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Blog: Where Ideas Come From

One of the things any writer hears often, probably the most-asked question unless you are speaking to writing students, in which case it has to do with finding agents or publishers, is along the lines of “How do you get your ideas?”

Some people have been to enough talks to get the sense that authors don’t like this question, and so they phrase it shrewdly, as in “Is there a special place from which your ideas come?” Or perhaps “How do you dream up the things that happen in your books?” While the phrasing is perhaps more palatable, the question is the same, and writers can be pretty obnoxious about this question, and unfairly so. Just because you don’t have a quality answer does not mean that it is not a quality question.
In the case of “The Dark Side of Sunlight Basin,” I can answer the question with specificity. A very good writer and editor named Christopher Golden approached me and asked me to write a story for an anthology he was putting together. I told him I didn’t have anything remotely close to a vampire story idea. And then…
At the end of June last year, Those Who Wish Me Dead had just been released, my book tour was done and I wanted a break from civilization, or at least from e-mail— so my wife and I headed to Montana. This was her second backpacking trip in the Beartooth Mountains, where that novel is set. The Beartooths are truly rough country – it is the largest block of tundra in the lower 48 and has more than 25 peaks over 12,000 feet and our trip was spectacular: it is so, so rare in our modern times to have the opportunity to stand in the deep snow while getting rained on and getting a sunburn all at the same time. Add to that the experience of being bitten by mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, that are able to draw blood right through the gloves you’re wearing to keep the frostbite at bay.

 

IMG_7102People in our urban lifestyles take these treats for granted, and it was a real pleasure to be able to introduce my wife to the gentler, simpler pleasures of wilderness living. She felt so freed, in fact, so uninhibited, that she proceeded to use language that would ordinarily get sailors thrown out of bars at the wharf, so I think my attempt to remove her worldly stress was a smashing success. For some reason, when we returned to the CDP – it isn’t accurate to call our home base a town or a city, it is technically something called a Census Designated Place, which creates an amusing portrait of the census worker assigned to this district – she wanted to do something less strenuous for the rest of our days in the mountains. We’d been told that Cody was an interesting town with a great museum, and my great-grandfather once rode in the Bill Cody Wild West shows, so I was intrigued by that and we set off on the drive. Now, it is important that we pause here so I can state something very, very clearly: I have never run out of gas in my life.
This had become a point of pride for me, and something of a contest with my father, much to the delight of anyone who rides with us. But on the way back from Cody, you traverse sixty-some miles of mountain switchbacks with no cell service and few areas to pull off the road. It was at the last possible turn off with cell service, the cheerfully named Dead Indian Pass, that an executive decision was made from the passenger seat – the very place from which no executive decisions should ever be made – and we came to a stop overlooking an area called Sunlight Basin and I was forced to call for help. Then I did a particularly wise thing, and called my father to argue that I hadn’t lost our contest, and explain the technicality involved – the car was still moving, there was still gas in the tank, and so this didn’t count as running out of gas.

 

My father’s quote: “Well if there’s gas in the damn thing you should be moving until you can’t move anymore!” I agreed, but sadly my dad had his own bit of misfortune that day, though, in that my mother had picked up the other line unbeknownst to him, listening to him tell me that I should have disregarded my wife’s opinion and continued on down the switchbacks, gas or no gas, cell or no cell. When I hung up the two of them were embroiled in a rather grim conversation of their own.

 

IMG_7090We had plenty of time left to wait for rescue, but wind and hail started buffeting the car. It actually began to shake where it was parked and for whatever reason my lovely wife was simply not in a talkative mood with me. Not only that, but she’d taken my copy of the New Yorker to read, which seemed very rude, but it didn’t seem prudent to point that out, based on the occasional muttered threats coming from her side of the car. So, I sat in the car waiting on our friend to arrive from an hour away with a can of gas and I looked out on Sunlight Basin, which earns its name by the way it catches and holds light. I could see the darkness at the fringes of it and suddenly I did have an idea for a vampire story.

So here’s a small taste of that story, which I’m honored to say appeared in a collection with some absolutely fantastic writers, and as honest an answer for the question of “where do you get your ideas?” as I can provide.

And one quick disclaimer: I still have never run out of gas. Stopping the car with gas in the tank is NOT running out of gas. This is science, and it can’t be debated.
51MBvSKCv2L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_They had a good time taking photographs of the new-growth forest where nearly thirty years earlier an incredible forest fire had roared through Yellowstone, but Kristen began to joke that their trip was cursed when they ran out of gas at an overlook above the Sunlight Basin called Dead Indian Pass. Jim was defensive, having insisted that they could make it through after leaving Cody without stopping for a refill, but he still had to smile at her incessant stream of snark as they waited hopefully for the return of a passerby in a Chevy pickup who had accepted fifty dollars in cash and promised to return with a gas can. There was no guarantee that he wouldn’t pocket the fifty, laugh at the tourists, and continue on his way, but it was the best option Jim had found.
“He’ll come back for us,” he told Kristen.

