I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. The most common question novelists are is asked is where they get their ideas.
There’s a good reason for this question, one I often want to ask my favorite writers, too. Ideas are by far the most interesting part of writing, for both writers and non-writers. All writing, fiction or non, poetry or advertising jingles, begins with an idea.
My usual answer is to say that ideas are everywhere. If you want to create anything, not just with words but with any medium, you have to listen, watch, sniff the air around you and pay attention. And next you have to take whatever you’ve experienced and ask “what if?”
My latest novel, A Family of Strangers, began with a “what if?”
Back in 2002 I read an article about a young man and woman, Benjamin (BJ) and Erika Sifrits. BJ was a former Navy Seal, an honor graduate, but Erika in particular fascinated me. She’d led the most normal of lives, an athlete, honor student, friend to all. Or at least that’s what it looked like on the surface. Then, one day four years later, while on a vacation that was arranged by her doting parents, she and BJ decided to murder another couple they met at a nightclub.
You know, the way you and I might decide to go out to dinner and see a new movie?
Benjamin was sentenced to thirty-eight years in jail and acquitted of one of the two murders. Erika was found guilty of both and is now serving a life sentence plus twenty years at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. Wikipedia says she will be eligible for parole in 2024, which is apparently what a “life sentence” looks like.
The story stayed with me long after I forgot the young woman’s name, where the murder had occurred and the aftermath. The facts disappeared, but I never stopped asking myself “why?” Because according to the press and all who know the family, Erika was well loved and cared for, and her parents are exactly the kind of parents we all thought we wanted to be.
How did she change from the girl everyone believed they knew to a young woman intent on murder as recreation?
In my mind I began to imagine a woman, accused of a murder she claims she did not commit. Was she guilty? I played with all the possibilities. Did I want to be in her head? That seemed possible if I wanted to write a book where 1) she spent the story trying to absolve herself of the crime, or 2) she was trying to find a way to start over as someone new after making the worst mistake of her life.
What were my other alternatives? I could tell the story from the point of view of law enforcement, or perhaps someone who loved the victim. Maybe a private investigator had a personal reason to find out the truth. Maybe the victim wasn’t at all the person everyone believed him or her to be. Maybe, by some counts, he/she deserved to die–if anybody ever does.
You’ll have to read the book to see what I decided.
Note I said I read the newspaper stories about these murders in 2002. It’s 2019 and A Family of Strangers just came out.
Sometimes it takes that many years to find the time as well as the place deep inside that needs to tell a particular story. In this case the Sifrits’ story was augmented by years of watching people up close, a few who looked wonderful on the outside but eventually showed a more frightening side. I would think about what I saw, think of the story I’d read in the Plain Dealer, and I would wonder.
After my book was written and I was interviewed, I realized I ought to look up the real case that had planted the seed that later became A Family of Strangers. Family is not about Erika or BJ Sifrits. It’s not about Erika’s parents. This incredibly tragic event was only the starting point, the tiniest dot, from which a host of “what ifs” had developed. But I wanted to locate it again.
I took awhile to find the article. I hadn’t bookmarked it or cut it out and put it in my skimpy ideas file. For an hour I thought I’d imagined the whole thing, that the whole story had been so unimportant it had disappeared into newspaper archives forever. As it turned out I had remembered the setting wrong, along with details about Erika’s childhood and of course, every name connected with it. Since I’d read the article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I erroneously thought some portion of it had transpired in Ohio. But eventually I landed where I needed to on Google and caught up with the story that had started it all.
Two odd coincidences hit me. Erika’s last name before marriage was Grace. Ryan and Wendy’s surname in my book is “Gracey.” Did I remember this detail, even when I’d forgotten most everything else? It’s highly unlikely. A lot happened in my head between 2002 and 2018 when I finally wrote the novel. I searched for a surname that worked with the first names I’d chosen, nothing more. The second detail? Erika’s father owned a successful construction firm and Ryan and Wendy’s father is a developer. Again, it’s unlikely I remembered that, too, and I remember just wanting to make him a successful businessman who always provided the best for his family.
The rest? Not my story, my characters, my novel, or my ending. But that first idea? That glimmer? That tiny seed? There it was.
The newspaper is a wonderful place to rev your imagination. It certainly revved mine, even if it took almost sixteen years to move from park to drive. I’m glad my novel finally took off at last.
Come hear me speak and have your copies of A Family of Strangers signed at the following book signings.
Upcoming Book Signings:
July 10 at 7 PM:
A Likely Story, 7566 Main Street #113 Sykesville, MD 21784. Here’s the link to register.
August 7 at 7 PM:
Towne Book Center Wine Bar and Café, 220 Plaza Drive, Suite B-3, Collegeville, PA 19426. No need to register, but here’s the link for more info.
November 2 from 9:30 to 4:
Buckeye Book Fair, Fisher Auditorium, Wooster, OH. Here’s the link to find out more.