Where Do Ideas Come From?
by Michael Hurley
This is actually a very interesting question for me, because it begs another very important question for every writer. Are you writing genre fiction or literary fiction?
I write literary fiction, which I define to mean novels in which the plot is propelled by characters as opposed to the characters being propelled by the plot. So for me, the simple answer to the question of where ideas come from is that they come from the characters.
In literary fiction, you invent an interesting character who is conflicted in some way, flawed in some way, tragic in some way, gifted in some way, evil or good in some way, and so on, and you place him or her in a setting where he or she is going to interact with other characters who all have their own idiosyncrasies. The idea for the story then evolves out of the interaction of the characters. I might have a germ of an idea and some sense of the arc of the story when I begin, but it is subordinate to the whims of the characters and is almost always changed by them, before the end. As I write their lives and thoughts and hopes and dreams, they tell me where and how the story will go.
Genre fiction is very different. Here I am referring to romance, thrillers, science fiction, mystery, and other commercial fiction. Often these are linear tales populated by more two dimensional characters whose inner lives are never fully explored, because they exist primarily to unfold the plot.The highest praise given to these books is that they are “page turners” or “propulsive reads,” because events are literally propelling the story: the fuse is lit, the gun is pulled, the car is crashed, the bodice is ripped, and the priceless jewel is stolen; the robbery scene is followed by the fight scene, the seduction scene, the explosion scene, the chase scene, and so on.
If you want to get ideas for a story, and you want to write literary fiction, I suggest you head to your local art gallery. Find a painting there that fascinates you and try to bring the subject of the painting to life in your mind. What is she afraid of? What does she hope for? What is she hiding? Whom does she love, and why? What has she lost? How will she find it? What would she do to get it back? As you add layers onto the character’s persona, she will take you to all kinds of fascinating places and through experiences you never could have imagined, otherwise. Before you know it, you’ll have a story you feel compelled to tell the world.
About The Vineyard:
Ten years after college, three very different women reunite for a summer on Martha’s Vineyard. As they come to grips with various challenges in their lives, an encounter with a reclusive fisherman threatens to change everything they believe about their world—and each other.
Climbing up the dune, she stumbled from little avalanches of sand that slipped beneath her feet. The boy caught her and pulled her up. His hand was smooth and warm and young. It felt good to her to hold a boy’s hand again.
At the top of the dune, the salt air swept over and around her face and hair. The ocean was shimmering, limitless. There was nothing around them but the sea and the wind and the sand—which is why she had come to this, her new favorite place on the Vineyard. Only today she was going to have to share it with a gangly skinflint of a boy who stood there still grinning at her, the wind tossing a lone, blond cowlick back and forth on top of his head like a bobble-head doll.
Perhaps he expected another kiss. She assured herself he wouldn’t be getting one. After all, she had grown better at restraining her impulses in the two months since that first ferry ride.
“I thought you’d be married and off on your honeymoon by now,” Charlotte said, glad finally to be back on offense after nearly rolling down the dune.
She made a point of not looking at him. Teenage boys with racehorse metabolisms and zero body fat were very fond of not wearing shirts, and while the cheerleading squad down the beach probably found that exciting, Charlotte thought it was important that she not appear to agree.
She kept looking out to sea as she spoke, as if the water were far more interesting than the boy or what he might have to say, which in truth it was not. When the silence became awkward, she turned to see if he were even paying attention. He was staring off at the horizon. She followed his gaze.
“Long story,” he said, finally.
In the pause that followed, it became clear that the story, long or short, was not likely to be told. Charlotte sensed a wound that was something more than shyness. It provoked an unwanted and involuntary surge of maternalism in her.
“I’m Charlotte,” she said, extending her hand. “I’ve been told I’m a good listener to long stories.”
The boy looked at her and took her hand for the second time. He did not complete the introduction but simply held her hand in his. He wasn’t coy; it just didn’t occur to him that his name was at all important to her.
In his bare feet he was not as tall as she remembered, and he seemed younger. He wasn’t a child, but he couldn’t have been older than twenty-two, if that. Separated from the rough girl who had been hanging on him on the ferry, he looked less like a greaser and more like a California surfer. The difference somehow mattered to Charlotte. It felt weird that it mattered.
She hadn’t intended to be his company, nor had she asked him for his, but the top of the dune was not wide. When she wandered away the few feet it allowed and spread her blanket, he followed and sat beside her. He offered a half-empty bottle of spiced rum she hadn’t noticed he had been dangling from his left hand. She didn’t usually drink that early in the morning—or to be more precise, she never did—but somehow she sensed this wasn’t the time or the place to accentuate the differences in their ages and manners. She wanted to hear his story, and she wanted him to feel free to tell it.
