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.
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.