“I know he will. He’ll come back and tell us that there was no gas station ahead for miles, but he’s happy to report that there’s a hotel with, like, ten rooms in the whole place. And he’ll take us down there so we can sleep for the night in comfort. When we check in, we’ll notice that he seems to know the owner. It’ll be subtle, you know, just a little bit of eye contact, but it will be enough. The game will be in play then. And you know what the game is?”

He sighed and shook his head, trying not to smile.

“Cutting our heads off with a chainsaw,” she said, nodding. “Exactly. That is exactly right, babe.”
There was the trembling roar of exhaust down the highway, and Jim turned and looked out and saw the Chevy returning.

“Here he is.”

“When he mentions the motel…”

“I’ll tell him that we have a tent,” Jim said. “Got it.”

The driver had been good to his word, handing over a five-gallon can of gas from an Exxon thirty miles up the highway, complete with a Post-it note that read “ha, ha, ha” signed by the wiseass who ran the gas station. He did not mention any motel, and even stayed until Jim had poured in the gasoline and proved that the car would start.

“Where ya’ll headed, anyhow? Cooke City, Silver Gate, Red Lodge?”

“Somewhere in the middle,” Jim said.

“Ain’t much in the middle. What are you after?”

“Pictures. I’m a photographer. We’ve been driving for close to two months now. Working on a project called American Ghosts.”

“American Ghosts? You think there’s phantoms out here?”

Jim couldn’t tell if the man’s smile was good-natured or offended. He would have made a hell of a poker player.

“There are plenty of abandoned places, at least,” Jim said. “Things that were once, and are no more. From forests to towns. That’s what I’m after.”

That got a slow nod and no verbal response. For some reason – probably because the good old boy had provided him with gasoline on a lonely highway – Jim pressed on.

“There are supposed to be old copper and silver mines up in those mountains north of us. Abandoned equipment, gated entrances, and –”

“Adits,” the stranger said.

“Pardon?”

“Those gate mineshafts? They’re called adits. In mining, a tunnel goes straight through and comes out the other side. A shaft goes down, and a winze goes up. A horizontal entrance that goes nowhere? That’s an adit.”

“Okay. Good to know. Anyhow, I was hoping to get some pictures of them in the right light. You know, right at dusk. When they look good and spooky.”

Jim smiled, but it wasn’t returned. The stranger looked out across the Sunlight Basin and when he spoke again his eyes were someplace far away.

“They’re spooky enough. Just be careful which ones you pick. There are gates up for a reason, you know.”

“I don’t intend to go inside of them. Just take some photos.”

“All right,” the stranger said. “Go have fun, kids. But next time, fill `er up. Not everybody around here is as helpful as yours truly, and those mountains?” He waved a hand out over the basin. “They look mighty pretty in your pictures, I know, but they’re not jokers, either. They’re the real deal. You want to pay attention out here.”

Jim thanked him again and then turned back to the car and Kristen’s wide, mocking smile.

“How’s that male ego feeling?” she said when he opened the door.

“Bruised and battered, but still kicking.” He put the car into gear. Below them, the aptly named basin held all the light of the day, a tease that suggested there was no need to rush, but the surrounding mountains were already catching shadows. They needed to get a base camp up in a hurry, and then, if things went just right, they’d be lucky enough to catch the abandoned mines at twilight.

 

 

 

 

What Are You Doing, Writing a Book?

FullSizeRenderSept 29 was the release of the mass market edition of THE PROPHET, which, I have to say, looks handsome in its new jacket. I like the imagery – the empty football field under the lights, a dark unknown town somewhere beyond. That suits the tone I had in mind opening the book, and I spent plenty of time around a football field while I wrote it. Despite my ability to critique the coaching of professional and college teams with ease, it turns out that I don’t actually know anything about the game. Considering one of the two lead characters was a head coach, that seemed to need a little work, and I was graciously invited to shadow the Bloomington High School North team during a wonderful season.

 

Prophet MM blogThings started beautifully, when I attended a spring workout and the head coach, Scott Bless, (who appears briefly in the novel) thought I was a scout for the enemy. I was hoping that might be the last identity crisis of the process, but the team’s quarterback spent most of the season locating me on the sidelines to ask “what I saw out there.” I usually directed him back to competent people, but once I couldn’t help saying, “Looked pretty clear to me – you overthrew it by five yards.”

The highlight of confusion came well into the season, in late October, at which point I’d been around the games, practices, and staff meetings for months. Everyone understood what I was doing – we thought – until I asked a few questions during a Sunday meeting and one of the defensive assistants said, “What are you doing, writing a book?” Turns out he thought I was on the offensive staff, and had all year. “Coach Alaska” (he’d grown up in the North Pole, a subject of more than occasional commentary) hasn’t lived that one down yet.

 

Monty Howell | Herald-Times A familiar mystery on the sidelines at North, Michael Koryta.
Monty Howell | Herald-Times
A familiar mystery on the sidelines at North, Michael Koryta.

