I don’t have a literal idea box, but like Jim, I’m always filing away random bits of information, waiting for them to connect in my subconscious like oppositely charged ions coming together to form a stable molecule. It might take years for that to happen, but the ideas are always there, floating in the ether, just waiting for the right chemistry.
Usually, when I’m trying to settle on an idea for a novel, I grab something from the “history, myth and mystery” file, and something from the “science and/or pseudoscience” bin (surprisingly, science is often the more interesting of the two) and then smush them together into something that I hope is halfway-plausible. The pitch for Callsign: King (which I wrote with Jeremy Robinson) basically went like this:
“So I remember this old legend…maybe it was in a Tarzan story…about an elephant graveyard in Africa, the place where elephants go to die. And Africa is also thought to be the place where our earliest human ancestors first appeared. Maybe there’s some kind of connection across history…quantum entanglement! Yeah, that’s the ticket…whereby the discovery of the Elephant Graveyard threatens our existence today.”
That’s pretty typical of the way most of my stories start, but my supernatural mystery novel Magic Mirror was a bit of a deviation from the norm.
The spark that ignited my creativity came from the unlikeliest of places: VH1.
I don’t normally watch VH1 (is it even still around? I don’t have cable, so not really sure) but back in 1999 I happened to be vacationing with some friends over a holiday weekend and caught a marathon of Behind the Music episodes. Although it was mostly background noise, the documentary about Iron Butterfly made me sit up a little straighter.
Even now, most of what I know about Iron Butterfly can be summed up in five words: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, but that day I learned of the extraordinary life and mysterious disappearance of IB bassist Philip Taylor Kramer. Kramer had left the trippy psychedelic rock-n-roll lifestyle behind to become a physicist, working on, among other things, a method of faster-than-light communication. That alone sounds like a great start for a thriller, but the story got even stranger when, in 1995, Kramer made some bizarre phone calls, got in his minivan, and seemingly vanished off the face of the earth.
Had he been kidnapped by Soviet spies? “Disappeared” by some shadowy government agency? Abducted by aliens? The possibilities were…well, the stuff of a great thriller novel, and despite the discovery of Kramer’s body, dead of an apparent suicide, inside his wrecked Ford Aerostar in a California ravine, four years after his disappearance (and about a week after I saw that VH1 documentary), it remains a compelling and mysterious story.
I’ve talked about this a few times, but I’ve never really discussed the other elements of the story, the other random facts and bits of disconnected information that I pulled out of my mental “idea box” and used to complete the creative equation that would eventually become Magic Mirror.
If you’ve read Magic Mirror—or even sampled the first few pages—then you know that the story opens with Derrick Sayler, an artist/scientist (loosely inspired by Kramer) in the midst of a strange and possibly supernatural experience. Among other things, he is able to see auras—a strange kind of energy surrounding living beings—and can even bend spoons.
Wait…bend spoons? Like the weird kid in The Matrix, or that magician guy…Yuri…something. Where’d that come from?
Believe it or not, I got that little gem from the author who pretty much invented the science thriller genre—the late Michael Crichton.
In his 1988 memoir, Travels, Crichton writes with amazing frankness about his very surreal experiences with paranormal phenomena like astral projection, channeling, observing auras, and…my personal favorite, bending spoons:
“I looked down. My spoon had begun to bend. I hadn't even realized. The metal was completely pliable, like soft plastic. It wasn't particularly hot, either, just slightly warm. I easily bent the bowl of the spoon in half, using only my fingertips. This didn't require any pressure at all, just guiding with my fingertips.
“I put the bent spoon aside and tried a fork. After a few moments of rubbing, the fork twisted like a pretzel. It was easy. I bent several more spoons and forks.”
Now, let me just say that I am generally speaking, a skeptic. I love writing about weird stuff, but when it comes to actually believing it…well, I let Occam’s Razor guide me. The simplest explanation is usually the right one, and the simplest explanation about most so-called psychic phenomena is human trickery. Even Crichton admits, “[M]agicians, such a James Randi, claim that spoon bending isn't a psychic phenomenon at all, just a trick.” I’ve been a fan of James Randi ever since I saw him perform “psychic surgery” on the Mike Douglas show when I was a kid, so when Randi debunks something, that’s usually good enough for me… And yet, Michael Crichton says he actually did it.
I don’t automatically believe a thing just because Michael Crichton says it’s true. He was, after all, a science fiction writer, not—and let me stress this—not a scientist. In fact, despite critical plaudits for meticulous research, Crichton often got a lot of his science wrong, sometimes deliberately, in order to advance his cautionary—dare I say it—anti-science agenda.
But I can’t so easily dismiss the claims in Travels. I just can’t see what Crichton stood to gain by these admissions. His non-fiction books never sold as well as his novels; most of his die-hard fans probably don’t even know about his interest in the paranormal. It wasn’t as if he made a big deal of it, not like horror-novelist Whitley Streiber, who used his allegedly true personal experiences of abduction by extraterrestrials to completely reimagine his literary career.
Try as I might, I can’t see how Crichton benefited from admitting any of this. And while that’s not exactly proof that everything happened exactly as he remembered, it’s enough to give me pause. It certainly stuck in my memory, and years later, when I was trying to figure out some kind of bizarre, paranormal phenomena to set the stage for Derrick Sayler’s disappearance in Magic Mirror, I got out my copy of Travels, and read it again.
“I had bent a spoon, and I knew it wasn't a trick. I looked around the room and saw little children, eight or nine years old, bending large metal bars. They weren't trying to trick anybody. They were just little kids having a good time. Staying up past their bedtimes on a Friday night, going along with the adults, doing this silly bending stuff… it was hard to feel any sort of mystery: you just rub the spoon for a while and pretty soon it gets soft, and it bends. And that's that.
“The only thing I noticed is that spoon bending seemed to require a focused inattention. You had to try to get it to bend, and then you had to forget about it. Maybe talk to someone else while you rubbed the spoon. Or look around the room. Change your attention. That's when it was likely to bend. If you kept watching the spoon, worrying over it, it was less likely to bend. This inattention took learning, but you could easily do it. It was comparable in difficulty to, say, learning to count off exactly five seconds in your head. You practiced a few times, and then you could do it.
Despite what my rational, skeptical mind tells me, I can’t help but wonder about spoon-bending. If what Crichton said was true, then I should be able to do it, and that would answer everything, right?
So if you ever happen to see me in a restaurant, staring expectantly at the flatware…well, now you know why.
“Then I got bored. I didn't do any more spoon bending. I went and got coffee and a cookie. I was now far more interested in what kind of cookies they had than anything else.”—Michael Crichton, Travels (1988)