Monday, July 1, 2013

Wordcraft -- Rollins' box of writing ideas

Best-selling thriller writer James Rollins stopped in Dallas last week on his promotional tour for his new novel, The Eye of God, to a crowd-packed mezzanine at the Lincoln Park Barnes and Noble bookstore.

Arriving on a gigantic black bus, looking like something out of one of his own Sigma Force stories, Rollins deadpanned he’d arrived from San Antonio, where fans assured him since he was going north to Dallas, the weather should be cooler. He arrived, of course, on a day when the temperature in Dallas passed 100 degrees F. Maybe he’ll add the deadly Texas heat to his book ideas.

Because, yes, he confided, he has a box full of story ideas.

He tried to play stump the audience by asking what question authors most dread hearing. But the fans were on to him. The question, of course, was “where do writers get their ideas.”

“We don’t like that question,” Rollins said, “because we don’t know where they come from, and we’re afraid if we ask, they’ll stop.”

Shortly before his first book was released in 1999, he confided, he attended the discussion of a famous author (who he declined to name), in answer to that very question. Talking to her privately, he congratulated her, mentioning that he also was an author.

“Come closer,” famous author said. “That question about where you get your ideas from? I made it up!”

Leaving us to wonder whether Rollins’ story box is the real deal or if he just made it up. Either way, it’s worth considering.
In planning a novel, he looks for three things, he said -- a historical angle, a piece of weird science, and a mystery. These scraps of ideas he drops into a cardboard box -- “a mess -- in the bottom are mice, breeding.”

(As a still sometimes practicing veterinarian, Rollins is probably less squeamish about mice than most writers.)

When from time to time he sorts through them -- the ideas, not the mice -- “this piece of history and that piece of science just end up next to each other.”

“I’m not going to tell you how them end up together, because somewhere in this store is a cash register,“ he said, but the research involved a visit to the Fermilab where he asked a group of physicists to tell him “something about your research that keeps you up at night”; and an exhibit on Genghis Khan at the Field Museum, both in Chicago, which made him imagine a treasure hunt for the khan’s tomb.

And in researching the lost tomb (which currently is being sought by archeologists), he talked to Mongolians who assured him that their country holds the belief that if Genghis Khan’s tomb is ever discovered, the world will end.

Rollins paused at this point, miming a checkmark.

The result, The Eye of God, was released last Tuesday. It’s available on Amazon and in bookstores, which probably are restocking even while you read.

Although the latest release was the focus of the tour, Rollins fielded questions about other projects as well, including USA Cares, a nonprofit organization helping soldiers and their families through job placement, housing assistance, and emergency aid; and his short story “Tracker“ about a soldier and his war dog, inspired by a USO tour of Iraq where he “gravitated to the dogs and their handlers.”

For more about Rollins, his writing, and USA Cares, see

Personally, I’m look for a large cardboard box to drop ideas in -- mice optional.


Can’t wait until November to NaNoWriMo? The Free Expressions website that hosts seminars by agent Donald Maass, among others, is opening its chat room this July from 7-11 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time in connection with its Camp NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Sign up for free discussion at

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