Cathy Strasser’s short stories have been published in several anthologies, and one of them, “Afterward,” was a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her debut novel, An Uncertain Grave, is a humorous hiking mystery set in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Learn more about Cathy and her writing at her website.
Writing Process – Ideas for books
How does an author get an idea for a book? I think if you ask a dozen different authors you’d get a dozen different answers. I’ve heard people say they take ideas from their family histories, overheard conversations, newspaper headlines and even dreams. In my book, An Uncertain Grave, I started with just two words: colossal ineptitude.
I love words. I have fun playing with them in different combinations, playing with alliteration, putting together catchy phrases, basic writer type stuff. When I make a phrase I like, I write it down in a notebook and save it for the future, like a musician might save a series of notes that has the potential to grow into a song.
“Colossal ineptitude” was one of those phrases. I liked the way it sounded when I said it, and I liked the way it started to paint a picture in my mind. If I applied that phrase to a person, what would he/she be like? They’d be a bumbler, someone who never seemed to do anything right. It would be more than just clumsiness; they would have to perform poorly in most things they tried, but in order to be colossal they’d have to try many things. Therefore, they wouldn’t realize they were inept; they would have the illusion that they were acing an activity.
What would sustain that conviction? Equipment. Lots of shiny new gadgets. Heaps of high tech gear and the most advanced tools and tackle. Sport specific clothing and footwear that branded you as a participant. Now one of my main characters was taking shape. An inexperienced guy who felt he knew it all because he’d bought all the coolest stuff. He would be a hiker. Someone who felt buying the best paraphernalia would propel him up any mountain he wanted to climb.
So what was this guy going to do? He was going to prove he was more show than go, and then completely fall apart when faced with a real crisis – finding a body.
Now that I had my first character, I needed a counterweight. Someone with the opposite characteristics to provide conflict. Who better than a pair of experienced State Troopers? Excellent. I put them all on a mountain and let them interact. The first couple of chapters were fun, but I could see that just emphasizing the ineptitude wouldn’t be enough to sustain an entire book. I needed another main character.
I decided to add in a newspaper reporter, someone who also felt he knew it all, and in most cases, actually did. All these characters would be competing to discover the identity of the body found on the mountain, and would be guaranteed to get on each other’s nerves. Excellent, plenty of conflict and plenty of opportunity for snappy dialogue. I added a few ancillary characters for local color, and I had the ingredients for an engaging book. All from a simple phrase!
An Uncertain Grave
A stray hiker reports finding a partially decomposed body on Mt Lafayette in the “North Country” – the top third of New Hampshire around the Franconia Notch – where the rugged terrain and sparse population provides the space and isolation to keep any number of secrets. Cliff Codey and Mike Eldrich, New Hampshire State Troopers with the Investigative Services Bureau, set out to solve the case in spite of the weather, reticent locals, and a bored, nosy New York reporter and his ambitious girlfriend who compete with the troopers to discover the victim’s identity. As the investigation widens, both teams contend with a variety of local residents who have secrets they don’t wish to share. A shadow from Cliff’s past soon intrudes on the current investigation, complicating matters further. All these threads combine as the killer prepares to take action to keep his secret and himself safe.