Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Dream to Some, A Nightmare to Others!

Guest Blog

In this episode of "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?", we learn that story ideas do sometimes come from dreams. Alas, my own dreams have never found the essential narrative rigor. For that, I've had to turn to others.

When I wrote Lost Dog, I had no long range plan. It was my first mystery, after attempting science-fiction, literary (whatever that means), and fantasy. The first three books will never see the light of day, for good reason, but as practice they were invaluable. By Lost Dog, I was actually starting to develop some chops and so, with help from critiquing co-conspirators, it was my first manuscript to become a book.

Other writers may have that long range plan. They may have goals, an arc mapped out in advance—perhaps years in advance—of actually being published. Me? Uh.

As Lost Dog was going through the pre-publication process, editing and marketing, my agent asked, "What are you working on next? We need to keep this train moving." And my response was …

It was …

Yeah, see. No long range plan.

I wrote my first novel, the science-fiction one, because I read and loved science-fiction. I wrote the literary novel because, well, I was in a college creative writing program and that's what you did. I wrote the fantasy because I loved fantasy. And when I wrote Lost Dog, it was because I loved mystery too. But beyond that, there was no coherent forethought. I was telling stories I wanted to tell.

So, what would I work on next? A historical novel? Comic narrative non-fiction? (I love those too.) Haiku collection? Well, it turns out I needed another mystery novel because, well, I was a published mystery author. Okay. No problem. I love mystery.

Here's the thing. I am not a font of ideas. Those writers who have twelve ideas before breakfast? Yeah, I hate them. I had no ideas for a next mystery novel. What I did have was a character I liked, Detective Skin Kadash, an important but supporting player in Lost Dog. He had a great voice, a distinctive characteristic, and I knew I'd enjoy going forward with him.

But how?

Cue crickets.

Fortunately, one morning my wife said to me, "I dreamed a group of men—all cancers patients—were dying, and I had to investigate their deaths." There was more to the dream, but I can't tell you the rest because if I did it would be a big spoiler for what would become my second mystery, Chasing Smoke.

Yes, Chasing Smoke is based on my wife's dream. Of course, I switched her with Skin. I also introduced a number of my own touches and jiggered the narrative to the point she actually said, "You got it wrong." But the essential story foundation grew out of her dream, and a series was born.

In my defense, I would like to say that the idea for my follow-up, Day One, was actually my own idea. But I can't say Chasing Smoke is the first time I raided someone else's dreams for story fodder.

In 1981, I was a freshman at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio (NOT Florida), and one morning at breakfast one of my dorm buddies—fellow named Joe Miller—described a dream. His mother ruled like a tyrant from the top floor of a huge house, issuing orders from above by intercom. Joe offered lots of rich details, and I hung on every word. At last I said, "Can I steal your dream for a story?" Joe graciously granted permission.

Over the next 25 or so years, "A Tall House" would go through many incarnations. I turned in a version in a creative writing class in 1982. I re-worked it again in 1983-85. In 1990, I moved from Ohio to Portland and in the process lost the original manuscript, as well as the floppy disk the working copy resided on. Alas.

All was not lost, however. Joe's dream was always there, and the story remained one I wanted to somehow tell. Off and on in the 90s I tinkered with a new version. But it never quite came together. It was Joe's dream, after all, and unlike Chasing Smoke and Skin Kadash, I had no hook of my own to hang it on.

Then in 2006, shortly after I signed the contract for Lost Dog, I met the editor of Spinetingler magazine, fellow mystery writer Sandra Ruttan, who suggested I enter the "Spinetingler Cozy Noir Contest." The requirement of the contest was that stories entered merge the essence of the cozy mystery—oft defined as a mystery where someone dies but no one gets hurt—with noir—dark and cynical and gritty.

Suddenly I had the hook I needed for "A Tall House," floundering all those years. I rewrote Joe's dream again, and for the first time the story stopped being entirely his and at last become more mine. I entered the story and had the great pleasure of winning. You can read the dream-to-story, a quarter century in the making, at Spinetingler here.

What does all this mean? It means ideas can come from anywhere. The old standard, "Where do you get your ideas?" has as many answers as there are people, and then some. Lost Dog grew out of an exercise in a writing class. Chasing Smoke and "A Tall House" came from someone else's dream. I knitted Day One together out of my own thoughts, a few news stories, and characters I'd been developing for a decade. My next book, County Line (due out summer 2011) grew out of a comment a reviewer made about Lost Dog.

All valid starting points, just a few out of many possible sources. Wherever your ideas come from, through the alchemical mix of imagination and writing, you can make them your own.


Bill Cameron is the author of the dark, Portland-based mysteries Day One, Chasing Smoke, and Lost Dog. His next Skin Kadash mystery, County Line, will be released in June 2011. His stories have appeared in Killer Year, Portland Noir, and the 2010 ITW anthology First Thrills. Lost Dog and Chasing Smoke were both finalists for the Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery. Cameron lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is currently working on his fifth mystery.


