How It All Starts

I’ve been writing a long time. Two dozen published books, a handful of awards, and several hundred articles and short stories published leads my students and fans to ask a lot of questions. And one of the questions that comes up pretty often is: “Where do you get the ideas for your books?”

Well, the honest answer is that the ideas come from a lot of different places. Occasionally, they come from challenges, as with my book “If Tomorrow Comes.” When I read a colleague’s attempt at an end-time book, I thought to myself (smugly? maybe a little) “I can write a better end-time book than that.” At the same time, I was involved in a discussion with a colleague that announced that Jesus couldn’t come tomorrow because “there are certain things that must happen, and we know what they are, and they haven’t happened yet.” His “smugness” made me think–and tell him–“who are we to tell God what he can or can’t do? Every time we’ve thought we had him figured out, we had it all wrong.” That led me to write a book that put all the cliches on their ear, which was my intention from the beginning. It was a fun project, and has stood the test of time.

Many other times, I start a book with a concept. What if…? Sometimes these come up in conversations, such as the discussion with a student writer about what the world would look like if World War I never happened. That led me to a short story called “The Bridge of Sighs,” about a U.S. spy returning home from a unified imperial Europe in the 1930s where he is trying to recruit Jewish scientists to build an atomic bomb. I still intend to turn it into a novel someday.

That path…turning an idea into a short story, which in turn becomes a novel…has been used time and time again. I used it when I wrote “Infinity’s Reach,” the retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress in a post-nuclear America, which actually started with two short stories. The first was a story about girls at a beach resort who discover they are being drugged and are actually in a prison camp. The second is a short story from later on in the novel about Infinity, the heroine, trying to hire a man to get her across the embattled Mississippi River.

The idea of building a novel from a short story has its advantages. First, it can give you inspiration. You can see what the world looks like, as well as play with the characters and see if you are interested in pursuing them. Second, because it’s just a short story, you don’t have a huge amount invested. I actually started writing as a kid by writing scenes at the peak of action. Description was boring to me. Now I know that building a big story–an entire novel–calls for more than just action scenes. It’s a major investment of time and energy. If you see promise in a short story, you’re more likely to be willing to invest in the bigger story.

That’s how I see it. That’s what works for me.

As always, I am open to answering any questions you might have.