If you’ve needed a start kick to start your novel or short story, begin with a question “What if?” to yourself. For example, what if your main character received an email from a rich Raja in India, telling him that he’s been chosen to receive a bazillion dollars—and it was true? What would your character do? How would it change his life? Or, what if the man didn’t want the money but went to India anyway to hand-deliver his refusal to the Raja? What would unfold? You don’t have to be a writer for these questions to send your imagination soaring and your pages ensuring.
Or how about this one? What if Hemingway’s missing draft of A Moveable Feast is found by a man who buys a locked trunk at an estate sale. The manuscript is stolen and the thief heads to Mexico where he runs into a writer in a seedy bar who grabs the manuscript and leaves. A chase ensures. Reading this novel, would remind one of the movie, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where dozens of greedy people race to find a treasure. This happens to be the premise of Shaun Harris’s The Hemingway Thief.
Clive Cussler was a master of the “what if? And he took it one step further by using historical events but changing their courses. In Sahara, Cussler theorizes “what if” President Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated, but abducted by the Confederates and placed aboard the Confederate Navy ship, CSS Texas. What a way to begin a novel! The ship is chased by the Union Navy and sails into the open sea to avoid capture, only to be blown off course during a storm and end up in the Sahara Desert. Everyone aboard the ship dies and over time, the vessel becomes buried in the sand. It is discovered more than a century later.
Cussler also changes the course of history in Treasure. The tale begins with Roman soldiers sailing a fleet of ships carrying the Library of Alexandria to a secret location where it is to be hidden in an underground cavern. The soldiers are slaughtered by the enemies. Only one ship and its crew escapes, but they never reach land and the library is lost. Then, almost 2000 years later, the ship is discovered buried in the sands in North Texas—of all places.
Cussler’s plot premise is the same in each novel, but intriguing nonetheless.
Amazon Prime’s series, The Man in the High Castle, is based on Phillip K. Dick’s “what if” novel about the Axis Powers winning World War II and dividing the United States into the Great Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States. Just reading about what could have happened had me up all night.
Even if your “what if” idea doesn’t go anywhere, it’s a great way to get a stalled imagination running again. Give it a try. What if your idea turns into a bestselling book?
Readers often ask if my mysteries are based on real-life crimes or circumstances. My answer is that my imagination provides the plots, so actual cases are not necessary. I don't use people I know as models for my characters, but I do use snippets of overheard conversations and strangers who grab my attention. Some of my own feelings, experiences, and passions are given to my main characters.
But some writers add fiction to the truth, creating an even better story. An actual crime, adventure, heartwarming story, or heroic gesture in a magazine article, newspaper, or blog can be captivating, but readers are only provided limited view points. A good fiction writer can take that situation and delve deeper the story, using multiple points of view, a more compelling background, and a wider range of other emotions like suspense, thrill, fear, or humor-something a reporter or nonfiction writer might not do.
I've also read the excellent biography, Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier. Author Tatiana de Rosnay's book has received raved reviews, but it was Rebecca, the fictional account of an obsessively jealous and fearful wife, that sold almost three million copies. I'm not as bold as Du Maurier to use my private life in a story-but then she's sold a lot more books than me. So maybe I'll rethink this.