whatever odd event or word that gives you pause...
Often I’m asked, “Where do your
ideas come from?” My answer: “Life.” As a novelist I see fictional
what-ifs all around me. An incident on the street, a phrase on the
radio, a TV news bit, even a line from someone else’s work may trigger
Still, I’m not exactly brimming
with story ideas. What-ifs might hit me numerous times a day, but few
of them stick with me. When something does stick—however bizarre or
meaningless it seems—I write it down. Something about that incident or
phrase has caused a reaction deep within me. I may not know for a long
time—even years—how I will use it in a story. But use it, I will.
If you’re a novelist, I urge you
to pay attention to those gut twinges. Don’t discount whatever odd
event or word that gives you pause. This is not the time to edit. This
is the time to record. Then let it sit. See what becomes of it.
When I was in my early twenties,
I read John Milton’s Paradise Lost for the first
time. In Book Two, Satan and his followers, kicked from heaven into
darkness, argue about whether they should try to storm heaven’s gates
and overthrow God. One phrase, hatching vain empires,
absolutely hit me between the eyes. In this excerpted context,
Beelzebub, second in power only to Satan, suggests a different
. . . the King of Heaven hath
doomed this place our dungeon . . .
Nor shall we . . . invade Heaven,
whose high walls fear no assault or siege . . .
What if we find some easier enterprise?
There is a place . . . of some new race, called Man . . .
Thither let us bend all our thoughts, to learn . . . where their
weakness . . .
Seduce them to our party,
that their God may prove their foe . . .
Advise if this be worth attempting, or to sit in darkness here,
hatching vain empires.
Hatching vain empires.
The combination of words intrigued me. And the truth they spoke! How
often, I thought, do we engage in the dark and meaningless pursuit of
hatching our own little vain empires instead of pursuing God’s will for
Thirty years passed. I never
forgot that phrase. I became a novelist. I wrote suspense, and in total
to that point in 2007, I had written fifteen books. I needed an idea
for my sixteenth. The phrase hatching vain empires
rose in my mind. I reread Paradise Lost, struck
anew by the audacity of Satan’s plan—and how mankind fell for it! Satan
and his cohorts well understood the futility of hatching vain empires.
Bragging about storming the gates of heaven was empty talk. God was
powerful to be overthrown. Yet what did Satan accomplish when he
tempted Adam and Eve? He taught mankind to do the very thing he knew to
be futile—to hatch our own vain empires. He presented man with this
“gift” of death disguised as life (“You will not surely die . . .”).
The concept grew in my head. I
didn’t have a character yet or a plot. But I began to wonder what a
modern-day suspense could look like with this concept as its underlying
theme. In time I created twenty-two-year-old Kaitlan and her elderly,
muddle-minded grandfather—once known worldwide as the King of Suspense.
And the what-if came: What if this bitter old man, who can no longer
write after a brain injury, had to create the suspense plot of his life
to save his granddaughter from a cunning killer?
At first the plot seemed far
removed from the original concept. But as I wrote, and symbolism wove
its way into the story, I began to see how the plot embodied the theme.
I finished the book, ultimately titled Dark Pursuit,
believing the surface suspense story would satisfy my readers, while
knowing those who saw beneath the surface would find much more.
Hatching vain empires.
A three-word phrase read thirty years ago, hitting me hard. I’m glad I
paid attention to the phrase, let it speak to me. The result has now
come to fruition with the release of Dark Pursuit
last month. Now as I plot another book (my twentieth), a few disparate
and quite odd incidents are sloshing around in my head. They haven’t
solidified into a full plot yet. But they will.