10 August 2015

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

by Susan Rogers Cooper

Back in the early 90's, I saw an article in the Austin paper about a family tragedy. The mother committed suicide in her car by carbon monoxide poisoning, but the garage was attached to the house and the door didn't shut properly. Her husband and three children all died. When investigators entered the house, they found a filthy horror – open pizza cartons next to dirty diapers, all three children on a mattress on the floor of a bedroom, sharing space with food and more dirty diapers.
But there was more to this story. In interviewing the mother's co-workers they found a real estate agent who was always dressed to the nines, and had a pristine car in which to take clients to view homes. The teachers at the two older children's school said the children were healthy and well dressed and quite respectful.
Reading this article I had one burning question: What happened to this woman when she stepped over the threshold of her own home? There was no answer in the article. It ended with the sad news that no extended family members ever claimed the bodies, and the only reminder of this family was a plaque on the playground of the school the older children attended.
And I kept asking myself why?

Since there were no answers given, I decided to make up my own, and wrote OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES, the third Milt Kovak mystery.

Years ago at a convention I heard two writers belittled the often asked fan question: “Where do your ideas come from?” They thought it was a dumb question. I disagree. I think the origin, the nut, of the idea is fascinating, and have asked the question myself of fellow writers.

In 1998, I went w/ my extended family to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was my daughter and me, along with both my brothers, their wives, and my two nephews. We rented a large house on the water and when we finally got to the island, a real estate lady led us to the house and then took us on a tour, explaining garbage pick up and water delivery (there’s very little water on St. John so it has to be shipped in from one of the larger islands.) In the middle of the living room, the real estate lady lifted up a section of the ceramic tile floor to reveal a cistern – a hole in the middle of the living room floor where the water was stored. Every single member of my family turned and looked at me. Finally, one of them said, “What a great place to hide a body.”

The real estate lady turned a little green and we had to explain my penchant for hiding dead bodies.

But that’s exactly what I did. In DON’T DRINK THE WATER, E.J. Pugh and her husband, her three sisters and their significant others, go to St. John and stay in the exact same house. First day in, the water pressure is way off – no one can take a shower, they go to investigate and voila!

All our ideas come from somewhere and is it any wonder that fans who love our books want to know where that kernel came from? If a writer can't answer that question, maybe the problem is theirs.

Just last week I was talking w/ a friend who had just taken her young daughter to the circus. She said they were standing around before the show, looking at the animals. Three year old Marissa was fascinated w/ the elephants. My friend said it made her nervous because they were so big, and what would happen if one of them got spooked?

And I thought, hum? What would happen? And how could you spook an elephant? A dart gun loaded w/ amphetamines? Then the elephant starts charging everything in site? And why? Because – because – because there’s this witness, see, that you need dead. But it needs to look like an accident, so---

That’s where ideas come from.


  1. What an intriguing article, Susan. And very true. We read an article about a trauma or a tradegy that sparks our imagination to wonder what happened? Sometimes we meet a person that is so obnoxious or mean or aggravating that we begin to think of ways to murder that person and get away with it. As a mystery writer, we can do that. We get to kill off a bad person in a book or a story, How cool is that? I have a t-shirt that I wear quite often which has the following written on the front: "Careful I might use you in my next novel."

  2. A good piece and right on the mark

  3. Good piece. One of my stories, "The Asparagus Bed", was sparked by digging an asparagus bed - which was the exact size and shape of a grave. Another, "Public Immunity" is based on a murder case that never went to trial, and the reasons for that haunted me for years. And, of course, there's my crazy family, which has supplied ideas and inspiration since I was adopted...

  4. I'm also struck by tragedies and to me, nothing is worse than suicide. I've written about one or two on-line, but not in a story.


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