Advice for Writer's Block Sufferers
“Where do you get your ideas?”
That's probably the most common question authors get. It's also one of the hardest to answer without being snarky. (“At the idea store. Where do you get yours?”) The truth is ideas are everywhere: in the news, film, still photos, history, locations, personal experience, other authors' work, even nightmares.
The origin for my first novel came from a black and white photo of a 1930's Lawndale deli. Three middle-aged men stood behind a counter wearing shirtsleeves and aprons. I could spot dark smudges on the aprons. They were working men, and their expressions, lit by an afternoon sun, were serious. At the same time, though, I sensed a flicker of hope in their eyes. As if they knew the American dream was within reach.
For some reason, their image, frozen in time, called to me. Who were these men? Where had they come from? Had they escaped oppression, or did they come to America to better themselves? The fact that they were serving a largely Jewish community made me wonder about the community's culture. So I started asking “What if.” What if some of them had emigrated from Germany or Eastern Europe? Given that the Second World War was imminent, what were their hopes, their prejudices, their fears? What if one of them fell in love but the war came between them? What would the girlfriend do if while he was a soldier overseas?
Those imaginings, the “what-ifs” are part of my process. For me a novel comes in pieces. When the wisp of an idea appears, I play the “what-if” game until I arrive at a possibility that excites me. Another wisp of an idea inspires more possibilities. For example, in the same book, my in-laws history helped develop the characters. My husband's mother came to New York from Germany when she was 16. For a year she scrubbed floors and cleaned houses. My father in law, who came over in 1939, was drafted. Instead of being sent to boot camp, he ended up in Canada being trained by William Stephenson… the same Stephenson who headed the OSS, or Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. My father in law subsequently was sent back behind German lines for three years. He never told us what he did.
But I did. I was able to shape my “what-if's” into a story that was set in the present but harked back to the time of that Lawndale photo. The story is steeped in conflict, romance, as well as an omnipresent sense of danger. My characters became heroes and cowards and worse. I was even able to address America's entry into the war and how it affected Jewish immigrants.
I'm six novels down the road now, but I still use the same process. A tuft of tumbleweed skittering across the desert, the intake cribs in Lake Michigan, a white-water rafting trip, the impact of private security contractors – all these triggered “what-ifs” that eventually led to a novel or short story. Try it yourself – you'll see.
Libby Fischer Hellmann's novel Doubleback is out in October.