If You Can’t Dream Up an Original Idea…Steal One
Like most published writers, I’ve moderated quite a few workshops in the art and craft of writing thrillers and mysteries. In virtually every one of these sessions, one of the attendees will invariably raise his or her hand and tell me that they’ve been trying really hard to come up with a plot idea for a novel and simply haven’t come up with one that they think works and how do I come up with my ideas.
I usually say in response that ideas for stories are all around us. In the newspapers, on television, in real life. You just have to recognize one of these ideas as having plot potential and make it your own.
“I’ve been trying,” my questioner says with heartfelt angst, “but I haven’t come up with anything.”
That’s when I advise, “Well, if you can’t think of an idea of your own, feel free to go out and steal one.”
This invariably raises eyebrows as if I have just endorsed plagiarism and blasphemed the integrity of fiction writing.
“I’m serious,” I say. “Steal, or perhaps borrow is a better word, a good idea, reduce it to its bare essentials, and then…and this is the important part: MAKE IT YOUR OWN.”
When I’m asked to give an example, I’m sometimes reduced to the following:
“Okay,” I say, “let’s steal one of the most famous stories ever from the man many consider the greatest writer who ever lived, William Shakespeare.
I tell them we’re going to steal one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, the tragedy of Hamlet.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark returns home from his studies in Germany to attend the funeral of his father, the king, and to witness his mother’s remarriage to his uncle, Claudius, who has now assumed the throne.
While there, he is visited one night by his father’s ghost who tells him that his death wasn’t accidental. That he was, in fact, murdered by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, who has not only assumed the throne but has compounded his crime by marrying Hamlet’s mother.
Hamlet, of course, vows revenge. But first he must prove to himself that what the ghost told him is really the truth.
“Okay,” I continue, “that’s not the whole play but it should be enough of a story starter for your proposed novel.
“The first thing I’ll do for you is update it and make it relevant to the audience who will be reading it.”
My updated version takes place in Washington, DC. Upon hearing of the President’s unexpected death, Speaker of the House Tom Hamlin has rushed home from a conference he has been attending abroad with the ministers of the EU countries in order to be present at the President’s funeral.
He is met at Andrews Air Force Base by a dear friend who, known only to Speaker Hamlin, is not just the lobbyist he pretends to be but is also a high-level covert operator for the CIA, whose work is so secret he is nicknamed “The Ghost”.
The Ghost tells Hamlin that they need to have a top-secret meeting. They meet at midnight in Arlington National Cemetery the night before the funeral. The Ghost tells Speaker Hamlin that he has highly reliable information that the President’s death was no accident. That he was, in fact, murdered by the Vice President.
The Speaker is stunned by the news. “Can this possibly be true?” he asks The Ghost.
“It’s even worse than that,” The Ghost tells him. “The First Lady has been having a lengthy secret affair with the Vice President. I believe she may well be complicit in the President’s murder. In fact, she plans to marry the new President, not so much because she loves him, but because she is an undercover agent for the GRU, the Russian secret service. Also, she really doesn’t want to have to move all her fancy stuff out of the White House because moving is such a bore and living there has been so exciting.
The Speaker of the House is stunned. He doesn’t know what to make of this story. He says he doesn’t know what he should do. He ponders appropriate steps but can’t make up his mind.
Finally The Ghost becomes impatient with his dithering. “There is only one thing we can do,” says The Ghost. “I’m going to arrange for the assassination of the new President just before the inauguration. And then you, my friend, as third in line will become the head of state.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Obviously, I was having fun with this. But I hope it helped my student understand that there are ideas everywhere. Perhaps he learned well enough so that today he is writing a lengthy novel about a cop who has been forced to leave the force because he was shot so badly in the leg that it had to be amputated. He spends the rest of his days hunting down his assailant, a bad guy who is physically so big he is only known by those who have met him as The White Whale.
A native New Yorker, James Hayman worked for Madison Avenue advertising agencies for over 30 years before moving to Portland, Maine, to continue his writing career. His first thriller, The Cutting, was published in 2009 and introduced Portland detectives Mike McCabe and Maggie Savage to mystery fans. Four more McCabe/Savage thrillers followed, garnering great reviews and landing Hayman on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestseller lists. James currently lives in Portland with his wife, artist Jeanne O’Toole Hayman, and their rescue cocker spaniel, Pippa. His sixth McCabe/Savage thriller, A Fatal Obsession, came out August 21st and, according to NYT #1 bestselling author A.J. Finn, “A Fatal Obsession is (Hayman’s) finest to date: a ferocious live-wire thriller starring two of the most appealing cops in contemporary fiction.”