Want to Come Up With Something New? Combine!
By Tess Gerritsen
“Where do you get your ideas?” Every novelist has heard this question, and most of us can pinpoint the moment we read a news article or overheard a juicy bit of gossip and instantly saw it as an idea for a story. But too often that story idea feels anemic and not quite enough to sustain an entire novel. It might work as a starting point to launch the plot, but it’s lacking that special something that gives it truly new twist.
That’s the time to use my tried-and-true formula for creativity: 1 + 1 = 5.
Translated: When you find a way to combine two unrelated ideas in a way that hasn’t been done before, you’ll end up with something greater than the sum, something unique and fresh.
Years ago, I read about the declassification of a government document concerning the “Dugway Sheep Incident.” Decades earlier there’d been an accident involving military nerve gas in Utah. Errant winds had blown the gas into a place called Skull Valley (I’m not making this up) and overnight, thousands of sheep and countless birds were killed. For decades, the sheep deaths remained an unsolved mystery – until the incident was finally declassified.
I read that article and instantly thought of the story possibilities. What if people had been killed in that accident? What if a whole town was killed? How could that disaster be hidden from the public, and how far would the responsible parties go to escape prosecution? I played with various plot scenarios, but I couldn’t come up with a story that felt fresh, so I set the article aside in my “ideas” folder, where it sat for a few years.
And then I had a little GPS misadventure. I was trying to navigate to a bed and breakfast in upstate New York and I faithfully followed my GPS straight into a cornfield. Luckily there was a rudimentary path plowed through the cornfield, and I could see tire tracks already there, so I continued through that field and rejoined the pavement a few hundred yards later. When I arrived at the B&B, the owner asked: “Did you come through the cornfield?” Some GPS glitch had sent many a driver through that same field, which explained the earlier tire tracks.
Mine was a minor calamity, but other drivers have blindly followed their GPS’s into lakes, onto railroad tracks, even to the edge of cliffs. I began to imagine all the possible disasters (that’s what writers do, after all) and suddenly the magic story combination struck me. A GPS mishap. A group of stranded travelers stranded in a snowstorm. A town where everyone has mysteriously died. That’s how the plot of Ice Cold came together. I melded two ideas — the Dugway Sheep Incident and GPS mishaps — into a story that felt fresh and unique.
My newest novel, I KNOW A SECRET, came together in a similar way. While traveling in Italy, I found myself weary of viewing portraits of the same religious figures in art museum after art museum. After seeing twenty versions of “Madonna and Child,” how many more can you take? Then in Florence, I bought a book called How To Read A Painting and suddenly I saw symbols that I’d never noticed before. Now I knew that a woman holding an ointment pot must be Mary Magdalene, the wild-looking man dressed in shabby animals hides is John the Baptist, and the man shot with arrows is St. Sebastian. I became obsessed with decoding the meaning of every painting. Then (because I’m a crime writer) I thought: what if a killer staged murders in the same way medieval artists depicted religious scenes?
It was a start, but it wasn’t a plot yet. It needed that special “something” to make it unique – something that I took from my own life. A few years ago, my son Josh and I joined forces to make a horror feature film called “Island Zero,” about islanders off the coast of Maine who are suddenly cut off from the outside world after the ferry suddenly stops coming. Their phones are dead, and every boat sent to the mainland fails to return. I wrote the script, Josh directed, and we shot the film during a very cold March in Maine. Immersing myself in the world of horror films was a quirky, exhausting experience, and we faced all the challenges of indie filmmaking, from hiring crew and actors, dealing with bad weather, and of course the inevitable snafus. Now that “Island Zero” is on the film festival circuit, I’ve discovered that horror fans are pretty cool people, and I thought it would be fun to set a novel in their oddball world.
I combined those two themes, horror filmmaking and religious symbolism, to come up with the plot for I KNOW A SECRET. The story kicks off with a murder scene that baffles Det. Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles. The victim is a female horror film producer whose eyes have been removed post-mortem, and Jane and Maura wonder if the killer is copying scenes from the victim’s films. Other murders follow, each crime scene bizarrely staged, and the ultimate clue might be the one hiding in plain sight – on a movie screen.
If you ever find yourself not quite satisified with a story idea, consider falling back on the 1+1=5 formula. Collect and keep all your possible story ideas in a dedicated folder. Some of those ideas you may never use. But someday, when you’re stuck for a plot twist or you have only half a premise, you may find the one idea you need in that folder, the missing piece that you can plug into that equation to make your plot shine.
Tess’s new thriller “I Know a Secret” will be released August 15. then she will be embarking on an extensive nation-wide book tour. For dates and details, visit: www.tessgerritsen.com. Thanks, Tess, for sharing your 1+1=5 “formula” with all of us here. As for our Rogue visitors — leave a comment below — we’ll share it with Tess.
…Karna Small Bodman