IDEAS ‘R US
A question we are asked all the time, maybe second only to, “How do you write TOGETHER?” is “Where do you get your ideas?” We suspect ours come from the same place most writers mine for story—EVERYWHERE. Inspiration can begin with a conversation overheard in line at the supermarket, observing a couple in a restaurant, recalling a childhood experience, watching a news story where you know there’s another side—maybe even three or four that are not being told. Wherever you have people interacting, or not interacting, the potential for plot lines and characters exists. Everyday circumstances become a jumping off point and when we leap we don’t always know where we’ll land. Often not where we expected.
We enjoy stretching ourselves in our writing—working a new muscle group. So we aim to do a little of that in every book. For example, What Doesn’t Kill You, our last novel, was our first attempt at writing in first person. We had a ball and will undoubtedly do it again—hopefully with Tee. Readers got Thomasina Hodges, our heroine, and she has much more to say. And although we didn’t plan it—we started writing What Doesn’t Kill You back in 2005—Tee’s economic woes ended up being ripped-from-the-headlines current—like those “straight from the news to your TV screen” episodes of Law & Order, only we added humor instead of guns and handcuffs.
Ideas come from letting ourselves slow down, inhale the air around us—to really pay attention and absorb life. During our twenty year writing partnership we have both started many a conversation with, “What if. . .” It’s the signal for the other one to start listening and opening up to the possibilities. So when we were what-iffing our next book into existence, we knew we wanted the story to have the kind of immediacy we brought to WDKY, but to also have a twist, elements that stretched us.
Ultimately, our subject found us. We heard the hissing of the air rushing out of the real estate bubble—delinquent mortgages, foreclosures, speculation, bankrupt developers—the news was inescapable. Whether you live in a big city, like Donna or in the ‘burbs, like Virginia, the fallout has affected lots of us. But in New York City, before the fizzle, Harlem properties, old and new, were especially hot. We couldn’t pickup the real estate section of the Times without some kind of story about the residential market north of Central Park. These stories, however, were fraught with controversy because Harlem has held a seminal place in our history and cultural heritage since the turn of the twentieth century as a Mecca for African Americans. Now the population uptown is changing fast, too fast for some, not fast enough for others. Who were the people involved in this real estate revolution in Harlem and where did they come from? What did these changes mean for long time residents and building owners? Who would benefit? Who would profit? Who would lose?
In some ways the idea is the easy part, but that’s not what makes a story memorable. Our experience is that readers get attached to characters who make them care and situations that keep them needing to know what happens next. How would we make a story that was as big as New York, also be the intimate saga of a family? So we let all of our questions lead us to early sketches of a story centered around a family real estate business which was rooted in Harlem. We had started fleshing out characters when we realized we already knew these people. We met the Dixons in Better Than I Know Myself. The cold, manipulative Dwight and the overbearing King made a strong impression with readers. They were juicy for us to write back then and we realized that the moment for their story was now. So this time the men came first, definitely a new approach for us.
We knew Dwight needed a foil—a female character with Dixon family history. We had already introduced his favorite Aunt Forestina, when we met Dwight and King. That gave us the opportunity to bring her daughter, Avery, into the picture. Then we needed to figure out how Dwight could be so close to his aunt, but make no reference to his cousin. Sounded like a family secret—maybe a scandal that caused a rift and resulted in Avery’s estrangement. This was getting juicy. And because we needed someone who would recognize how Avery had changed through the years, she needed an old friend, to challenge her, to bring her out, even when that was uncomfortable. Straight talking Alicia showed up to fill that role.
Situation can lead to character or vice versa, but once the plot and the people are in place, we take some time to really get to know who we’re dealing with—give them history, personality, quirks. We start to know the way they speak, and why. Both Avery and Dwight are complex, personalities. What you see on the outside, even the way they perceive themselves, is not necessarily who they really are. Getting at all those layers was a little like excavation, but it helped us bring their past into their current situation. The story in Uptown takes place in a matter of months, but what goes down in the course of those few short months, was years in the making.
Often our ideas lead us to circumstances we don’t know first hand. Whether it’s the doll business in Gotta Keep on Tryin’ or the cosmetics industry in What Doesn’t Kill You, we always research our background subject. In the case of Uptown, that was Manhattan real estate development, and we don’t have an uncle in the biz, so we gathered as much info as we could. Thanks to the internet, it’s much easier now than it was back when we were researching the railroad and airline industries and Swedish immigrants, for our first novel, Exposures.
Once we start to write, our original kernel of an idea has gone through many transformations—sometimes we look at our first story notes and they crack us up because so much has changed. There are always alterations that happen as we write too. In the case of Uptown, last year’s bank and brokerage firm meltdowns occurred as we were working and kept us scrambling to stay current. But it was also an indication that the story was right where we wanted it to be.
After eight months hunkered down, we emerged from the writing cave with a manuscript! Then came the holding our breath period—waiting to hear what our agent and editor thought of Uptown. Both of them gave it thumbs way up, and so far the reviews have been good—great even, which had been comforting—until now. Tuesday, March 2, the pub date for the next book, our seventh “What If,” that’s the real test. We have this sense of accomplishment, and feeling of terror with every book release, and this time is no different. And experience tells us next time won’t be either, but that hasn’t stopped us from starting on the next idea.