Monday, April 21, 2014

From where do you get your best ideas? by P.M. Carlson, author of 'Murder is Academic'

Where do you get your best ideas?

When I’m starting a novel from scratch, my best ideas emerge from what seems like a random constellation of ideas. From my experiences or my friends’, I’ll find myself interested in a setting that includes people who are really passionate about their work, and people that can be hurt if something goes wrong. Maybe I’ll read about someone struggling with a personal situation; it’s even more interesting if our society misunderstands the problem. Somewhere else, news reports perhaps, I’ll hear about a murder that can be tweaked into shape for that particular setting. But trying to force ideas together seldom works for me, so I don’t push it..Often a bunch of ideas continues to sit there lifelessly, and I continue to ignore them. But when the combo is right, it starts generating its own details, the characters start telling me their stories, and it’s time to begin writing.

Once I’m writing, my best ideas bubble up from the combinations of things already in the stories. Nick O’Connor is an actor, and Maggie Ryan enjoys pranks. One reason they enjoy each other’s company is the games they improvise, sometimes to get information, sometimes to further a solution better than the legal system would have to impose. When I’m writing these scenes, the details often come from imagining myself in the scene mystelf, very concretely, with all their advantages (strength, knowledge, gymnastics training) and disadvantages (no weapons, chained to a wall, recovering from a knock on the head). Again, getting into the characters’ heads inspires the best improvisations.

Murder is Academic
P.M. Carlson


MURDER IS ACADEMIC (Maggie Ryan 1968) An Anthony Award nominee Vietnam, assassinations and riots. In the spring semester of 1968, a series of brutal attacks draws campus women together to study self-defense and the psychology of rape. Graduate student Mary Beth Nelson struggles to keep the Lords of Death at bay by immersing herself in researching Mayan languages. Her new housemate, Maggie Ryan, has her own secrets. When murder strikes close to home, Maggie investigates with a little help from her friends.


“Murder Is Academic treats violation of truth in tandem with assault and rape—true violations of person, mind, and body—and presents a cogent case for the inviolability both of persons and truth. . . . Maggie Ryan, statistician, proves that one can alter, but, in the final analysis, not suppress data, and that is the murder-mystery writer's dictum. P.M. Carlson has spent time in academia, obviously, but has emerged with not only a healthy attitude toward female scholarship but also toward the necessary inviolability of truth.” — Susan L. Clark, The Armchair Detective


P.M. Carlson taught psychology and statistics at Cornell University before deciding that mystery writing was more fun. She has published twelve mystery novels and over a dozen short stories. Her novels have been nominated for an Edgar Award, a Macavity Award, and twice for Anthony Awards. Two short stories were finalists for Agatha Awards. She edited the Mystery Writers Annual for Mystery Writers of America for several years, and served as president of Sisters in Crime. 

Author Website

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  1. So good to be back at Andi's Book Reviews to share the second Maggie Ryan mystery with you! Thanks for hosting.

  2. Awesome post today. I love the imagery of you reaching up into a rotating field of stars and plucking them one, by one to see if it fits into the puzzle you are constructing out of words. I'm really becoming quite facsinated with this series, especially in light of the fact that it is so 'academic'. Thanks for sharing.

    ilookfamous at yahoo dot com

  3. Yes, it's a strange process! And sometimes my attempts to fit something into the pattern don't quite work, and the characters have to set me straight. For example, the murderer in AUDITION FOR MURDER was perfectly willing to do the killing but didn't like the time I'd chosen for the murder. I hate to say it, but the murderer was right! Many characters (not just the murderer) and the puzzle both were strengthened.

  4. pretty nice blog, following :)

    1. Thanks, Skyline Spirit! I was going to add that sometimes getting into the characters' heads is uncomfortable-- especially if they are criminals. But I think most of us tell ourselves stories about why we do things, and it's important for writers to figure out what those stories might be.

  5. Thanks, Rita! I enjoyed writing it.

  6. Really interesting to hear about your process!


    1. Thanks. I think every writer has to discover what works best for her or him, but sometimes we can share tips that point us in more productive directions.

  7. Thanks so much for hosting today!

  8. I love trying to figure out who committed the crime. =)


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