It can be downright embarrassing to admit where my ideas for novels and short stories come from. At best, I'm an eavesdropper, picking up bits of conversations here and there and warping them into fictional tales. People understand that you see and hear things that go into your fiction. What's harder to explain is when the dark thoughts come from something completely innocent, or even beautiful. But that same shadowy idea can be turned into a novel or a short story. It's all just a matter of perspective.
While I was on tour for The Next One to Fall, I told the story, many times, of what inspired the book: in the fall of 2007, I spent three weeks in Peru. Like Lily Moore and Jesse Robb in the novel, I decided to start with the highlight of the trip, Machu Picchu. I still remember how awestruck I was by the sight of the famous Lost City of the Incas, the mountaintop citadel that the Spanish conquistadors never discovered. Taking in that magnificent sight, the first words out of my mouth were, "This would be the perfect place to kill someone."
I knew, at that moment, that I wouldn't only be writing about Peru for travel magazines. The idea of one traveler murdering another was something I wanted to explore in fiction. At the time, my first novel, The Damage Done, was still a work that was very much in progress. I didn't know whether I would ever write it, beyond the initial four chapters I'd penned. (Those four chapters never actually made it into the book, by the way.) I knew that the idea that was spinning in my mind — about a possible serial killer on the loose in Peru — was something that would take a book to explore. But I also knew I wasn't ready for that, and so I decided to write a short story instead.
The result was "Stepmonster," which was published by Thuglit in March 2009. I decided not to use Machu Picchu as the setting, but the capital city of Lima instead. (My love of Inca history and legend is such that it really needed a book, and my post-Machu Picchu travels in Peru unearthed a number of spots that I decided were ripe for fictional murders; I'm working on another story set in the Andes now.) The Next One to Fall came much later. On the surface, the two have little in common. But the truth is, they both came out of that crazy germ of an idea I had when I was standing on that mountaintop.
I don't think anyone can tell you, straight off the bat, whether an idea is a better fit for a short story or a novel. To some extent, the writer has to decide how much time s/he wants to spend with the characters that populate the tale. Do you want to tell a story about a particular incident at one point in time, or do you want to leave room to explore more? As with everything I do, it feels like instinct plays a huge role. The best piece of advice I can give: if in doubt about whether your idea can fill a novel, start with something short and see where it goes. The answer is never just in the idea itself, but in the writing.
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Speaking of The Next One to Fall, today it's being released in trade paperback by Forge. If you haven't read the first book in the series, The Damage Done, the eBook is on sale for $2.99 until February 27, 2013. The third book in the series, Evil in All Its Disguises, will be out on March 5th — just three weeks from today! Check out the early reviews.