Monday, July 18, 2011

Guest Blogger: Thomas Kaufman

Last year Thomas Kaufman made his crime fiction debut with the book that won PWA/St. Martin's Best First Private Eye Award, DRINK THE TEA. This summer he is following up with his second Willis Gidney novel, STEAL THE SHOW. The jazz-loving PI is desperate for money...desperate enough to commit a crime?

Thomas Kaufman is here today as part of his blog tour to talk about one of those famous questions all writers encounter: "where do you get your ideas." Tom says it's about more than the ideas, but I'll let him tell you. Please help me welcome, Thomas Kaufman!

When I did my DRINK THE TEA book tour, I drank a lot of tea. I also answered a lot of questions about writing, and by far the most-asked question was, where do you get your ideas? I usually say I have a service in Duluth that emails me ideas once a month.

You'd be amazed at how many people come up afterwards and ask for the name of that company.

But having an idea is not the same thing as writing a book. I can say I have this great idea -- doing ROMEO AND JULIETTE as New York gangs in the 1950's. Nice idea, but it's a long stretch from there to WEST SIDE STORY, right?

Similarly, the newspaper is filled with story ideas. But unless the story grabs you, as a writer, unless it makes you think, then it's just an idea.

The genesis of DRINK THE TEA was an incident that happened in a restaurant. I was with some friends, and one of the young professionals at the table, who was a Mexican-American woman, spoke in a cruel and nasty way to the Mexican-American waitress, who had done nothing wrong.

Later, I thought a lot about this. I mean, why would someone act that way? Not only that, but feel they were completely right and justified in doing so? My guess is that, for some reason, things felt wrong to the young professional, out of balance somehow. By trashing the waitress, the other woman was trying to restore balance in her world.

My new book is STEAL THE SHOW, and what got me interested in writing it was something a friend told me – he was working for a company that designs and manufactures a piece of consumer electronics gear. Three people owned the company: a young man who was the designer, his father, and another man.

My friend told me the son got squeezed out of the company – by his father! This intrigued me. Then my friend said that the son –who had designed the gear in the first place -- had signed a non-compete clause. So for the next three years (the duration of his non-compete), the son was making his own version of that same piece of electronics gear. The son was going to use it to drive his father out of business.

Interesting family dynamic, right?

It was for me, and that's how STEAL THE SHOW got started. Now, I had never met any of the people involved, but I didn't have to. All I had to do was create the characters I needed. Also, I try to keep the reader guessing as to the son's true intentions.

Another idea in STEAL THE SHOW is the use of encrypted digital satellites to distribute motion pictures. About 25% of US movie theaters now use digital projection (and have discarded their 35mm projectors). For a long time, Hollywood studios have looked for a different way of getting their movies into theaters. Because I work in the film business, I found this was interesting. So it became part of my story, the technology that the son was so good at.

Okay, now it's my turn to ask a question: Have you ever read a book, and couldn't get into it because the characters left you flat?

I've started more books than I've finished for that very reason. And one of the things people told me about DRINK THE TEA was that they loved the private eye, Willis Gidney. So I wanted to make sure the Gidney fans got their money's worth with STEAL THE SHOW. But how to do that?

The answer was about two feet tall and twenty months old – Sarah, the African American baby that Willis Gidney saves in DRINK THE TEA. At the end of that book, the cops take her away from Gidney.

While I was writing DRINK THE TEA, the Washington Post ran a series of articles about DC and its system of juvenile justice. So I interviewed the two reporters who had written the articles.

In other words, I found an idea that was too interesting to let go of. So I didn't. In the new book, Gidney is looking to adopt this child. But DC Adoptive Services, in the form of case worker from hell Florence Walters, doesn't see an unmarried PI as ideal parent material.

So Gidney has to hire lawyers, commit felonies, lie, cheat, and generally hang himself out to dry, all to help this girl. And I can hear you ask, why does Gidney do all of this?

Because he went through DC foster care himself. He barely survived it. So when he looks at Sarah, he can't quite bring himself to walk away from her. Plus, DC is overrun with kids needing homes. If he doesn't try to get Sarah out of there, no one else will.

I liked this because it dovetailed with what I knew about Gidney. This kind of story also provided multiple level of conflict. And conflict, as we know, is the medium through which story is told.

So while ideas are important, just about anything can serve as the jumping off point for a book.

Even if you're from Duluth.

Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy-winning director/cameraman who also writes mysteries. His first book, DRINK THE TEA, won the PWA/St Martin's Press Competition for Best First Novel. His second book, STEAL THE SHOW, released this month. His blog tour will continue at The Rap Sheet and Writers Read.


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