I’m working right now on a noir crime story set in 1930s Chicago.
This novel is the result of two ideas tumbling in my head that began to orbit tighter and tighter until they finally collided.
The first idea was one that I had while investigating the 1001 Journals project. The premise of the project is journals that travel about by mail to random people, collecting new stories, poems or images from each. The idea that struck me was this: What if you received the package and discovered that the person before you had, in his entry, confessed to a murder? What would you do?
I don’t remember what triggered the second idea. But it’s really more of a character seed: A man who is terrified that he will turn into his father and make the same mistakes his father did.
Those two ideas went into Dreamers Perish, influencing both the crime and the detective who solves it. Perhaps on Thursday, I’ll post the opening scene. Right now, I’m busy outlining and thinking about where I want the book to end.
Oh, and the title? Just a working title, really, but inspired by a quote from architect Louis Sullivan in 1902, “A democracy should not let its dreamers perish. They are its life, its guarantee against decay.”
I’ve talked before about how creativity at its heart is making something new out of something old.
One of my favorite things in music is cover songs. I love hearing a new take on an old favorite. A close second for me is mashups, or songs cut together to form something new. Below you’ll find one of the best mashups around, and a good example of creativity that makes something new out of the old.
Now, this is no haphazard casserole. This is melodies, lyrics and snippets of video all chosen to work together. Does it work together? I think it’s amazing. Your mileage may vary.
If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember this scene. Anton Ego, the acidic food critic, is sitting alone in a restaurant. The kitchen doors open and out comes Alfredo Linguini on roller skates. He sets a wonderfully plated masterpiece on the table. Anton takes the first bite. The camera zooms in on his eyes. Flashback to Anton as a child, standing in the door, scraped up from playing. His mother serves him a steaming bowl of Ratatouille. All is well. Back to the present and Anton drops his pen, review forgotten. He digs in with abandon.
I’m not sure how he gets it to stack like that…
That scene has stuck in my mind for years, and last week, I decided to make Ratatouille as inspired by the movie. I found our mandolin, a wedding present from Mike Ricci, and started shaving zucchini and yellow squash. These thin slices go onto a bed of Piperade, a sort of red pepper infused tomato sauce. I made mine decidedly less vegan by adding a bit of spicy Italian sausage. Then, all this gets covered with some parchment paper and into the oven it goes!
When it was finished, we served it with some homemade focaccia that Rachel made. The result? Fantastic. The texture of squash usually puts me off, but here the pieces are thin enough that they act only as flavor conduits. The sauce is a perfect blend of tomato and pepper, with just the right amount of heat from the spicy sausage.
How does this tie into writing? Well, Ratatouille so effectively used taste within the story that years later I remember this scene, and was even inspired to make my own version. I’d love for my stories to have that kind of impact. Ratatouille is a reminder not to neglect the sense of taste in our stories. We can’t convey the visual impact of food quite like the movies can, but we can do them one better by getting inside the character’s mind and describing the sensations.
The pleasant burn of red wine as two friends sit and talk.
The saltiness of sweat on a battlefield.
The subtle bitterness of poison in a meal.
If you’ve got great examples of this played out in a book, let me know. And come back Sunday for an example of “recombinant creativity.”
Creativity is not a well to be drained but a beast to be fed… I throw pots, cook, design strategy, garden, and write. You might think that those pursuits tap out my imagination, but it seems to be the opposite. As long as I keep feeding the beast new and stimulating things, it carries me to interesting places.
Shove some fuel in, grab the horns and hang on.
Ideas come from everywhere, but only God invents from scratch. For the rest of us, creation is starting with raw ingredients and transforming them into something new. Orson Scott Card describes it this way:
“All but a handful of my stories have come from combining two completely unrelated ideas that have been following their own tracks through my imagination.”
One of my first stories, An Accounting, started off as a simple description of a desolate wilderness. I was working through a class on showing not telling, and created a fun little vignette. It turned into something much more when I started thinking about the gifts we’ve been given but neglect. When I mashed them together, the story unfolded.
The trick for me is to let each new act of imagination funnel back into my writing. So in this space, I’ll chronicle new ideas and what my other creative pursuits are teaching me about being a better storyteller.
That’s probably enough pretentious introduction. Thursday I’ll give a real example of what I’m talking about, starting with the movie Ratatouille.
For years I’ve been keeping my eye on domains I might want if I were to some day become an “established author.” This domain was one of those, already taken, but abandoned, a wasteland, a literal blank page.
I considered going with Joshua Bennett David, which is what I had adults announce over the intercom when I got lost in grocery stores as a kid. It seems I have trouble with complex ordering operations when I’m flustered. But I learned from Joel on Mystery Science Theater to never trust a man with two first names. So that was no good.
But last month the owner of this domain, Ranjit of Morganville, New Jersey, let it expire. Why Ranjit wanted my name in the first place, I don’t know. He’s already got a nicely unique name that will grab eyes on bookshelves. In any case, I snatched the domain at auction.
My thoughts on writing and creativity will follow soon, but for now, celebrate with me that I now own a piece of myself.