  1. I like your honesty, Bill. Successful people are always saying their inspiration came to them in a dream. I don't remember anyone else admitting the dream wasn't actually theirs.

    I'm going to start grilling friends and family about their dreams starting tomorrow.

  2. Ah... I do love me a good Portland author. Thanks for sharing your work, I can't wait to see where you go from here.

    I don't know anything about writing mysteries, but for a local author, I ought to take a look.

    Carrie Bailey from Peevish Penman (in Porland, OR)

  3. Carrie,

    Bill's writing style is awesome. The investigation takes the protagonist to all sorts of Portland locations which is fun. It makes you feel like an "insider". You can follow him on twitter at @bcmystery

  4. Oh, Bill, Bill. You have to keep the train running if for no other reason than to keep your agent happy. @Janet_Reid looks kinda scary.

    When will she appear in one of your novels?

  5. Test comment. More to come...I think

  6. OK, now for a legit comment: Thanks, Bill, for your down-to-earth account on where those too often elusive ideas come from. Now I'm more anxious than ever to read Chasing Smoke. (Still gotta read Hemlock Lake first) I was the half-wit that bought Chasing... from you when you were in the middle of Main Street Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. You know, the one who said, " I don't really expect much from you." Fortunately, you were wise and insightful enough to realize I didn't mean it like it sounded. That's why writing is sooo much better for me than talking out loud. How I got through all those years of teaching in front of a class without scaring those little egos, I'll never know. Anyway, it sounds like you are well on your way to becoming a legend so I guess I'll have to start expecting a lot from you now.

  7. I mean "scarring". But I'm pretty sure they were plenty scared, too.

  8. First, Melanie, thanks so much for giving me a chance to natter!

    Hi, Carrie, glad to hear I've piqued your interest. Always interested in hearing what you think should you give one of my books a chance.

    Carol, Janet isn't nearly as scary as she looks. Okay, maybe ALMOST as scary. So far, she's been too scary to actually PUT in a book, but maybe someday I will get control of my terror.

    Pam, all I worry about and being well on my way to finishing whatever I've last started. Legend seems way above my pay grade. :)

  9. Awesome post Bill! My father stole my copy of Day One and liked it so much he bought Lost Dog. I'm going to steal it back...if he'll let me that is

  10. I'm in the book metaphorically: every bloody pulp carcass is actually me.

  11. I liked this nattering about the origin of ideas. It's interesting to hear that Bill uses others dreams. That sounds like a sure sign that he's a good listener. I look forward to reading the stories.

  12. Okay, having Janet Reid comment on my blog is really, really exciting. But then I have to remember it is really Bill Cameron's blog post on which she is commenting. Shucks.

  13. Bill: Remember who set you up for the gig on Main Street (me). I want full credit for that book you sold to Pam.

  14. Both of the Carols have a point, Bill. :)

  15. Dale, I once heard a story about John D. McDonald, the writer of the Travis McGee series as well as a number of marvelous standalone crime thrillers. He visited a shop where the owner recognized him. They chatted for half an hour or so, and then McDonald went on his way. Afterward, the shop owner realized he'd done most of the talking. McDonald had listened intently throughout.

    That story has stuck with me. Writers listen. Oh, I can gab with the best of them, but I always strive to have a good ear—not just hear the words, but the meaning behind the words.

    Oh, you many Carols, I DO know who deserves the credit! :)

  16. Hi Bill,
    I'm a painter and I have dreamed two paintings that I can remember. One I have actually executed, and one is only a sketchbook placeholder. But I always worry that I have dreamed someone else's work that I forgot about and that I'm unknowingly plagiarizing!

  17. Nina,

    Great. When a book eventually comes to me in a dream, it'll be just my luck to discover it was a plagiarized dream from Janet Evanovich's dreams.

  18. Bill Cameron - great writer and great guy. Such a great guy that I know he won't forget the little people of his past. (Hint, I helped set up that canopy on Main Street and shared my lunch.)

  19. Dreams what are those oh right you have to actually sleep to get them (disclaimer I have a 3 and a 15 month old) Since I am not dreaming as yet I shall scout out friends and family and borrow theirs! Thanks for the tip. Neat hearing from a local dude we love em local!

  20. I still dream of those Red Hots, Ax. And that was a yummy lunch, Caroline!

    Jars, I remember those sleepless days. Nights. Days. :)

  21. Great Post! (although I laughed more when reading Melanie's quotes post, but that was meant to be funny. ...right?)
    Always fun to hear where people get ideas and how they use em. Me, I'm actually one of those who gets ideas constantly, but it's nothing to be jealous of unless every one of those ideas is a good, no great, one and can be written well
    and sold. I could go on about too many ideas going around in ones head to the point of distraction and how it's difficult to finish anything when one only has so much time to get ideas written...yaddayaddablah.

  22. Peggy,

    I'm still trying to come up with a brilliant quote.


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