Friday, July 10, 2009


By John Ramsey Miller

[Author's note: John Gilstrap is at Thrillerfest, and I'm not, so I am filling in for him by appearing a day early. I feel like the lone Jewish staff member who is working on Christmas Eve. So, close the bar for me, JG.]

The one question people ask me most, and I’m sure this is universally true, is the origin of my ideas for my books. I usually tell them I get ideas from running reality through my own “what if ?” and “paranoia” filters. When an author needs inspiration for a character, a scene, or a plot, all they have to do is to look to real life.

The inspiration for my first published novel, THE LAST FAMILY, originated from a story I read in the early 90’s about how the DEA confiscated property of a Florida doctor whom some informant––a drug addict––said was dealing drugs. They took everything the doctor had, based on the word of a liar paid for each name he gave the DEA. There was no evidence whatsoever except for the word of a man who was paid to hand drug dealers over to the DEA. He was a relative of, and had a grudge against the physician for throwing him out of his house for abusing drugs. The doctor was never tried for the alleged drug dealing. He lost all of his worldly possessions, his practice, and his wife left him. It was a typical case of government gone wild without any worry of normal consequences. Ah the arrogance of power, and the innocent bones crushed to powder in the exercising of such power. The feds do not usually apologize or acknowledge mistakes because it’s bad for bureaucratic careers.

I thought about the real doctor from my perspective. I went farther wondering how innocent pediatrician who had been in a similar situation––except maybe his wife was upset and was in a car crash that killed her and his kids––would react to such a perfect tragedy. Would he hate so much that he would become unbalanced and homicidal? How would he get back at the DEA? Might he pay them back by murdering their families in retribution. As I constructed the story the doctor became a character played by the man who’d lost his family and blamed a specific DEA team. In fact the team had not been responsible for the man’s loss of family and position, but he blamed them. Over time, the doctor evolved and was replaced by a sadistic, CIA-trained psychopath and master of disguise. More believable adversary, I thought. But I saved the “understandably” demented pediatrician for another story some other time.

Just the past two weeks, we’ve had:

1) a whacked out media circus surrounding the death of a performer, who, as usual is being rehabbed in death. For the past few years, the media had no interest in portraying this performer’s positive side, because, until he was good and dead there were more ratings in keeping his weird and controversial alive. Am odd emotionally immature, wildly extravagant “and flawed was again joined by an amazingly brilliantly talented angel” side. Plus he’s got a new album that will be coming out very soon. NOTE: After he died, James Brown lying in his casket toured several cities (complete with costume changes). If I’m not mistaken, that was the “Say it loud, I’m Dead and I’m Proud” Tour. Last I heard his casket is still in is living room. Use your imagination. Is a comeback tour in the works? Maybe a “This is a Dead Man’s World, but it wouldn’t be nothing…

2) A spree killer here in the Carolinas. A man with hundreds of arrests, out of prison five weeks and killed at least five and maybe as many as seven people in a few days before police shot him after they caught him partying in an abandoned house.

3) A governor (a presidential contender no less) who lied about his whereabouts over a Father’s Day weekend so he could shack up with a mistress in South Carolina. A governor who isn’t resigning, by the way.

4) A man driving while intoxicated and speeding who it turns out has a dead body in the back of his van. The body was that of a woman shot multiple times. The murder weapon was one of four guns found in the van. The killer’s wife was in the passenger seat. I guess he was one of those guys who won’t let a woman drive his vehicle.

5) Famous pitchman Billy Mays died and they are advertising today that he will be in one last ad promoting a new product (purportedly filmed before he died, but who knows). It isn’t merely ghoulish, it’s seemingly greedy of the company to use the ad, much less advertise the fact of the ad is on its way to a tube near you. It’s called creating buzz for a new product. Lots of material there.

6) How about LA doctors who write narcotics prescriptions for any celebrity who asks and is willing to pay. Doctors lead dull lives, so they worship heroes and glamorous people and they love the almighty dollar. It’s a recurring story in the news, and a great plot with hundreds of possible spins.

So that’s just a few off the top of my head, and each of those news stories had hundreds of possible tangents. Those are just news stories. Each of our lives are filled with things we see and hear that we can use later in a story to add texture, accuracy, or personal touches that resonate with readers, or maybe just a reader here and there out of all the readers who pick up our work. Everyday we absorb things we may not even pay attention to. As one who walks in a self-absorbed fog most of the time I can attest to that.

I am known to occasionally throw a weird character or two into my novels. My agent calls those characters “Miller People.” These are people I build from bits and pieces of people my mind collects. I see low cut Ostrich cowboy boots on someone. A year or two later I remember those boots but I put them on a rail thin RV salesman. It says something about the salesman, adds a dimension, puts questions about the salesman in a reader’s mind. The boots are a story the reader doesn’t get to know, but they know there’s something of a complexity of a personality in the boots. Maybe the salesman can’t see how people see him, and he thinks the boots make him a man of style and mystery. I’m off on a tangent here. It’s the bits and pieces that add flavor.

So open your eyes and start running things through your own filters. I’m sure most authors do precisely the same thing in their process.


  1. John, I'm with you man. Both in the lone guy sitting out sentiment and in the collecting stuff in our heads bit.

    Both in writing and acting I find that the best texture for enlivening a story is to add those little real details that we stick out to us in real life. And yeah...we'll never run out of story stuff.

  2. Basil,
    I guess we are both in the boonies. I do love me some solitude. Perhaps too much for my own professional good.

  3. Ahhh....I just got back from some serious solitude. My eleven year old and I did a 10 mile overnight hike into the Chugach mountains that border Anchorage. We camped by a glacial lake high in the moutains (about 4000 feet). Now that gives me some descriptive good material for a thriller. Like how sore my feet and knees are after humping a forty pound rucksack up a mountain.

    But it sure was peaceful.

  4. I find that going to conferences energizes my brain to come up with new story ideas. Maybe it's being around other writers--with so much creative energy, some of it is bound to rub off!