Where Do You Get Your Ideas

When Second Watch and After the Fire come out on September 10, they will be J.A. Jance books # 46 and # 47. If you add in next year’s Ali Reynolds book, Moving Target, and the unnamed Joanna book I’m working on right now, those two bring me to a total of 49. That’s dangerously close to 50, and it amounts to a considerable “body of work” written over a thirty year period. I guess I really am a writer after all.

So let’s do some math. Almost fifty books. Thirty book signings per book. That means that over the years I’ve done 1500 book signings, give or take. That’s a lot of signings, and since I always sign in red, that’s a lot of red ink, too. (Long live the Roller-Ball!)

Admittedly some of those events were straight signings, where I was parked at a book-laden card table inside a store or else outside one, trying to engage with passersby and charm customers into taking a chance on a relatively unknown mystery writer. Some of those signings are more memorable than others. The grand reopening of the Smokey Point Safeway comes to mind. And then the grand opening of several local Long Drugs. Remember them? Apparently they’re Long Gone!

Those drug and grocery store signings were strictly signings. But a lot of the others involve public speaking where I get up and talk about the current book and sometimes previous books as well. At the end of the speaking part, I often open the program up to questions from the audience. This is sometimes hilarious especially if I’m unable to hear the question properly and wind up giving some bizarre answer to a question that wasn’t asked.

There’s one question, however, that always makes me roll my eyes, even though I do my best not to, and here it is: Where do you get your ideas?

One of the reasons my eyes roll is that I instantly have an image in my head of me dressed in something resembling a Boy Scout uniform, with Bermuda shorts and tall socks. I’m wearing a pith helmet and brandishing a butterfly net, capturing ideas the same way one would snag a passing butterfly out of a kaleidoscope. (By the way, a kaleidoscope of butterflies is another way of saying a group of butterflies sort of like a group of crows is called a murder of crows. I could have said “swarm of butterflies” but this morning kaleidoscope is the word that grabs me.)

And why do I dislike the “ideas” question so much? For one thing, it’s far too general–as though there are ideas floating around in the air and all you have to do it catch one and voila! You have a book.

All ideas are NOT created equal. A far better question would be, “Where did you get the idea for this book?” Of course, chances are, if I’ve already done the speaking portion of the show, you probably already know because I’ve answered that question about that particular book in the talk.

But that’s the important thing to remember. I can answer that question as it applies to individual books but not as it applies to all of them–idea versus ideas.

For example, in Trial by Fury Ron Peters went off that unfinished I-90 overpass (Finished now for many years, by the way!) because that roadway that ended in midair was one of the first things I saw when I arrived in Seattle in 1981 (with my two kids in tow and dragging a U-Haul trailer filled with all our worldly possessions behind my overloaded Oldsmobile Cutlass.) That overpass stuck in my head and three books into the Beaumont series, I was finally able to use it.

The idea for Damage Control grew out of remembering my parents and their affection for going on forenoon coffee picnics with their ancient thermos and their day-old sweet rolls always readily at hand.

Daisy’s Café in the Joanna Brady books came into being on the site of a former Bisbee restaurant called Dottie’s that went away years ago, not unlike Long Drugs.

The use of sodium azide in Partner in Crime grew out of reading an article in my University of Arizona alumni magazine.

As you can see, none of those were caught using a butterfly net. First the idea has to appear, however it appears, and then it has to be wrangled into a story. This is a process that is not unlike herding cats. Or even sheep, for that matter.

My favorite poet, C. Day-Lewis, Daniel Day-Lewis’s father, wrote a poem called The Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park. Here’s the link to the poem at Robert Ronnow: Poetry

What the link doesn’t say is that he dedicated the poem to a fellow poet and contemporary, Robert Frost. And when I see the final words in the poem, the ones about “controlled woolgathering,” I feel as though he wrote them for me, too.

And woolgathering is definitely NOT done with nets!

2 thoughts on “Where Do You Get Your Ideas

  1. Thank you for sharing some more of yourself with us. Your humor (loved the wool-gathering) and your vivid description of yourself in a scout uniform made me smile. You also educated me. The term, kaleidoscope of butterflies,brought back visions of childhood toys and I’d never heard of a murder of crows.

    I remember Long Drug stores even “Woolworth’s” which your last remarks reminded me of.

    Robert Frost’s name also brought back old memories from my Grade and High School days as he seemed to be a favorite of at least two of my instructors. I appreciate the trip down memory lane.

  2. Looking forward to more books. Your reference to the groups of living things reminded me that years ago there was a series of mysteries using the titles of those. Murder of Crows always stuck in my mind.

    At one of your books signings you mentioned animal hoarders came from remembering something your sister had been involved with. A dead hoarder and many animals as well. You remarked that people seemed more upset over the deceased animals than the person. I wasn’t sure I believed that but in the years since, I have known some people who would feel that way.

    I lament the demise of the original SavOn Drug stores. With Longs, poured into what is now CVS. Keep up the good work.

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