In Lisey's Story, Stephen King talks about story-ideas as bits of colored string, found half-buried in the ground. In his absolutely *brilliant* book Which Lie Did I Tell, by William Goldman describes these idea fragments as 'connectives'.
I call 'em fishhooks.
In the course of any given day we all come across news items, bits of historical trivia, things you see in the street. Some of those items suggest a story. Heck, most of what we see can suggest a story, but some are definitely 'stickier' than others.
Usually, two or three unrelated things catch together and give me the germ of a story. I read about a teenager who kills her parents, see a little girl alone in a supermarket, tears brimming in her eyes, and BAM. What if that little girl just killed her *latest* set of parents and is putting on her 'crying orphan' act to get a fresh set?
This sort of thing happens to me several times a day between books. Maybe a couple, three times a week while I'm writing...
So you get this little cluster of fishhooks. As Goldman puts it, you have to ask, "Is this in my wheelhouse?" I've always thought of it as, "Is this my line of country?" Can I tell this story? And can I tell it well enough to spend six months of my life doing so?
In other words, am I hooked? :)
Sometimes, those answers are close enough to yes that I 'sketch' a little - a chapter, maybe two or three. The little girl cries, a concerned soccer mom tries to help. How does the little tyke go home with the woman? Haven't a clue. If I don't find one, we're dead right there. If I do (I'd imagine the little girl could be pretty charming and persuasive - and like many predators, quite adept at choosing her victims), we're on: what happens next?
And how excited am I by what's happening?
To be honest, I'm not excited yet by this premise. So I grope in the darkness for more fishhooks and see what I snag.
How about that little hitch of reluctance I felt before I went to help the girl. Scary-looking single male, talking to a child not his own... the Tiny Dynamo assures me I will be locked up for my altruism, but I still do the right thing. I have faith my pure heart will be recognized. So far it has, but there may be a novel in the day that it's not...
What if the little girl latches onto a guy? Maybe an ex-con who means no harm but will never get a fair shake from larger society? Some big, blocky bastard, more scar tissue than skin. Most people shy away from this monster (I'm thinking Frankestein, with that little girl), but here's this kid, this little kid, looking up at him like she knows, *knows* he'll help her.
He looks back over both shoulders, looks down from his great height and mutters, "Where's your ma?" She looks up at him with those big wet eyes, and what swims behind them looks something like triumph.
Or how about a different kind of woman? ex-con, maybe a recovering addict with a yucky past, sees a bit of herself in that lost kid? Stringy peroxide hair and scarred track marks, prison tattoos and cigarette burns.
She looks at that kid and remembers herself at that age. She scratches a gray welt of scar tissue below her collar bone and knows what waits for a little kid like that, vulnerable and alone.
She bends down, "Where's your mum?" "Heaven." "Sorry. Uh, who's lookin after you?" The kid looks upset and sucks her thumb. Too old for it, but she sucks her thumb and tries to hide her tears. "C'mon, kid, let's get you somethin to eat..."
Either one might have legs.
And yeah, I noticed too that my hero's an outcast. That's a fair-sized fishhook for me. It's a condition I relate to, also quite useful when things get rough in the story. Neither of these two is going to call the cops for ANY reason, and both of them, grown though they are, are orphans themselves. They know (or believe they do, anyway) what happens to the kids nobody cares about, and no way he or she's gonna let that happen to *this* little tyke.
And so on I'd go, hooking from one fishhook to another, chaining them together and inviting the barbs to bite deep when they hit flesh. Some of those hooks might come from my past, some from my basic human empathy (I had a pretty nice childhood, but you can't help feeling for the ones that didn't), some from the news or history books.
As I get deeper in, the hooks will tend to attract each other. My subconscious mulls the big issue: how does a small child (right now I'm thinking 6 to 8) overpower and KILL a full-grown adult? Is she a firebug? A poisoner? What? I'll find myself noticing stuff in the news, catching shreds of conversation in the tattoo shop, whatever. I'll attract the right hook to pull me onto the next part of the story.
Mostly, for me, the writing process is about exploring those hooks: Outcast tries to help. Innocent mask hides a predator. How does this kid keep doing this? Maybe I tattoo a parole officer (or meet her in a supermarket, or eavesdrop on his conversation in a coffee shop, whatever) and get to thinking about the parole board's role in our hero/heroine's life. Or maybe...
One way to look at it is letting the characters fight it all out (this story would be real cat-and-mouse), but while they're doing that, I'm swinging from these damn hooks and looking for more...