Making between ten and twenty speeches every year at libraries and clubs and to school groups, I’m always asked questions about my writing, and one comes up fairly often: “Where do you get your ideas?” Someone always wants to know. Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly flippant I’ll swear that whenever I need some, I contact an old guy in New Jersey who sends me ten ideas for twenty-five bucks.
Once, when I was teaching an adult writing class at a college just outside Los Angeles, a woman from the group called me one afternoon.
“I have six different ideas for books,” she told me on the phone. “But I can’t think of which one to pick.”
Since she didn’t explain any of those ideas further, everything in me wanted to simply say, “Pick number four” and hang up. Instead, I said, “All of us have dozens of different ideas every day. As a writer, pick the one you’re thinking about the most.”
She thanked me profusely—and we never spoke about it again. But I’ve always felt that way—that certain ideas go in one ear and out the other while others, the really important ones, stay inside the head and cook and boil until they simply have to be written.
I recall an important and disturbing idea that eventually evolved into a Milan Jacovich book, The Dutch.
It was back in the early seventies, in Los Angeles, when I heard from a coworker on a TV show about the suicide of an acquaintance of both of ours. “She did the Dutch,” he told me. I was confused and asked him for more specifics and he stretched it out. “The Dutch Act,” he explained. “She committed suicide.”
That was more than a decade before I started writing detective novels, but I asked around in Hollywood and heard from several people about “the Dutch.” Not many people knew where that slang originated, but I knew when I sat down and wrote the Milan Jacovich adventure about a distraught father asking the private eye to investigate why his daughter had taken her own life.
Right from the start I decided quite easily how the character would die. The Lorain-Carnegie Bridge stretching across the Cuyahoga River—also now called “The William Hope Memorial Bridge” after the stonemason father of the late comedian/icon Bob Hope—was and is extremely beautiful because there are gigantic statues of the “Titans of Industry” wrapped around each of the bridge’s pylons. It was easy to figure out why the fictional victim had fallen from the bridge and onto the hard ground nearly two hundred feet below instead of into the water, and the more I researched the more excited I grew about putting this novel together.
I typed the first sentence of that novel: “The dark space under the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge is, I think, a singularly lousy place to die.” That one sentence really ignited my imagination, and I never let up.