Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Everything but the kitchen sink.

By R.J. Harlick

Where do you get your ideas for your books and short stories?

I rather like Meredith and Paul’s notion of an idea store, particularly when it offers discounts for authors. If only…

But in reality I rarely have difficulties in coming up with ideas for my books. Quite the opposite. Maybe I should set up my own idea store.

Joking aside, I will admit that when I start out to write the next Meg Harris mystery, when the possible storylines seem so limitless, I will have an “Oh gawd what am I going to write about?” moment, but that rarely last longer than it does to say the words. The previous book has already told me where Meg is in her life. I just need to decide how much further along I want to push it. The joys of writing a series.


Next I will decide on the setting. Once I determine the location of the story, I find the other components generally fall into place.  Since every other book takes place in Quebec within easy proximity to Meg’s rambling Victorian cottage, Three Deer Point, the setting is already established. I just need to decide in which season to set it for that will influence Meg’s activities, like skiing in the winter or paddling a canoe in the summer or as happened in A Cold White Fear, a major blizzard that kept Meg confined to her home.

I like to have Meg travel in every other book to a different Canadian wilderness. Here too the choice is easy. I always send her to places I have always wanted to visit, like Baffin Island in Canada’s Far North or Haida Gwaii on the western edge of Canada. In the current book I am sending her to the Northwest Territories.

The setting will identify the native community Meg will be getting to know in the story. Simply put, they will be the people who live there, like the Algonquin in western Quebec, the Inuit in the Arctic, the Haida on Haida Gwaii and in the latest book, the Tlicho, the Dene who live north of Great Slave Lake.

Once the setting and the people are decided the research begins, starting with the trip. Sure I could learn much of what I need via the internet and books, but I love to travel as does Meg, so off we go. And I tell you these trips provide me with more story ideas than the internet ever could. Sometimes it is as simple as a casual remark someone will make or an unusual sighting that makes me say ‘bingo’ and I will know it will be part of the story. Like the time I was sitting in the Iqaluit airport waiting for my flight and saw a rather large and curious box being loaded onto my plane, a box that later turned out to be a coffin.  Needless to say it played a role in Arctic Blue Death as did the cemetery.

For many of my books I often start with an overarching theme, usually related to an issue affecting natives today. Often they are taken from the headlines, like the missing indigenous women theme of A Green Place for Dying or the impact of residential schools on families in Purple Palette for Murder, my current book. But again they can come from casual conversation with a member of the community I am writing about, as happened with A River Runs Orange.

I was visiting a nearby Algonquin First Nations Reserve and got into conversation with a man who was manning their small cultural centre. He told me about a trip a number of them were making the next day to a major museum in Ottawa to present a beaver skin petition for the repatriation of ancient remains the museum was harboring.  Thus the theme for the third Meg Harris mystery was born.

I also like to explore an aspect of native culture in each of my books, such as totem pole carving in Silver Totem of Shame or Inuit print making in Arctic Blue Death.  Generally, I obtain much of this information from books and the internet. But sometimes during my research trips, I am able to talk to the artists themselves, as happened on my trip to Haida Gwaii, when I met with several carvers or the print maker in Pangnirtung during my Arctic trip, who took me through the entire process.


But not all my story ideas come from exploring the settings, talking to people or reading. Some come from my own experiences and my family history. In Death’s Golden Whisper I have Meg’s Aunt Aggie take a Grand Tour of Europe before the First World War, which was in part based on a similar trip my Grandfather took. In Red Ice for a Shroud, Meg and Eric are readying cross-country ski trails before the coming snow, something my husband and I do every fall on the network of trails that surround our log cabin.

To bring an end to this rambling, most of my story ideas come from exploring and observing the setting I am writing about, talking to the people who live there, gathering information from books, newspapers and the internet and using snippets from my own life and that of my family.  In other words, I gather ideas from pretty well everywhere….except the kitchen sink. But hey, I may even use that sometime.

Before closing, I wanted to let you know that I will be attending Malice Domestic this year, looking forward to it, since I missed it last year. I am on a terrific panel, Getting into their Heads: the psychology of murder, on Saturday at 10:00. I will also be participating in the Malice-Go-Round on Friday morning. It would be grand to see some of you there.


My latest book, A Cold White Fear, along with the other Meg Harris mysteries are not only available in bookstores near you, but also readily available in print and ebook in all online stores.

2 comments:

David Whellams said...

My mystery plots usually start with a small spark, an image or some quirky thing that's bothering me. For example, my first Peter Cammon mystery WALKING INTO THE OCEAN began with a picture of a man vanishing into the English Channel. Is it really possible to fake one's death so that no one will discover you? (a character tries it in Far From the Madding Crowd). This grew into a challenge for my veteran detective, who thought he had seen everything.

I guess my current project is a variation on that theme: Is it possible to stay under the radar in the United States if the authorities are after you? The story is set in 2015, when flight MH370 has been missing for a year without a trace, Edward Snowden has disclosed the scope of the NSA's surveillance program and drones are increasing in popularity. We'll see if it all comes together.

RJ Harlick said...

Intriguing, isn't it, how each of us in our own way finds the ideas for our stories. Good luck with your latest, David.