and in the Texas Hill Country, the bluebonnets are in bloom.

It’s a good day to remember to stop and smell the flowers.

Blast from the past: Fictophobia

Today I read a think-piece about whether writing fiction is “indulgent.” This question surfaces now and again. My answer is always: No. Writing fiction puts food on my family’s table. It will never be indulgent.

Sadly, some people also think reading fiction is indulgent. I’ve met them. I wrote about this a few years ago. Today seems like a good day to revisit that blog post. From January 21, 2007, here you go:

Fictophobia: Baby, don’t fear the reader.

Call me naive. It wasn’t until my first novel was published that I discovered some people are fictophobes. They disdain fiction. Granted, I knew that some folks hate romance novels, or loathe science fiction, just as I know that my husband would jam knitting needles into his ears before he’d listen to Snoop Dog. I understood this as a matter of taste and personality. And yes, I made up the word “fictophobia,” just now. The point is, I’ve been taken aback at the number of people who refuse point-blank to read novels.

I found this out when signing books at Methven’s, my local bookshop. A customer picked up China Lake, read the blurb on the jacket, and set it down. “Oh, it’s fiction. I can’t read that.”

I realized what she meant, but still said, “How awful. Is there anything they can do to help you?”

She screwed her face into a frown and wandered away. Eccentrics, I thought.

Turns out she was much less eccentric than I imagined. Since then I’ve had family and friends tell me they only read self-help books, or military history, or legal journals. Hold up a novel and they shy back like Nosferatu from a sunbeam. They don’t read fiction, no, never. The innuendo is in their tone: they’re accomplished people who can’t afford to waste their valuable time. If they read, it will be to improve themselves. They seek instruction, betterment, increased productivity.

They’re so far removed from the world of fiction that they know almost nothing about it. Excuse me, someone asked me recently, but who is Stephen King?

Wanna talk horror? That’s horror.

Blame my upbringing. I grew up around English professors. I thought all homes heaved with literature – that every room had books in it, including the garage. Hell, my dad’s old Datsun could have doubled for the library bookmobile.

But I’ve heard from enough fictophobes that I’ve come to think people misunderstand what fiction means. So I was delighted to run across this quotation today:

“[The novel] is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathise with other lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to ‘feel with’ others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative … If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.”

– Karen Armstrong, “A Short History of Myth.”

I wouldn’t dare call myself an artist or a mythmaker. But as a storyteller, I say: thanks for that. I couldn’t have come close to explaining it so well.

Coming up: Pflugerville Book Festival

2016-04-16 Pf Book Festival Poster

April 16-17 I’ll be taking part in the Pflugerville Book Festival. It’s sponsored by KAZI FM 88.7 and will feature discussions on mystery and diversity, science fiction and fantasy, young adult fiction, and more. And it’s free!

If you’re near Austin or Pflugerville, come on down.

Pflugerville Book Festival
April 16-17, 2016
1:00 PM - 6:00 PM
Pflugerville Library
1008 W. Pfluger St.
Pflugerville, TX 78660
Contact: (512) 990-6375

Writing takes work. That should inspire you!

Writing a novel is a process. According to my college writing teacher, Ron Hansen, it’s “a ramshackle process.”

chinalake2That means it takes brainstorming, spitballing, dreaming up characters, dreaming up plots, throwing your characters into a tornado (emotional or actual), pounding out their story, revising that story, cutting some of those characters and plot strands, killing thousands of needless words, and rewriting until your fingers and brain ache.

It’s work, and I never want to hide that. Because it can be glorious work. It’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

But a friend recently asked whether hearing that the process can be tough, and that first drafts are usually bad, discourages people from getting serious about writing.

I damn well hope not.

I’m telling you this to let you know that if you’re struggling with any of these aspects of the writing process, you’re normal. And you’re doing it right. Putting in the work is the way great books get written.

If you’re a new or aspiring writer, this should inspire you.


If your first draft seems awful: That’s the way writing works.

If your rough draft’s dialogue sounds dull or stilted: Yeah, almost everybody’s does.

If the early version of your plot has a hole big enough to wreck a Mack truck: Welcome to the club.

If you have to stick your first novel in a file cabinet because it doesn’t hold together: Been there. Learned a hell of a lot. Started the next novel at a much higher level because of it.

I tell people that writing is work because it is. And because I wish that when I when I got up the nerve to write CHAPTER 1, somebody had told me I was going to stumble, and run into walls, and want to beat my head against the desk… and that this would be okay. That everybody did these things. And that wonderful books were born of this process.

I was desperate to write. I was never not going to write. From the time I was a kid, the desire to write was a fire in my bones. Hearing that learning to write well takes real time and effort would have eased my doubts and fears. It would have bolstered me for the journey.

So dig in. When you see your debut novel on bookshelves, the work will all be worth it.


Ask Me Anything: favorite books, characters, mythological creature?

I’ll finish up this round of Ask Me Anything with this question from Cathie. Although now that I’m posting it, I detect multiple queries…

Howdy Meg!

I always wonder about writers and reading, so I’m curious…
Do you enjoy reading as much as you do writing? (Obviously those two things are very related but also very separate). Care to share some favorite books or authors?

If you do also enjoy reading, what do you read the most – fiction, non-fiction? What fiction genres do you read most often?

Do you have a favorite character from your novels?

And what’s your favorite mythological creature? (Random, I know!)

Also, thank you for giving me many hours of entertainment! I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by you, which is almost all your novels so far!

Thanks, Meg!

Let me take this one question at a time.

Do you enjoy reading as much as you do writing?

Damn skippy.

Care to share some favorite books or authors?

This question can get me into trouble because (1) If I start listing favorite books and authors, I will inevitably leave some out, and then I’ll feel wracked with Catholic guilt, and (2) If I start listing favorite books and authors, I’ll never stop.

That said: Stephen King, Sue Grafton, Don DeLillo, Lee Child, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Jane Austen, Patricia Highsmith, Carl Hiaasen, Jon Krakauer…

See what I mean?

What do you read the most – fiction, non-fiction?


What fiction genres do you read most often?

Thrillers. And science fiction.

Do you have a favorite character from your novels?

Evan Delaney. There, I said it.

No, wait! Jo Beckett. 100%. Also: Gabe Quintana.

Actually, I’m not being honest. It’s Jesse Blackburn.

ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT. I’ll tell you the real truth. Mr. Peebles.

(Zoe Keller.)

And what’s your favorite mythological creature?

The raptor from Jurassic Park. The big one. “Clever girl.”

My thanks to everybody for the excellent questions.