It’s a question that all novelists dread, generally because they don’t know the answer, and it’s a little embarrassing to be utterly baffled by a perfectly legitimate question regarding one’s own work. But the truth, I think, is that writers don’t get ideas at all; they get scraps, hints, riddles, snatches of melody, patches of color…and these resolve only gradually into the beginnings of a story.
At least every now and then they do. Usually the impressions just slip away like daydreams.
With regard to KEY WEST LUCK, the moment of conception remains pretty clear in my mind: It was when I saw a funky old Sno-Cone truck parked next to a beach. The truck was a 1960s-vintage Step-Van equipped with a tinny speaker that played the same tune over and over again. I started wondering who owned the truck. Then, instead of wondering I started imagining. Maybe it was a young woman who not only worked in the truck but lived in it as well. But why would a young woman be living in a Sno-Cone truck? So I figured she was trying to start over after a lousy past, and the truck represented not only her livelihood and her home, but her hopes, her future.
Then, since novels do need plots and villains, after all, I wondered what would happen if someone tried to swindle the truck away from her. What kind of person would do that? How would the young woman fight back? Who would her allies be?
Allies—hmm. That suggested, for starters, a young man, a friend, possibly a love interest. Yes, of course a love interest! How could I have missed that? But he would need a backstory too. And since, as Faulkner and many others have observed, the past is never dead, his backstory would intrude upon the present in ways that would interweave with the story of the Sno-Cone truck. Sounds sort of like a subplot, doesn’t it?
A subplot requires more bad guys. More bad guys demand more good guys to balance and thwart them. Good guys often provide comic relief, which is one of the things that make us like them.
Oh, and then finally there needs to be a climax and a denouement. If you want to be extremely literary, you can substitute an anticlimax and allow the denouement to be full of injustice and frustration, just like in real life. But if you prefer to write an unabashedly escapist yarn that will leave readers happy and affirmed, then you have to tie all the strands together to create a Big Moment, the fallout from which assures that everybody, good and bad, gets what he or she deserves. And that’s all there is to it.
So let’s now circle back to our original question. How do writers get their ideas? They don’t get them; they build them. By writing. Writing until the little scraps of thought and observation begin to take on the momentum of a story. Until the ragged strands of story begin to braid themselves into a plot. Until the plot provides the opportunity for the characters to do and say the things that make the book unique. So the author doesn’t really have the idea until the last page has been written. The idea for a novel is the novel itself.