I’m so pleased to introduce mystery author Susan Oleksiw as my guest today. Before turning to crime fiction, Susan received a Ph.D. in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania, and lived and traveled extensively in India as part of her studies. She was the editor for a collection of scholarly articles on communications in Asia in the early 1980s; she has published several articles on Indian literature and art as well.
Her short stories and essays about India appear in other literary journals. The Mellingham Mystery series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva includes six novels so far.
Anita Ray, an Indian American photographer living in India, was first introduced in “A Murder Made in India,” a short story in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She is the amateur sleuth in Susan’s 2010 release from Five Star/Gage, Under the Eye of Kali.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas? by Susan Oleksiw
Any writer who has ever admitted publicly that she writes fiction has been confronted with the standard set of questions from those who don’t write. For me the answers are pretty easy. Are you famous? (No.) Are you published? (Yes.) Where do you get your ideas? (Same place you get yours, probably.) I stopped being annoyed by these and similar questions a long time ago because they remind me of how fortunate I am, and also because once in a while someone really does want to know where I get my ideas.
Trying to explain where ideas come from is, for me, a dangerous exercise because I don’t want anyone to feel self-conscious or uncomfortable after we’re through talking. Only once have I ever met anyone who divined how things worked. At a neighborhood cookout a woman standing next to me said, “I suppose you look at the people around you and listen to them talking and then go home and make a story out of it.” Obviously annoyed with me, she stalked off. I was so surprised that I couldn’t think of anything to say, and I didn’t want to say, “You’re right, lady, and you are begging to go into a story.”
Yes, writers get their ideas by looking at the people around them and then wondering, what if? A woman arrives late at a party, explains that her husband is parking the car, and accepts a glass of wine. The evening progresses, but . . . what if he never comes into the house? Where is he? A hotel offers home-style dining, with all the guests sitting around a large table. Thrown together, the guests must be cordial, but . . . what if one insists on something more, probing the others for information about their lives? What if this guest returns to her room after breakfast to find her clothing torn and tossed around on the floor?
This is how I began the first Anita Ray novel, UNDER THE EYE OF KALI. Anita Ray, an Indian-American woman living in India at her aunt’s hotel, has appeared in a number of short stories, but this is her first book-length adventure. I picked the setting of a hotel in a tourist area, Hotel Delite, because I want Anita to be able to move through the many worlds that now converge in India—the traditional culture of South India, and especially Kerala, the westernizing middle class, and the ever-changing community of foreigners who come to work, relax, or visit friends.
Anita knows that the death of a hotel guest, even though it looks like an accident, could easily doom her aunt’s hotel, and she feels compelled to figure out what happened. Why would a foreign woman suddenly go off to explore a neglected part of the resort late at night? Was it mere coincidence that her traveling companion fell ill at the same time?
Questions keep me going when I’m writing, and I don’t expect to know the answers to all of them until I get to the end. I’m finding things out by following Anita during her investigations, listening to what the workers in the resort tell her, watching while she goes through a suitcase and papers, listening to the gossip of the hotel guests, and telling her worries to one of the fruit-sellers, who offers good advice.
I often tell students or other writers just starting out that writing a novel is a journey, a lived experience for the reader because it was a lived experience for the writer while she was writing it. I want to make discoveries as I go along, to explore and learn and be surprised. Anita lives and works in the resort, so this is richly described as she goes out to dinner with a friend, opens her photography studio for business, chats with the tailor next door. The reader, I hope, will know this foreign landscape as well as Anita, and at the end of the story feel she has lived briefly in another world.
Thanks so much, Susan, for being here today and sharing your thoughts about turning ideas into stories. I like the idea behind the Anita Ray series and look forward to reading Under the Eye of Kali.
For more information about Susan and her books, visit her website and her blog at One Writer’s World. I especially enjoyed her blog post on the End of Book Ritual.
Sheila Deeth says
Good question, and fascinating answer.
Thanks Patricia for inviting Susan to guest post. I’m finding myself more and more open and excited about the idea of trying fiction one day. Susan reinforced the feeling of how exciting it would be for me to say everything I want to say through my characters in an international setting.
Stephen Tremp says
A writer has to ask a lot of questions. This is simple yet effective advice. I ask “What if … ” all the time. Sometimes I have to tell myself to knock it off because I annoy myself. Thanks for the interview.
