Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Getting Ideas from Wisdom

Dale Cramer has written seven novels, garnering two Christy Awards and several listings among the Best Books of the Year at Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal.  He lives in Georgia with his wife and two sons.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Writers hear this all the time. Take questions at a book club get-together and somebody will always ask, "Where do you get your ideas?" I never knew what to say, and frankly I never took it seriously until one night when I answered with, "I get mine from a company in New York. They have a website."

The lady didn't think it was the least bit funny, and that was when it dawned on me that these people are serious. They really want to know where ideas come from, or, more accurately, how an idea germinates into a novel.

So I gave it some thought. I can't speak for everybody, but for me the idea for a book usually begins when a bit of wisdom sticks in my mind. It doesn't happen often, and for the record I don't originate a lot of wisdom because I'm not particularly wise. 

A writer doesn't have to be wise, he just has to be (A) able to recognize wisdom when he sees it, and (B) unscrupulous enough to abscond with it and wrap a book around it.
My first novel was wrapped around what I call the Sow's Ear Principle: If God wants to make a silk purse he'll start with a sow's ear every time; he'll use the foolish to shame the wise. Being foolish myself, I was comforted by this thought, and it took up residence in the back of my mind. 

Then the idea began fleshing itself out, building a landscape out of places I had visited and populating the countryside with characters cut from the fabric of people I have known. After a while curiosity got the better of me, so I started following these characters around and writing down what they did. Turns out, the things they did illustrated the Sow's Ear Principle. Three years and a half-dozen rewrites later I had what I thought was a viable novel, so I sent it to an agent. She made me rewrite it.

My second novel wrapped itself around an idea that had nagged me for years: the fact that the worst thing that ever happened to me turned out, eventually, to be the best thing that ever happened to me.  God gives us the brightest gifts in the darkest places. The setting, a tunnel project I had worked on for a couple years, was already etched on my mind in great detail. The characters, a bunch of miners and construction workers, were second nature to me. They just walked into the scenes whole, begging for attention. They were full of the grandest lies and the simplest truths, and I had a fine time telling their stories.

My third novel was different because it was the first time I knew the story before I knew the theme.  Levi's Will was based loosely on my father's life, and I was well into the writing of it before I stumbled across a scrap of poetry by William Carlos Williams that shed light on what the story was about: Love is the proof of God, and forgiveness is the proof of love. It's what I'd been trying to say all along.

But Levi's Will was a heavy book, so for my next project I wanted to write something light, something fun. Having gone, entirely by accident, from full-time construction worker to stay-at-home-dad to published novelist, my own experience gave me a theme: You never know what the day will bring.  Again, characters showed up on their own and started doing strange things but, to be honest, an uncomfortable portion of the absurdities in that book were taken from actual experience as a redneck stay-at-home-dad.

The last three books I've written comprise a trilogy, and the story thrust itself upon me. I was watching a ball game with my dad one evening and he mentioned being born in Mexico. Now, I've known this all my life, but my father was a quiet man. He only said two or three words a year, and though I had always wondered about it I had never asked him how an Amish family from Ohio came to be living south of the border. So I asked, and this incredible story emerged.  Religious persecution in the 1920's forced a group of Amish to move to the mountains of Mexico where, according to my father, "Bandits robbed them blind for several years, until they got troops in there, but the troops were worse than the bandits."

I knew I had to write it, and I knew the story was too big for one book. Once I started work on the trilogy the theme presented itself immediately and became the backbone of The Daughters of Caleb Bender. It's a simple question, but one we all grapple with every day:  Where do you put your faith?

I guess it doesn't really matter which comes first, the theme or the story, because I need both. I can't write a book until I see characters who live and breathe, and they don't live and breathe until they have something worth saying. There is wisdom all around us in our lives, we just have to be still enough to see it. When you find it, keep it. Cling to it. See who shows up to help you illustrate it, and write down what they do.

That's where stories come from.

Though Mountains Fall
(Book 3 in The Daughters of Caleb Bender series, due out in December)

"I want you to promise you will always be my sister."

There were tears in Miriam's eyes as their foreheads touched and Rachel whispered, "No matter what. Always."

Now in its fourth year, the Amish settlement in Mexico is thriving. But as new settlers arrive, sons and daughters marry, babies are born, and crops grow thick, a storm looms on the horizon. And Caleb Bender knows--perhaps better than anyone--that the worst of storms don't come from the western skies.

They come on horseback.

When their very existence is threatened, the Amish turn to the Mexican government for help, only to discover that the rulers of men are fickle and security is an illusion. Tried by fire and riven by war, Caleb and Domingo come to understand that the kingdom of God is not to be found in land or buildings or gold or armies, but in the hearts of peaceful men trying to feed their families.

Watching helplessly as daughters Rachel, Miriam, and Emma are drawn inexorably toward their separate destinies, Caleb is forced to confront the most important decision of his life.


Kyle Stephen said...

I think good writers don't get their ideas from somewhere - it comes to them.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

I really enjoyed this post. Very wise concepts you worked with for your stories! Going to try to find your twitter/blog now!