An author's professional life is generally spent in either of two ways: writing a book, or searching for an idea for the next one.
But how does one find an idea? And by an idea, I'm talking about something with, well, heft. It has to grab you. It has to keep you interested. I mean, you'll need to wake up each morning for the next three years (or more!) and go off and live with it, spending your day playing with it, coaxing it, cherishing it. And if you're lucky, the idea will also keep you company in your dreams, wrapping around your subconscious as you sleep. It's your companion, your soul-mate.
Looking for a book idea, then, is a bit like looking for love. You're looking to make a total commitment, but the danger is you'll wind up looking in all the wrong places. You find yourself chasing after stories that in the end you realize aren't right; they're just not worth the time.
In fact, finding a book idea is perhaps even harder than finding love. I mean, you can't hang around bars hoping to meet the right one. Or call up some kind of service where you submit your profile and they send you back the perfect match. Or post a personal ad: Middle-aged writer looking for fun and companionship with attractive, reader-pleasing idea.
No, the challenge is a lot more daunting.
But also like love, it always eventually strikes — particularly when one is not even expecting it.
With The Floor of Heaven, my ninth nonfiction book, the idea came to me, I must admit, slowly. In fact, it snuck up on me when I wasn't even thinking about it.
I had dinner with two old friends — one a judge, another a television executive — I've known for more decades than I care to admit. We grew up together, played basketball with a passion for years, got married (and divorced), had kids and sent them off to college, and now settled more or less comfortably into the sort of friendship that's measured out in reminiscences, of fond (and often embroidered) remembrances of things past.
So we got to talking about how when we were really young, maybe six or seven years old, we used to chase around playing cowboys and Indians. We lived in a wooded area of the north Bronx that faced the Hudson River, and we'd hide behind rock outcroppings and clumps of tall, ancient trees devising intricate games involving ambushes and ferocious shoot-outs with our cap guns. My father had even bought me a fairly impressive bow and arrow set, and we'd nail targets to trees and pretend we were learning to shoot like Indians. Then the developers came — and the Wild West that was our corner of New York City began to disappear. We had no choice but to move on to other pursuits. Ah, those were the days, we said.
And that night I went home and the idea struck: Those days don't need to be over. The developers can't bulldoze my imagination the way they did my childhood woods. I can write a western. I can tell a true story about the old West.
Of course, now I needed to find a story.