There is one question that writers hear so often that it’s become cliché: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ We steal them, actually; from many places, though mostly from ourselves. Occasionally ideas are generated by events in the news. More often, though, they are a product of all of the author’s own life experiences, of things learned, heard or observed from all of the people he or she has met along the way. With my first novel Wildwood, I’d spent nearly every summer as a child and teenager in Wildwood, New Jersey. I knew the town, its history, geography and 70s-era vibe very well. In the case of The Blue Route I grew up in Delaware County, Pennsylvania: Ground Zero during the years of seemingly endless Blue Route construction and controversy. Night Train Express grew out of my interest in a fatal real-life drama and its repercussions involving US Special Forces during the Vietnam War. Sometimes fiction is precisely that, harvested almost entirely from the fertile summerlands of the subconscious.
The Premise is Idea #1, The Big Idea. The tree from which the fruit of other ideas naturally falls. The Premise requires a story, one sustainable for 300 or 400 pages. A story needs characters. Major, minor. Good, bad. Characters need scenes and dialogue, motivation, histories. It’s an endless game of connect the dots, with one ‘idea’ after another, akin to filling a large empty house with furniture…or filling a hungry tiger’s belly with red meat before bad things happen. It’s a process that is largely about visualization, about seeing a movie unfold in the dark projection room of the mind.
The basic premise, the Big Idea starting point, of my new novel The Dream Garden was a real-life murder case and its lengthy, contentious resolution that played out in suburban Philadelphia in the 80s and 90s. On March 18, 1983, Kelly’s Deli in the small borough of Collingdale, PA was the scene of an armed robbery by a sole gunman wearing a ski mask. The owner and customers were herded into a walk-in refrigerator. One customer—a 71-year old man–was killed. Danny McCracken, an 18-year old high school senior who lived nearby was arrested, ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison. His arrest and conviction was largely due to him being similarly dressed as the robber, by the testimony of an eyewitness—a friend who allegedly saw McCracken enter the deli–and by a failed Gunshot Residue Test. The GSR is an investigative tool of dubious accuracy which purports to tell if someone has fired a gun recently. The suspect also happened to be the son of a well-known outlaw biker. Perhaps not coincidentally the District Attorney had a long and bitter relationship with the senior McCracken and with the Warlocks, the notorious hardcore bike club of which he was a member.
Two weeks after the robbery, two men were arrested while committing a very similar crime in a nearby town. Ballistics linked the gun used in this robbery to the killing at Kelly’s Deli. But even after one robber confessed to the Kelly’s Deli robbery, Danny McCracken was not released. I followed the case with interest as events unfolded. One of my best friends lived in Collingdale at the time, three blocks from Kelly’s Deli. I had been a customer. I knew many members of the Warlocks; from high school and from the neighborhood. I’d worked at the county courthouse, had met the DA and McCracken’s attorney John McDougal. Danny McCracken spent four years in prison before being released on appeal, due to the tireless work of attorney McDougal. The appeals process ultimately dragged on for twelve years before McCracken was fully exonerated. That’s the simple summation of a long, complex criminal and legal case, one that is now studied in law schools; about five seasons worth of Law & Order episodes.
Even before I began writing seriously I knew the story would make for an interesting book or movie, or both. I first wrote a draft of the novel that evolved into The Dream Garden years ago. Legal thrillers may be my least favorite fiction genre, so I never had much interest in focusing on the legal minutiae or courtroom drama per se. It was always going to be a character-driven story, and a return to a recurrent theme of mine—how the past revisits us at odd times and in unexpected ways and drives the present and the future. I found the manuscript and rewrote it several times over the years, but I thought it needed something; a hook. I found that hook by chance—a story in the news about the efforts to cover and protect a priceless work of art located in a Philadelphia office building during construction. The Dream Garden is a massive and stunningly beautiful mosaic, made of over 100,000 pieces of iridescent colored glass, created by George Tiffany and over 30 artisans from a painting by Maxfield Parrish. The giant mosaic takes up an entire wall in the lobby of the Cutis Building, just down the street from Independence Hall. It’s visually fascinating and deceptive, illusory. One character in the novel describes it, accurately, as being “like a portal into other dimensions, a zipper in the fabric of space and time. Like the edge of forever.”