Still, he said nothing. Instead, he sat next to her and peered out at the sea as if they were an old married couple, silent and content merely to have each other’s company.
The voices of the others rose and fell periodically on the air, coming from fifty yards away in the direction of skiff down the beach. That the boy’s friends didn’t seem in a hurry to join him suggested that they, too, knew he needed some space. Charlotte could hear them laughing and groaning and grunting, trying to pry the keel of their boat out of the sand with the help of the tide that slowly rose around it.
She leaned back on the towel and continued to follow the boy’s gaze out to sea. He had an odd intensity about him, as if he were expecting something was about to happen out there—a missile launch or mermaid eruption or something. On the third pass of the rum, he turned to look at her.
“We were supposed to be having a baby,” he said.
“The girl and me—the one you saw on the ferry.”
"And . . .?”
“And nothing. She lied to me. I heard about it from one of her girlfriends who called me from back home. Said she couldn’t keep quiet anymore. That she felt it was wrong. She said my girlfriend wasn’t pregnant—never had been. She just made that up to get me to take her away from her old man. Not that I can blame her. He used to beat her . . .”
Charlotte had not forgotten the girl’s blistering right hook, and now she realized where it came from. She must have given the old man as good as she got.
“ . . . but it was a damned lie just the same.”
Charlotte said nothing, which didn’t seem to faze him. “A damned lie,” he said again, looking back toward the sea.
“Is that why you were getting married?”
“She must have thought so, but I would have married her anyway—baby or no baby.”
“And so now you’re not—getting married, I mean?”
“You can’t build a marriage on a lie,” he said, looking at her with an expression of surprise, which she took to mean that he would have guessed someone so much older would have been a little wiser.
Charlotte let the proverb hang in the air. It was true enough, in theory, but in reality her own marriage and, she had come to believe, a great many others—perhaps even the majority—were rather elaborately built on a foundation of lies. True love was a myth, as far as she was concerned.
“’Think about it,’ you said to me, back then,” he continued. “Do you remember?”
“I do, but I was …” She started to explain her bizarre conduct on the ferry that she realized, as soon as she began, made no difference to anyone now. He cut her off.
“Truth is, apart from wondering why you was such a damn lunatic and where the hell you had come from, I didn’t need to think about it. In fact, I was pretty excited about it. That’s what I guess you didn’t know—and how could you. I’m sure I looked like just a punk to you.”
“Still do, actually.” She said this to be witty and cute, which it was not, and which alarmed her, as if her mouth had suddenly detached itself from her brain. She regretted the words as soon as they were spoken. Another lie told to the poor boy. He seemed rather Byronesque to her, in fact, and not at all like a punk, but she didn’t think he would understand why, so she left it.
“I was excited to be a father,” he continued, indignantly. A tear rolled down. He was struggling to keep his emotions in check. She had had no idea. She felt suddenly even more mortified at her glibness a moment ago.
It was either the best or worst of all possible combinations, depending on the eye of the beholder. Here was this painfully earnest boy, wounded and still suffering at the hands of a conniving and thoughtless girlfriend. Here was this older woman, herself conflicted and out of touch with her own feelings about love and sex and marriage. Between them was a half-empty bottle of rum, and all around them was sunshine and the sea.
© 2014 by M. C. Hurley. All rights reserved.
Michael Hurley and his wife Susan live near Charleston, South Carolina. Born and raised in Baltimore, Michael holds a degree in English from the University of Maryland and law from St. Louis University.
The Prodigal, Michael’s debut novel from Ragbagger Press, received the Somerset Prize for mainstream fiction and numerous accolades in the trade press, including Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, ForeWord Reviews, BookTrib, Chanticleer Reviews, and IndieReader. It is currently in development for a feature film by producer Diane Sillan Isaacs. Michael’s second novel, The Vineyard, is due to be released by Ragbagger Press in December 2014.
Michael’s first book, Letters from the Woods, is a collection of wilderness-themed essays published by Ragbagger Press in 2005. It was shortlisted for Book of the Year by ForeWord magazine. In 2009, Michael embarked on a two-year, 2,200 mile solo sailing voyage that ended with the loss of his 32-foot sloop, the Gypsy Moon, in the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti in 2012. That voyage and the experiences that inspired him to set sail became the subject of his memoir, Once Upon A Gypsy Moon, published in 2013 by Hachette Book Group.
When he is not writing, Michael enjoys reading and relaxing with Susan on the porch of their rambling, one-hundred-year-old house. His fondest pastimes are ocean sailing, playing piano and classical guitar, cooking, and keeping up with an energetic Irish terrier, Frodo Baggins.
For more about Michael Hurley and his writing, check out his website, follow him on Facebook, or go to his Goodreads author page.