Susan Oleksiw says
Now that I’ve enjoyed myself with this post, and had a chance to read the responses, I can get back to my current mss, where I’m working through Anita’s newest adventure by repeatedly asking myself “What if . . .?” I may have to work in some Sanskrit, just so you and others interested in Anita and India will know what it’s like.
Patricia, thanks again for inviting me onto your site. A thoroughly wonderful experience and resource.
Mason Canyon says
Being a reader instead of a writer, I think when people ask where do your get your ideas what they really want to know is – is that character based on a real person you know or did you make them up. Great post and the book sounds very intriguing. Best of luck.
Thoughts in Progress
Jane Kennedy Sutton says
I love being in situations where ‘what if’ scenarios keep running through my head.
Your book sounds interesting. I haven’t been to India, but I enjoy reading about it.
Joyce Elson Moore says
Susan: I enjoyed reading about your past (Sanskrit sounds incredibly romantic, like a harem or something). Thanks for sharing with us.
Patricia Stoltey says
Susan, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and telling us more about Under the Eye of Kali. I’m looking forward to a good read.
Susan Oleksiw says
It’s very gratifying to hear so many positive comments from my fellow writers. I agree with many of you that get your ideas from people watching, as I do, and I want that t-shirt!
If I have made India more interesting to some readers I’ll be happy. We used to say in graduate school that India was America’s best unacknowledged friend. And the people of Kerala are among the best.
Thanks for your many enthusiastic responses, and to Patricia for inviting me. This was fun!
L. Diane Wolfe says
No two people are the same, which means there’s over 6 billion ideas in the world!
And I must be the only weirdo who gets all her ideas from dreams.
The Golden Eagle says
The ideas themselves are the things that really get me going as a writer, regardless of where they come from. They’re the reason I write. 🙂
Hilary Melton-Butcher says
Hi Patricia and Susan .. what a great read! I love the sound of Kerala .. and am longing to go see – we have some nurses from Kerala looking after my mother – gentle people. I heard about the area from some people I met and now some friends have just visited & loved it ..
So .. I’d love to get your book and find out more through your writing. What an amazing background to be able to write .. such a wonderful resource to base things on .. apart from us gossipy lot in the background .. ie people all around – who provide a myriad of potential.
Thanks .. great post – thanks Patricia and so interesting meeting you Susan ..
I’m going over now .. to sign up and to read the post Patricia’s highlighted .. thoroughly enjoyed this .. Hilary
Patricia Stoltey says
I think all writers share a common trait — a healthy (or unhealthy?) curiosity about other people and how they live their lives, the secrets they keep, and how they interact with others. It’s pretty darned hard to mind our own business, isn’t it? 🙂
Holly Ruggiero says
Thanks for sharing. For me I get ideas for scenes by people watching.
Jacqueline Seewald says
I’m with Rebbie! You do have a fascinating background. Pat, thanks for letting us know about this blog. I would definitely like to read
Rebbie Macintyre says
What a fascinating background and education you have, Susan. No wonder you have interesting ideas for your fiction!
Thanks for the post, Patricia and Susan!
Terry Odell says
Being able to “deal” with those people we see around us is such fun, isn’t it? I often wear my tee that says, “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel” and figure anyone around me that day has been warned.
Romance with a Twist–of Mystery
Talli Roland says
Thanks, Patricia and Susan. I love hearing about how other writers get their ideas, although I know the answer is often hard to articulate.
Nice post. Wonderful that you got your PhD living and studying in India!
Have heard those same questions many times. It’s interesting to learn how other writers answer them.
Thanks, Patricia and Susan!
Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams says
No matter how we get our ideas, it’s a fun process! One of the best parts about writing, I think.
Thanks for sharing your book with us–looks fabulous!
Jan Morrison says
This was interesting – I’m always surprised when people ask me where I get my ideas from – ideas are legion – execution of same – not so much! A worse thing is when people tell me they have ideas FOR me to turn into a novel. Noooooooooo! I try and be polite but yikes! I encourage them to write their own stories…
Thanks Patricia for finding Susan and sharing her with us!
Margot Kinberg says
Patricia – Thanks for hosting Susan.
Susan – Thanks for sharing where you get your ideas. I think you’re absolutely right that most writers get their ideas from observing life around them and filtering it into what they write. That makes sense, really, when you think about it. I wish you much success with your series, which, by the way, sounds fascinating!
Patricia Stoltey says
You have to be a stealth-watcher, Alex.
Alex J. Cavanaugh says
Maybe our people-watching skills intimidates non-writers?