Where Do Stories Come From?

Like many readers, I enjoy hearing authors talk about their books. I wish that PBS or some other medium would consider a series where they ask authors to reveal where their stories originate from.

When asked a similar question, Stephen King famously answered that he has the mind of a 13-year-old boy. He said that he keeps it in a jar on his desk.

Like scientists and explorers, most authors have a curious mind that asks, “What if?” What if you could recreate dinosaurs from their fossilized DNA (Jurassic Park)? What if there was a malevolent sentient artificial intelligence computer in charge of your space craft (A Space Odyssey)? What if pixie dust could make you fly (Peter Pan)?

Michael Crichton, Arthur C. Clark and J. M. Barrie are but a tiny sample of authors who asked provocative questions that led to best-selling stories that have thrilled millions of readers and moviegoers.

For my first novel, Soul Catcher, I asked “what if” after reading a news article in the Seattle Times about the mysterious deaths of two boys who drowned in Puget Sound. When found, their bodies were mysteriously wrapped together in fishing line. As I began to consider the possibility of a wind or whirlpool that caused their small boat to spin, I received a holiday letter from a friend whose husband had nearly died from the attack of a spirit wind.

Her husband was a dentist in Alaska who flew his own small plane to villages in Alaska. Upon spotting a remote and pristine small lake, he landed his float plane to try his luck fishing. While casting from the pontoon of his plane, a wind came out of nowhere to flip his plane. He nearly drowned and might have frozen to death if not rescued by a couple of Inuit tribespeople. They called the wind a “Williwaw” that guarded their mountains and holy places. In this case, a newspaper article and the letter of a friend were the genesis of a supernatural thriller that won critical acclaim.

Swimming with the Angels, my second novel, similarly began with a news article. This one was about a secret financial organization headquartered in Belgium called SWIFT that handles the billions and trillions of transactions between countries, banks, mutual and hedge funds and other financial institutions. One evening over dinner, I asked a friend who was employed as a software engineer at a mutual fund if he thought SWIFT could be hacked. His affirmative response got me thinking about what might happen if a naïve employee at a hedge fund decided to use their position to hack $100 million. To add to the tension, I had the missing millions belong to a Mexican drug cartel who were laundering their dirty money through legitimate investments and willing to use utter savagery in their pursuit of revenge.

My point is whether writing literary or historical fiction, mysteries or cozies, the process begins with a simple question: “What if?”