Sitting on a book panel talking about writing is always an odd experience. The truth is, I don't often talk about writing, even (maybe especially) with other writers. So I tend to talk in circles and not really answer questions.*
Or so I'm told.
So to answer some of the questions I was asked the other day and circumlocuted my way out of . . .
Where do you get your ideas?
This is probably the most common question I'm asked. The truthful answer is that I don't really know; ideas seem pretty much to happen. For me, ideas are "cheap" - being able to do something with them is where all the work is involved.
To torture an old metaphor, the key thing is doing something after the initial seed to encourage the idea to grow. For me that involves questions and a conscious attempt to extend the initial idea.
I seem to get into certain modes where everything provokes a story or a part of one - I'm riding on a train into New York and see someone running, and all of a sudden that's the start of a novel . . . then comes the more interesting part, extending the idea, generally with questions: Why is he running, where is going, etc. Sometimes the answers pop right out as well. The genre or type of story limits the answers, I guess - if it's a spy story or a thriller, you're going to have a different set of answers.
Or I'm reading a story about how much cargo is going through the Chunnel, and I wonder - what would happen if that was blown up. How would it be blown up? Who would do it? Why? Where . . .
Ideas often grow out of things you've done in the past. For me, people and places are fairly important in the elaboration of a book. A lot of my characters are based on someone I know or knew, taken to a slight (or maybe not so slight) extreme. Tommy Karr in Deep Black was a big bear of a guy who I swear would laugh falling down the Grand Canyon. As you're writing the story, the original concept of the person changes for a number of reasons, plot being one of them; interactions with other characters being another. But the main seed of the character - or the main idea of him - usually remains the same. Tommy is always that big, blond goofy guy I met years ago, even as he's morphed into someone different.
Places add a lot of ideas, too. Sometimes you look at a particular place and say, what would happen if that blew up? When I was working on the Chunnel plot in the Deep Black books (Dark Zone), I went to France and England to check out the security and physical places connected with the main plot. (I had to fictionalize the security because the real security was too easy to get around, but that's another story.) While I was there, the Eiffel Tower subplot occurred to me, just by looking at the Tower one day. It started as a general idea, then bits and pieces of it came together as I went up the Tower and started asking questions. There are (or were at the time) some mannequins showing how it is painted; seeing them helped me visualize the ending portions of that part of the plot.
Finally, some ideas come back at you while you're working. There's a scene in that book between Charlie and Lia in the elevator that is word for word and thought for thought something that happened between myself and my wife while we were there. Obviously I didn't go there with that little bit of research involved, and at the time recording it was the last thing I had in mind. It came back to me, though, while I was writing that part of the book.
Why? Probably because I needed the same emotion in the story, but maybe just because the setting provoked it. There is a bit of mystery involved, after all.
* That and complain.