I recently attended a book festival and experienced a first. A local English teacher had given her class an assignment to talk to the authors then write an essay about what they learned. I’ve had writer wannabe’s pump me for tips before, but these students asked questions that went beyond “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” and “What’s your favorite color?” One of them asked something that had me momentarily fumbling for a good response – “How do you begin writing a story?”
My mind instantly flashed back to the first Creative Writing class I took in high school. The opening line in the textbook still haunts me - “Does the blank page hold terror for you?” Some days the answer is a resounding “Hell, yes!”
This question made me think about how I actually do it. I may read some item in the news or hear a story that sounds interesting, and if I’m sufficiently intrigued I’ll ask myself a question – “What would happen if…?” There’s an anecdote about the creation of the 60’s sitcom Get Smart. When writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry made the pitch, they asked, “What if James Bond and Inspector Clouseau had a child together?” Thus was born bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart.
I once used the “What would happen if…?” tactic to concoct an entire story. Several years ago I had planned a vacation/business trip to Florida with my sig other, but shortly before we were to leave she became unavailable. This became the basis for Mistletoe and Palm Trees, where two strangers end up unexpectedly alone in The Florida Keys at Christmastime. I asked myself “What if this guy went on a planned vacation alone because he’d just broken up with his girlfriend, and he meets a woman who recently split from her fiancé?”
I like to use the “What if” thing when I’m putting together a mystery plot, usually to throw the reader a curve. If it looks as though the finger is pointing toward an obvious conclusion, I’ll think “What if this happened instead?” It keeps things interesting when you’re approaching the “Aha!” moment. I’m proud to say I’ve had readers tell me they were mad at me because things didn’t play out the way they expected. While writing my latest mystery romance, The Bundle, I knew there would be a physical altercation between the villain and the hero, but I decided to throw a curve ball. No, I won’t tell you what it is, but people have told me they were surprised by the twist.
I think a lot of this has to do with my dislike of clichés. Remember the old private eye shows like Mannix and Peter Gunn? In most episodes there was the required fight scene, where the guy gets the stuffing beat out of him by two or three thugs (sometimes four or five, but who’s counting?). Then he miraculously gets up and runs after them. Get real! If he’s on the receiving end of a savage beating, the last thing he’ll feel like doing is engaging in a foot race. He’s probably thinking about an ice pack, a shot of whiskey and some tender lovin’ from his busty blonde secretary. I busted this myth in one of my thrillers, where the hero gets jumped by three guys then throws up afterward. When the female lead frantically asks if he’s okay, he responds “Of course not. I just got the crap kicked out of me.” After another character offers the opinion “You don’t look so hot,” he says “I don’t feel so hot. It’s a matching set.”
Hey, here’s another “What if…” – what if no one reads this blog???
Tim Smith is an award-winning author of everything from contemporary erotic romance to romantic thrillers. He is also a freelance photographer and works with adults with disabilities. More information about his books and photographs can be found at his website, www.timsmithauthor.com.