When I've spoken to groups at libraries or bookstores, invariably I'm asked how an idea for a novel comes to me. It's not an easy question to answer. Each novel I've written has a different genesis, although there are certain key elements they all share.
For me, writing begins with an almost dreamlike process. It's as though my mind goes through some semi-conscious period where things from the past and present seem to coalesce and begin building upon themselves. Sometimes a thought fragment forms, only to fade the way some dreams dissolve as you're awakening. At other times, an idea imbeds itself and develops with a clear forward trajectory.
By way of example, here's how my recent novel, Mad Dog House, began to take shape.
When I was in elementary school, the class-clown was a kid nicknamed "Cootie." Many years later, while in the army, I met a fellow medic whose raucous, hyena-like laugh earned him the moniker "Mad Dog." My novel begins with a scene in a classroom in which "Cootie" (now portrayed as a bully) is finger-snapping the ear of the boy who sits in front of him.
As a high school freshman, I sat in front of some wise guy who made sport out of finger-snapping my right ear. At 13 years old, I weighed a prodigious 105 pounds, and this bullying kid was far bigger and very intimidating. After too many days of silently taking this humiliation, I finally snapped and challenged him to a fight behind the candy store near the school. A momentary look of surprise, coupled with fear, flashed across his face. He'd never expected so brazen a challenge from a skinny kid, and correctly read the fury raging through me. When class ended, we faced off in the empty lot and went at it. I beat the hell out of him.
"When he was 12 years old, Mad Dog ripped off Cootie Weiss' ear."
So begins the novel. The protagonist, Roddy, earns his moniker "Mad Dog" after finishing off his bully in a far more dramatic way than I had mine. But, you can see how incidents and people from different stages of my life wind their way into the fabric of my fiction.
I knew I wanted to write a thriller involving a successful surgeon and his best friend, an accountant, being drawn into a business venture which would go terribly wrong and threaten to upend their lives; and the vehicle I used to get the novel started was based on the melding of two totally distinct and disparate incidents in my own life.
The idea came to me during a walk with my wife.
The novel's story incorporates other aspects of my own and others' experiences, coupled with large doses of imagination and fantasy. Like all fiction writers, I draw from the things I know well, and borrow heavily from life around me. Whether it's a cousin who invested and lost money in a vanity project; the rough guys I knew in my teens; or the friends whose son has caused them so much heartache, I incorporate "what I know about life" into a piece of pure fiction.
I'm a psychiatrist, with years of experience working on the wards and emergency rooms at major city hospitals. Later, I was in private practice with a diverse group of patients; and ultimately, specializing in forensic psychiatry. I saw people whose lives were irrevocably changed by the most horrific experiences imaginable, and my mind is filled with their stories, underscoring the adage "truth can be stranger than fiction."
Without violating a confidence or betraying trust, I draw water from the well of my life's work, and create stories.
A writer is someone who always has an eye open and an ear cocked. I am no exception.
Drawing from life is at the heart of my novels, although each one begins in its unique way.