Where do you get your ideas from, Mr. Preston
The most difficult question a writer is asked is this: Where do you get your ideas? It is by and large unanswerable, as the ideas seem to come unbidden and unlooked for out of some dark and mysterious inglenook of the mind. But in the case of the most recent book that Lincoln Child and I published (August 20, 2019) entitled Old Bones, the process of how we came to the idea and turned it into a book was clearer and more logical than most.
It started a couple of years ago, when the New York Times Book Review asked me to review a book called, The Best Land Under Heaven by Michael Wallis. It was an extraordinery book, which told the history of the Donner Party tragedy. During the winter of 1846 and 47, an emigrant train of settlers heading to California became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. As the snow piled up, eventually reaching over twenty feet, the emigrants began to starve and die, and eventually many ended up eating their dead fellow travelers and relatives. I already knew quite a lot about the Donner tragedy, which is one of the most famous events in the history of westward expansion and taught in California schools, but Wallis’s book captured my imagination in a special way. One passage in which the author quoted from the account of a rescuer, was particularly vivid. When the rescuer arrived in the Donner camp, he found that
“…the children were sitting upon a log, with their faces stained with blood, devouring the half-roasted liver and heart of the father… Around the fire were hair, bones, skulls and the fragments of half-consumed limbs.”
That which horrifies me interests me, and those things that horrify me the most sometimes become a book. I think most thriller writers would say the same thing—that we tend to write about those things which frighten and disturb us the most. So I called up my writing partner Linc and said that I thought there was a thriller novel to be found somewhere in this tragic story. I sent him a copy of the book, which he promptly read and found as engrossing and disturbing as I did.
I already knew that the two main Donner campsites had been located, and I recalled an excellent article some years ago in the New Yorker, by Dana Goodyear, entitled “What Happened at Alder Creek?” The article described the excavation of a Donner campsite at Alder Creek by two archaeologists and what they found.
Linc and I planned to launch a new series of books featuring our character, Nora Kelly, an archaeologist, and this seemed like a perfect subject. Nora had appeared in several previous books, sometimes helping Special Agent Pendergast with his cases. In a phone call, we talked about the possibilities and discussed the New Yorker article, and came up with the central idea: we that there was a third Donner camp, its location forgotten; Nora would discover excavate this (fictional) site. And we would have her discover something even more horrifying and bizarre than mere cannibalism.
That was the main idea. But the journey from an idea to a plot, as every writer knows, is long and hard. It’s the difference between having the idea of climbing Mount Everest and actually climbing Mount Everest. What, we asked ourselves, could Nora and her team find that would be worse than cannibalism? And in addition, what could happen in the novel that would put Nora and company in contemporary danger? This was a thriller, not a cozy mystery. Nora had to be threatened in some way.
That’s when a second, seemingly unrelated, idea popped into the mix. I can’t tell you what this idea was, because that would spoil the entire book. It was an idea we’d been rolling around in our minds for at least fifteen years, unable to figure out a way to turn it into a story. But now, combined with the Donner excavation, it suddenly worked. Suffice to say, it is something more horrifying than cannibalism. With this new idea, we were able to achieve our goal of writing a thriller based on the real story of the Donner Party, in which an archaeological excavation descends into violence and murder, leading to a surprise revelation of something even worse than mere cannibalism.
Both Linc and I come from families of archaeologists, and so a lot of the ideas we bounce around involve archaeology. Both of us read extensively in the field of archaeological and send each other articles and books of interest. We will soon be looking for another archaeological mystery for Nora to solve for the next book in the series. Reading articles and books about archaeological discoveries is the way Linc and I prepare our brains for that sudden, out of the blue idea that will become our next thriller. You can’t force an idea, but you can prepare the mind to receive it when it comes.
Bio: Douglas Preston is the author of over thirty books, both fiction and nonfiction, twenty-four of which have been New York Times bestsellers. He worked as an editor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and taught nonfiction writing at Princeton University. His first novel, Relic, co-authored with Lincoln Child, launched the Pendergast series of novels. His latest nonfiction book, The Lost City of the Monkey God, tells the true story of the extraordinary discovery of an ancient city in the unexplored rainforest of Honduras. Preston writes about science for the New Yorker, National Geographic, and Smithsonian.