Saturday, July 19, 2008
Of all the questions asked of fiction writers, the one most common is: Where do you get your ideas? It is a crucial question that goes to the heart of the storyteller's art. One might generalize and assert that it comes from an amalgam of one's life's experiences, stories told by others, books read, movies seen, dreams and fantasies, and the molten mix in the cauldron of one's imagination. This is one writer's attempt to pinpoint the spark that ignited the idea that became the story and its aftermath.
I was having a drink in a Pub in London with a British diplomat who was on leave from his post in the British Embassy in Peking in the mid seventies. It was at the height of the antagonism between China and the Soviet Union, and a hostile relationship existed between China and the West.
In those days, in the midst of the Cold War, we lived in a perpetual state of tension and uncertainty with the threat of a nuclear disaster always alive in our minds as an existentialist threat. The media was inundated with confrontational possibilities with the Soviets and Chinese, both real and imagined, and the spy stories of John Le Carre and others dominated the bookshelves and movie theaters.
From various subtle hints conveyed by my friend, I suspected that he was involved in highly classified intelligence work for his government.
I had met my friend years before in Washington where he was on assignment to the British Embassy in some capacity that he never defined, but which I intuited had some cloak and dagger aspect about it. I was a young soldier then, assigned to the Pentagon as the only Washington Correspondent for Armed Forces Press Service.
We had kept up our relationship, which included our wives, and had kept in touch as he traveled from various assignments in many countries. When we reunited in London where my son was attending a summer course in acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, I had already published a number of novels and my trained inner antenna was geared to trolling for ideas for stories.
It must be said at the outset that a committed novelist, like a prospector searching for gold, is always on the lookout for an idea that will spark a story. Every observation, every person he meets, every episode in his life, every thought, memory, reflection and cogitation is geared, consciously or subconsciously, to the concept of what will make a story. Everything in the zeitgeist was and is fair game.
Since China in those days was a closed society, I was anxious to hear about his experiences in this world and, after a pint of two, he was happy to oblige. Most of his stories were gossipy. He had played frequent tennis games with George Bush, the elder, when he was a representative in China during my friend's multiple assignments. He told me about how his oldest child was fluent in Chinese courtesy of a Chinese nanny, about the poverty he saw all around him, about the food and how the diplomatic community was deliberately isolated by the Government.
Then it came. The ignition spark. He described how he had periodically hand carried the Diplomatic pouch to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia twice a month. He explained that his route was to take the railroad journey from Peking to Mongolia and explained how the Trans-Siberian Express was linked to this line and that he had taken it himself from Moscow.
As he described his journey on the Trans-Siberian Express, I became more and more intrigued. He told me it was the longest railroad trip in the world, a 7,000 mile journey through numerous time zones, that it's original route was from Moscow to Vladivostok, the latter a naval base that was then off-limits to foreigners. He told me that the Russian track gauge was wider than the world standard, and the carriages had to be raised and the new wheels attached to ride the rails outside of the Soviet borders.
He told me that sleeping compartments were assigned without regard to gender and that the food was ghastly and the third class passengers had to buy their food from vendors along the route through Siberia. He told me about the monotony of the Siberian tundra, the various ethnic groups that used the train as it traversed the route and that the train was pulled by giant steam locomotives, the largest in the world at the time.
One must relate this eureka moment to the context of the times and my world as a child growing up in the earlier part of the twentieth century. The train was the principal mode of land travel in those days. Railroad travel was exotic and far-reaching. The celebrity culture was built around trains and boats. Photographs of celebrities disembarking trains was a common media event. Railroad stations were palaces. Grand Central Station in New York City was a work of art, one of the most celebrated structures in the world.
Model trains were the ultimate toy for a boy and department stores featured elaborate displays to hawk these toys. Railroad travel was exotic and romantic and were featured in books and movies. Staterooms were shown as the height of luxury and private cars were the ultimate in luxurious travel. Graham Greene's novel Stamboul Train and the movie The Lady Vanishes, among many others, offered exciting stories about train travel. I was a child of those times, and when my friend spun his yarn about his experiences on the largest train ride in the world, my head began to swim with story ideas.
The idea had everything, Cold War intrigue, spies, staterooms assigned without regard to gender, the paranoia of the times, the closed world of the Soviet Union and China. The setting that filled my mind was a novelist's dream, and my imagination began to conjure up a story that would take place around the centerpiece of a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express.
