Harlan Coben in St. Louis: Part II

Part I (in case you missed it)

The first question people always ask an author is “Where do you get your ideas?” Coben said that anything, such as a tabloid headline, can stimulate an idea. Then he just keeps asking “What if?” For example, the idea for Promise Me came when he overheard a couple of teenagers talking about their friends drinking and driving. He pulled them aside, gave them his card with his cell phone number, and said, “Call me any time. Just promise me you won’t get into the car with someone who’s been drinking.” In real life nothing else happened. But he thought “What if a teenaged girl called the hero at 3:00 A.M. He picks her up in the city and drops her at the house she points out to him. The next morning she’s missing and no one at that house even knows who she is.”

The idea for Hold Tight came when he was having dinner with some friends who told him that their 15-year-old son was giving them some trouble, so they decided to put spyware on his computer. At first, Coben said, he was a little put off by their action, but then he thought that it’s not that simple a question. Imagine if they found something on the computer that indicated their kid was in a lot deeper trouble than they ever imagined.

The idea for Just One Look came to him one day when he was looking through family photographs. For a split second he thought there was a photo in there that he didn’t take. It turns out that the picture was just upside down. But he started thinking, “What if there was a picture here that I didn’t take? What if that picture changed my whole life? What if the picture showed that everything I thought I knew about my loved ones was a lie?” Then the next question the writer asks is “Who’s going to tell that story?” Coben said that for that book he wanted to portray a female lead for the first time because he was tired of those “bad woman in jeopardy” novels and movies, in which the heroine is naïve to the extreme and goes out of her way to put herself in danger so that the male character can rescue her.

Coben then said that these examples make coming up with the idea for a book sound like an easy process that takes about 15 minutes, but in reality it’s a messy process that represents about three months of work. The idea for Tell No One first came to him when he was watching a romance movie on television about a man whose wife dies. He asked himself, “What about the man who has truly lost his soul mate?” The second part of the idea came to him because he lost my parents at a young age. He has four kids now, and he thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if my parents could have met their grandchildren?” At the time he was sitting in front of the computer screen with a webcam, and he wondered, “What if I suddenly saw my parents right now on the computer screen?” He put those two ideas together and came up with the beginning of the book: a man whose wife has been dead for eight years receives an email; he clicks on a link in the email and goes to a video in which he sees his dead wife walk by.

The next thing he’s often asked about is where characters come from. He said this is the hardest question for him to answer, “because I really don’t know where character comes from.” He said that every once in a while a character is based on a real person, but rarely.

And then there’s the question of how much research he does in preparing to write a book. He said he’s of the “hum a few bars and fake it” school of research. The main reason is that research is an excuse not to write. The second reason is that it’s tempting to show off all one’s research when writing, but the inclusion of too many facts can clog up a story and slow it down too much.

Finally, Coben addressed the question of what he would be if he weren’t a writer. His answer was that he wouldn’t be much of anything. The fear that if he weren’t a writer he’d have to get a real job drives him. There are three things that make a writer:

  • inspiration
  • perspiration
  • desperation

He said he feels guilty when he’s doing just about anything other than writing. “The muse isn’t some angelic voice; it’s a nag. The muse isn’t hard to find; it’s hard to like,” he said. “Amateurs wait for the muse to arrive. The rest of us just get to work.”

It’s always interesting to hear an author talk about his writing, and Harlan Coben is a particularly entertaining speaker. So let me repeat: If you ever have the opportunity to hear him in person, take advantage of it.