April 3rd MWA Panel, Part 2: Where Do You Get Your (Criminal) Ideas?

In this part: that favorite tool of writers, eavesdropping; logic and world-building; and how to structure a mystery novel.

Richie Narvaez: How about you, Jonathan? Where do you get your ideas?

Jonathan Maberry: Most writers have more ideas than they have time. The characters start talking to me in my head. I worked as a tv salesman, and a guy would come in in a black trenchcoat, buttoned up, sweating; he looked at the same tv each day, but he didn’t buy it. He’d just leave. My boss probably just thought he was a freak, and left it at that, but in my imagination, there was a story there. Clearly, the guy originally owned this tv, and there was something buried inside it…

When I was 14 and met Ray Bradbury, he told me: “Writing is 99% thinking about it. The rest is typing.” It’s hard to get your spouse to understand this, sometimes.

Writers are perfect eavesdroppers—people will sometimes think I’m an introvert, because I’ll be standing at a party pretty quietly, but, really, I’m watching everyone. I was at a party where a guy was four different people with each group. With co-workers, he was using all the latest buzz and lingo; with teenagers, he was the kind dad.

Richie: Is there a difference in gathering ideas for YA versus gathering them for adult fiction?

Chris Grabenstein: It’s the same process of keeping your eyes and ears open. I try to remember what it was like in sixth grade. I usually go to schools to give talks once a week, and I eavesdrop.

I have to live in New York, because if I need a character I just walk around the block.

Most middle-grade [fiction] is: “Who am I?” There’s something at age 10, 11, 12, going on in there—look at Harry Potter. “Who am I? I don’t belong with these people. I really belong at this school for wizards.”

Alison Gaylin: I have a ten-year-old daughter, and I was trying to write something she could read. What I wanted to write was—well, as my day job, I work at InTouch Weekly, and we write a lot about reality shows, and I’m fascinated by the kids in these families. They didn’t ask to be famous. What if you were growing up in a reality show? I got to read it to my daughter as I wrote it, and she loved it. She was casting it with the actors from Glee, and she was putting more pressure on me than any editor I ever had.

To engage a kid is a great means to an end.

Jonathan: YA is becoming a bigger part of my career; I have a four-part series that came about because I’ve never quite matured. We make stuff up for a living.

For YA, let’s take the same premise, a post-apocalytpic world. Some survive…and then what? You still have to do ordinary things. What would growing up in the apocalypse be like? The kid is 15, and he has to get a job. Well, how do people earn a living? What’s their culture like? That became the foundation of my story. What would entertainment be for these kids? When I was growing up, I collected and traded cards, so I created zombie cards for the series. All of my ideas are, “What, logically, would this be like?” That won the Bram Stoker award, and the first one in the series has just been optioned.

But everything in it makes sense. No matter how fantastical, in all my stuff, it has to make sense. Continue reading

April 3rd MWA Panel, Part 1: Where Do You Get Your (Criminal) Ideas?

The NYPL elevators still freak me out, but I’ll keep attending these (although I may write a will before the next one)! As usual, this was ninety minutes of interviews with great mystery novelists, and it was packed with advice. In this first part of the write-up: keystone books and formative moments for each of the three writers, each writer’s path to his/her first book, and why America dumped vampires for zombies. (I’ll post the rest later this week…provided I’m not eaten by zombies first.)

Tuesday night’s Mystery Writers of America panel, “Where Do You Get Your (Criminal) Ideas?,” featured Richie Narvaez (Moderator), Alison Gaylin, Chris Grabenstein, and Jonathan Maberry. (Marco Conelli was scheduled to be on the panel but could not attend.)

Richie: Alison, you’ve mentioned you read Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders as a kid. What was it about this book that gave you an idea and got you going?

Alison: I was in fifth grade, and I thought it was a book about the Beatles. But before long, I was hooked. There was something about crime fiction and true crime that fascinated me—something about lifting up that rock and looking under it, seeing the dark side of human nature. I was reading a lot of Judy Blume at the same time. But my friends were reading fantasy and science fiction, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and were escaping into better worlds. I liked escaping into this one, and finding that maybe it wasn’t so good as it looked.

Chris: I read Helter Skelter, too, along with The Exorcist, and a lot of Mad magazine.

Jonathan: I read comic books in order to learn how to read. (The Philadelphia school system wasn’t doing a great job of teaching me to read). There was a copy of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater (87th Precinct), slipped in with a stack of comic books.

Ed McBain for dialogue and character development, John D. MacDonald for the intellectual side of things, [MacDonald's character] Travis McGee and Quick Red Fox (Travis McGee, No. 4)—these all did a lot to inform the way I think.

Richie: Jonathan, your grandmother’s stories played a big role in your development, right?

Jonathan: She was a wonderfully creepy old lady. She was old when she had my mother—she was 81 in 1958. She believed in the larger world. She knew all the folklore of Europe; she was from Alsace-Lorraine and had roots in Scotland. When I was ten, she taught me to read tarot cards and tea leaves. So folklore, myth, legends [are key parts of my background]. When I discovered horror, it was by looking for folklore roots.

In 2000, I found notes I’d made [when I was] eleven, and started researching. I pitched Vampire Universe but had to write it under a pen name because all my previous work was on martial arts. That book ended up outselling my martial arts works (collectively) by thirty to one.

I first began to be interested in zombies when I snuck into Midway Theater at ten to see Night of the Living Dead. I went with a friend, who had nightmares after it; I stayed to see it twice. Continue reading