My friend saw my enthusiasm, and when I shared my wish to take this journey, he offered his help. He told me that when he returned to the Embassy in Peking, he would send an official request from the Embassy for me to visit Peking. We both knew that it wouldn't assure me a visa, but it would be worth a try.
I was enraptured by the idea and presented it as a possibility with my publisher at Putnam, the late Clyde Taylor. He too had grown up in the days of romantic train travel. The title "Trans-Siberian Express" was enough to sell him. "Write it," he said. The world of publishing was quite different in those days. The corporate bean counters and impersonal international conglomerates had not yet taken over.
By then Nixon had opened a tiny door into China, and the Chinese had opened a mission in Washington, D.C. a few miles from where I lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I received the invitation to Peking from the British Ambassador and with great hope applied to the mission for a visa. While I waited I absorbed myself in research. I researched the history of the Trans-Siberian Railroad which began construction at the turn of the century, and I delved into all the literature of Siberia that I could find.
Living in the Washington metropolitan area and involved in the life of the capital city, and a political junky by inclination, I had a pretty good handle on the politics of the Cold War. The local media was filled with information. In effect I was living in the background of what I needed to give heft to the political intrigue required to form the basis of my story.
In those days, a writer could roam the stacks of the Library of Congress, and I was able to tap into their vast supply of titles that were germane to the subject. I visited with experts on train travel with specific reference to the Trans-Siberian, how their carriages were configured, how the on-board service in all classes were carried out, what cities were on the route, what their stations looked like, the climate in Siberia, and ferreted out as much material as I could gather on the mind-set of the Russian people and their leaders.
The Soviets and the Chinese were at each other's throats at that point in time. Both had an atomic arsenal. The thirst for Soviet hegemony was well known, and it was no secret that what they wanted was world domination. Unfortunately, the Chinese, despite their slow emergence from isolation, were still in thrall to their leaders penchant for secrecy and their paranoia about any foreign influence. Unfortunately, I waited in vain for an answer to my visa request and ultimately I gave up hope of every being allowed to make the complete journey on the Trans-Siberian Express through to Peking.
With my hopes for eyewitness research on the Trans-Siberian dashed, I had to recreate the journey through my imagination hoping that my research would give it authenticity. The awesome power of the human mind never fails to amaze me. Frankly, it defies analysis, and I would rather not tinker with its explanation. The point is that it must work since I did receive numerous letters from people who had taken the journey and pronounced my take on it as accurate as their own.
With all the ingredients for an exciting story in place, I began to develop the characters in my mind. Every novelist has his or her own technique. Mine is to conceive the characters and the venue and allow them to work out their own destiny. In my mind they become real people and create their own story. I know that sounds a bit mysterious and it is. Harold Robbins once told me that he channeled God to write his books and my old novelist friend Rod Thorpe once told me that he wouldn't be able to write a novel if he knew in advance how it would end.
There was another aspect of the story that was forming in my mind. In all my novels, my obsession with "love," the mystery of attraction and its implications, is one of the consistent themes, and the idea of staterooms being assigned without regard to gender offered an opportunity for me to explore this theme. Most great and enduring stories, from the Bible through Shakespeare and all of the world's most memorable novels, in some way, deal with this theme.
Without going into the intricate details of the plot, a log line might be that my novel can be described as a love story on a train against the background of international intrigue. It was a resounding success, translated into many languages and garnering the first of my ten options and sales to the movie industry.
It was optioned, then bought by a prominent group of producers that included the late Sir Lou Grade and the famed producer Marty Richards, who later produced Chicago and many hit films and plays. Unfortunately, it was never made, which is the fate of the overwhelming majority of books bought for film adaptation.
All books have a life of their own. My novel The War of the Roses has become a classic movie that plays all over the world with astounding regularity. Another film adaptation, Random Hearts, continues its life on the screen as well.
But the soul of this narrative is geared to answer the question about how ideas emerge in the writer's mind and become full blown stories. Of course, I can only speak for myself, but the question is posed so often it seems an essential bit of information for anyone who seeks a career in writing fiction and for those who read the result of these ideas which emerge as stories.
I confess that I find the process interesting enough to me to explore how other ideas became my novels, short stories and plays, and I hope it will be interesting and helpful to others. My intention is to go through my work and try to pinpoint the tiny spark that lit the fuse that became the story.
Read the first chapter of Trans-Siberian Express NOW!
Posted by Warren Adler at 9:24 PM