One of the questions I dread in the Q&A section of any talk I’m giving is that loaded one, Where do you get your ideas? I generally shrug my shoulders and tell the absolute truth: if I knew for certain, I’d be happy to share it with you. After all, where does imagination have its roots? I’m sure there’s some psychological or physiological answer of which I’m ignorant, but I don’t think that’s what people want to know. They’re looking for something concrete, something they can replicate, when in fact the whole creative process is basically a mystery. Is it a talent? Of course. Partly. I can’t draw believable stick people, and I’m certain no amount of practice or training would change that. I’m not meant to be an artist. So what’s the answer then?
In the beginning of my career, I fumbled around a lot with this question, trying to come up with something profound, something I thought the aspiring authors in the crowd might find helpful in their own writing lives. And, after 8-plus books, the best answer I’ve found is this: Read first. Read voraciously, especially in the genre in which you want to write.
I’m shocked at the number of would-be authors who’ve told me they really don’t read that much. Are you kidding me??? In my mind, the two exercises are inextricably entwined, virtually inseparable. Many of us began writing stories when we were children, partly, I’m willing to bet, because early on we were also introduced to books and the joy of storytelling. My mother the English teacher had us all reading before we started school. I’m told I read aloud “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” in my Dr. Dentons from a rocking chair on stage at the church pageant when I was four. I don’t remember it, but surely my mother wouldn’t exaggerate. Mothers never do that.
The point is, I firmly believe that writers must first be readers. And one of the best things about belonging to Sisters in Crime is that you have a wealth of opportunity right here in your own backyard. Check out Books in Print or the Membership Directory. They’re a veritable Who’s Who of outstanding mystery writers, both male and female. Some of the best writing instruction you’ll ever get is reading the well-published, award-winning works of your Sisters and Brothers. From cozy to traditional to the darkest noir, our members are writing it.
And while you’re being entertained, study. If you’re an aspiring mystery author, read with intent. Look at character development and plot arc. When you heave a satisfied sigh as the last page is turned, try to figure out what it was that kept you racing to the finish. I’m not suggesting anything formal—no note-taking, unless that’s your inclination. Reading a well-crafted, crackling good mystery can’t help but spark your own imagination, that love of hearing and telling stories so many of us grew up with. Whenever I finish a really excellent book, I almost always find myself inspired and invigorated, eager to get back to my own writing. Whatever its organic or psychological roots, imagination can be fed and nurtured, encouraged by large doses of interaction with fascinating stories told well.
Sisters in Crime also offers the aspiring writer the opportunity to meet and network with well-published authors who have succeeded in this often frustrating profession and who are happy to share out of their own experience. Technology is making the publishing business a constantly changing animal, almost an entirely different species from the one in which Dame Agatha or Raymond Chandler or even some of today’s award-winning authors began their careers. When the chance presents itself, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Study, learn . . . and READ!
Since this post is appearing so close to the holidays, I’d also like to suggest that you buy a child a book. With all we’re hearing these days about the decline in reading for pleasure, we need to get that new crop of readers started early. And one of the best parts is that you won’t need to include batteries.
My husband and I wish Happy Holidays to all the Sisters in Crime family.
Kathryn Wall is the author of the Bay Tanner mysteries set in and around Hilton Head, South Carolina. The 8th installment, THE MERCY OAK, will be released by St. Martin’s Press on April 29. Kathy is also the national treasurer of Sisters in Crime.