I can’t say enough good things about the patience and kindness that Scott Bless, Tyler Abel and the rest of the North coaches and players and families showed me during that time, and it was one of the really fun stretches of research I’ve ever been involved with, evidenced by the fact that I kept coming back. The game became more interesting to me, I saw new layers to it; the games within the game became particularly fascinating. As much as the research was designed to help me think from Kent Austin’s perspective, it also brought Adam much more alive to me – standing on the sidelines, feeling a part of something and distant from it all at the same time, gave me a better sense of Adam than I had before. And also of The Prophet, watching practice from the bleachers. Just a casual fan. Maybe a townie. Maybe a former student. A little familiar, but impossible to place. Nobody threatening, though, no cause for alarm, he’s just that guy right up there in the…oh…he’s gone now. Oh, well. I’m sure he doesn’t mean any harm…

The Prophet Playlist

I write to music, and below are some of the songs that made the regular playlist while I wrote The Prophet. Although always influenced by music, I felt this novel was perhaps unusually connected to certain songs, and I’m grateful to the artists who provided them.

 1) Juarez,  Augustines

A dark rock number with lines like “Tell my sister I’ve gone to find someone, and I won’t come back no more” that felt surreally close to my fictional world.

 

2) Return to Me, Matthew Ryan 

I’ve never felt such a strong connection between a song and a novel as I did with this haunting number by one of our most talented songwriters. It seemed to be Adam Austin’s personal anthem to me.

*Not available on the Spotifiy playlist*

 3) Free Fallin’, Tom Petty

One for Marie Lynn Austin. Provided the inspiration for what became one of the turning-point scenes in the book, the scene when the police search Marie’s childhood bedroom.

 

4) No Harm, The Boxer Rebellion 

Look close enough and you’ll find the phrase “no harm” in a critical moment of the novel.

 

5) After the Storm, Mumford & Sons

Plenty of tracks from this standout album lived in my headphones during the writing, but none made more frequent appearances than this number.

 

6) Bloodbuzz, Ohio, The National

A favorite song from a favorite album, I saw The National play live at a point when I was struggling with the book, and this song connected that night and many times after.

 

7) I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together, The Horrible Crowes

If Matthew Ryan provided the theme song for Adam, then The Horrible Crowes provided the bulk of the soundtrack. The album “Elsie” arrived when I was nearing the homestretch, and I felt as if it had been written by the characters in my book. In this song’s case, by Chelsea and Adam. “I think that your trouble and my trouble shook hands…”

 

8) Blood Loss, The Horrible Crowes 

9) Ladykiller, The Horrible Crowes 

And the beat goes on…with lines like “I can leave the wound wide open, and maybe see if I can tough it out” you’ll understand why I was feeling this album. A haunting but propulsive rock ‘n roll masterpiece, these are songs that Brian Fallon seems to sing from his bones.

 

 10) Carolina, M. Ward 

This would be the Kent Austin anthem of the mix, I believe. The story of a man divided, walking backward to the place where he’s come from, “but that ain’t enough, no, you want me to run.”

 

 11)  Lines on Palms, Josh Pyke 

Another one of the “Kent” tunes, and one of the few upbeat, pop numbers in the dark mix! Josh Pyke is a wonderful Australian talent, and this is a lyrical gem. The opening lines defined Kent Austin to me.

 

12) Goodbye, The Drive-By Truckers 

Patterson Hood just doesn’t miss with me much, and he sure doesn’t on this country-tinged rocker.

A Great Review From Across the Pond

12042777_10153603929309244_4264373295063852405_n“A thriller has to be fast-paced and tense, but to stand out there has to be more to hold your interest. Koryta delivers it in spades. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into this book – the claustrophobic setting, a strong likeable protagonist whom you want to succeed, and a solid mystery that keeps you guessing right up to the end.”

 

Read the full post from Crime Fiction Lover: http://bit.ly/1iKwFaS

 

Behind the Book: A Look into Private Investigation

My history with this week’s Behind the Book interview goes back to high school — Don Johnson gamely agreed to mentor me in an independent study program in private investigation. Later I began part-time work with him, and when I graduated from college  moved to full-time. To say that Don has been an influence on my life and writing would be a gross understatement. He gave me numerous opportunities that I didn’t deserve, always supported my writing interest even if it meant less convenient schedules for him, and always answered questions. He’s also an excellent investigator — once honored as national private investigator of the year — and is currently the director of the National Association of Legal Investigators.

Behind the Book: Caving Realities Part 2

After spending so much of LAST WORDS demonstrating what one should not do in a cave, it seemed prudent to speak to an expert about the realities of caving. Anmar Mirza was a generous resource during my research, and his work should make anyone who goes underground feel a bit safer — as national coordinator of the National Cave Rescue Commission, his focus on educating cavers and first-responders has saved numerous lives. In this video, Anmar talks a bit about rescue operations, exploration, and the allure caves have held for him since childhood. Watch part two of the interview below.