Like Mick Finn, the protagonist of the novel, I was introduced to the Dream Garden as a child by my mother. Her mother, my grandmother, worked at Curtis when the artwork was first installed. I thought-what if the characters are connected somehow through this famous and beloved mosaic? The Dream Garden really becomes a novel not so much about the robbery itself and the concomitant legal maneuvers but rather about connections and relationships, about dreams lost and rediscovered, about love, hope and redemption, about the past and its influence on us. It’s an examination of motivation: what makes people what we are, why we do the things they do. And a mosaic is at its heart a puzzle, one that must be painstakingly pieced together over a period of time; a metaphor both for a criminal and legal case and for life.
Real life often inspires fiction as it did in this case, but real life unadorned doesn’t necessarily make for great fiction. Fiction is hyper-reality. Fiction is entertainment. You have to take facts and mold them like malleable clay, bend them to your own requirements, to the need for drama, story arc and resolution. In the book the deli becomes a pizzeria, its location moved to another town. The body count increases. There are two robbers. The prime suspect becomes a talented musician, on the verge of a record deal. His sentence is not life in prison bur rather the death penalty. His attorney is not an older, conservative white male but young, female and flamboyant, an ex-girlfriend of the protagonist. That protagonist is a wealthy, eccentric and troubled TV and movie producer, a former investigative reporter reluctant to become involved. The district attorney evolves into a more complex and enigmatic figure, a man with secrets of his own. The ‘real robbers’ are not a pair of uninteresting small-time hoods but machinegun-toting white supremacist siblings with an agenda.
A number of readers have said that they particularly appreciate the minor characters, especially the bad guys and bad women that inhabit my novels—Daddy-O, Nikki Blue, Johnny Ringo and Angel in Wildwood, Anne Cavanaugh, David Martell and Eddie Peacock in Night Train Express, Frank Udek in The Forever Family, Doctor Antoine in The Blue Route, and perhaps worst, or best, of all—Edith and Calvin Kronk in Dream Garden. It’s the creation of these characters—killers, sociopaths, racists, thieves, schemers lacking any moral compass–that most often leads me to ask myself where ideas, and characters, really do come from.
Like an actor playing a serial killer, I sometimes wonder why I’m so good at inventing these sorts of people, at visualizing their despicable deeds. How DOES the creative process work? Few of my characters are based on real-life individuals, on anyone that I know. Some are composites. Most, though, are simply products of the author’s imagination which, in the case of some of these people, is a scary thing. These villains are often interesting and challenging to create though it’s not always a pleasant experience; ugly people do ugly things and an honest writer has to follow them down to the nadir of their twisted paths. In my world, and in my books, there are—hopefully–no cartoonish villains. While these people are repugnant in many ways, their motives and actions are nuanced. They have their own peculiar agendas, their reasons for doing what they do.
My sister Gerri, who has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience, explained the technical aspects of creativity to me. Turns out, there isn’t one area of creativity in the brain. The left brain right brain theory is a myth. Creativity emerges from the interplay of complex brain activity by multiple systems. Dig the Big Three: the Default Mode Network, the Executive Control Network and the Salience Network. In most people, these disparate parts of the brain rarely team up. They’re like the Israelis and the Saudis: not necessarily bitter enemies though not in any hurry to hang out. But in creative individuals, they kiss and embrace and take it from there.
Creative brains are wired differently than most. The Default Mode Network kicks in while we’re daydreaming—think “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees. It plays a major role in imaginative thought. In the vast majority of people crossing the hemispheric border of the brain is like crossing the border between German and Switzerland in 1942, under the watchful gaze of the SS and Gestapo. In creative individuals, though, that brain border crossing is like driving from Pennsylvania into Delaware. Your creative types engage multiple networks simultaneously—hate us if you have to—in a flexibility of thought, a concert, a ballet. We construct deeper meaning from our experiences, remember the past more vividly, imagine other peoples’ perspective and alternate scenarios, understand stories, compassion and empathy, extract order from chaos. Does any of that that explain Eddie and Calvin Kronk, Nikki Blue or Doctor Antoine? Maybe, and maybe it’s not that simple. That’s neuroscience. Me, I’m more of a romantic.
“Journey To The Center Of The Mind” is a great psychedelic-era classic by the Amboy Dukes, a paean to the joys of LSD. I believe that it’s also a very good summation of the creative process. Take a trip. Leap into the swirling Cuisinart of the subconscious, into the lush environs of the dream garden.
You never know what, or who, might turn up there…