Writers are often asked where they get their ideas from. Many will answer with something pithy.
“I get them from the Idea Fairy.”
“They arrive in my mailbox.”
“They appear on the back of milk cartons.”
I happen to love answering that question, and I promise to tone down the pithy. But the truth is, the answer depends on the story.
The idea for my first Alan Blades novel, Murder on the Orion Express, obviously came from an existing novel. During my stint as a talking book librarian for the blind, I was shelving a copy of Agatha Christie’s classic, Murder on the Orient Express, reflecting on its elegant plot mechanism: Poirot was trapped on a train when a murder transpired, isolating the environment and limiting the suspects to a notable few who were trapped along with him. Since I love science fiction, I couldn't help but think, “Wouldn’t it be cool if this story happened in space?”
It got my mind pondering parallels. Instead of the murder occurring on a train, it would occur on a spaceship. Instead of getting trapped in the snow, it would get trapped in subspace. But as with the Christie novel, the murder would be connected to a much larger web of motivation. Passengers would prove duplicitous. And the detective would need to solve the case without the help of authorities. These were the core ingredients that I tried to mirror. When the slight variation of its title occurred to me, Orion instead of Orient, I simply HAD to write the damn thing.
While some might consider this method of story derivation to be cheating, in truth, the vast majority of stories we love are new takes on old stories. Christie would have never come up with her mysteries were it not for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue and the many locked-room detective stories that followed. Another example: Westside Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo and Juliet is a retelling of Tristan and Iseult. The theme and core elements of the plot are intact in every iteration; what changes are the names, the settings, and the details. I, personally, am blown away by this concept: The idea that we can captivatingly retell the same stories by giving them new coats of paint.
So I needed to paint. Despite everything I started with based on Christie’s masterpiece, I still needed to create my protagonist. And his cast of acquaintances. And his entire universe. Some things, I went out of my way to change. I wanted my detective to be more hard-boiled and less proper. I wanted him to be an everyman rather than an intellectual superior. And I wanted to give him a sidekick. Even then, I pulled from existing resources. I added elements gleaned from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I integrated concepts from Firefly and Star Wars. I incorporated themes from Philip K. Dick and William Gibson. I aimed for a voice somewhere between parody and noir. And I tried to sprinkle the whole thing with just enough self-awareness to let the reader know it wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously. But all of that was embellishment. The original idea, as I said, came from an existing story.
Not so for its sequel, The Big Cryosleep. The idea for the second Alan Blades book came from the first Alan Blades book. Sometimes we get our ideas from external stimuli; sometimes we get our ideas from our ideas. I simply asked myself what Alan would be up to next. I wanted to visit an old friend.
I was originally daunted by writing a sequel. I wasn’t starting off with a proven plot device this round. I was worried that too many months had gone by without checking in. I was worried that I’d forgotten how Alan talked, how Listic talked, or how his universe worked. But thankfully, I was worried about nothing. He’s been waiting around for me to drop by and record more of his exploits. Because it turns out that the act of creating him means he now exists within the fabric of the imaginary cosmos. And it also turns out he’s been quite busy.
Yes, the sequel still toys with odes and derivations. As with the first novel, there are obvious parodies and winks at the reader. And in keeping with the first book, I made sure to base its title on a classic that’s come before: In this case, Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Only this time, the title came after the fact, and the plot is far less mirrored. Ideas have a way of taking on lives of their own.
Alan’s going in his own direction, whether I want him to or not. Though the books are a far cry from commercial success, and will most likely forever remain in obscurity, I couldn’t stop writing further sequels even if I wanted to. I feel compelled to find out what’s around Alan's next corner. I feel compelled to keep him alive.
Alan Blades 2, Fall, 2020.
Alan Blades 3, Fall, 2023.