I am thirty-eight years old. I like coffee. I like ice cream. I often order coffee ice cream, preferably with chunks of bittersweet chocolate in it, when presented with the option.
I am thirty-eight years old and a few weeks ago, in Gardiner, Montana, of all places, I had an affogato for the first time. It’s such a simple concoction–ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it–there was even a reasonable chance I might have accidentally made one by myself at some point . . . but no. It’s taken me thirty-eight years.
Now a tiny part of me just stares at those thirty-eight years in disgust, regretting how many days I’ve wasted NOT drinking/eating these things. I’m way behind.
Most of me however is filled with delight . . . because of the surprise of finding it, but also because of all it promises. This world is big. If I could overlook something this simple, something I now see everywhere, what else is out there to be discovered?
The same should be true of writing and reading. We should be overwhelmed with all the possibilities that await, but rarely does that seem to be the case. The biggest complaint, usually, you’ll hear from editors and agents is how everything they see looks and reads the same.
I’m not talking about the need for creating a new genre or writing an awesome book where the words themselves become a shark stalking our hero through his book.
I’m talking about making an affogato. Again, this recipe isn’t rocket science. Ice cream “drowned” (affogato in Italian) in espresso.
But what’s going to be your ice cream? What are you going to pair it with or drown it in?
In finding the “original” for your story, your greatest weapon is going to be your reading. You need to know what’s out there, what’s already be done. So you need to read fiction. And you need to research. History, contemporary, it doesn’t matter. Quality research will inform your story and help you build a world that feels authentic and unique. And it must go beyond just details. Your hero, let’s say he’s a mechanic, is more than just the names of his tools and the smell of grease. He has a worldview shaped by being a mechanic–perhaps looking at everything as a puzzle that must fit together to work–and your research will help you discover that worldview. It will help you hear his voice in dialogue and narrative.
This seems to go against the grain, at least in terms of what we see in the marketplace where there often feels like a sameness (in cover and topic) to so many of the books on the shelves. But surprise doesn’t equal new or never-before-seen. It means unexpected. And that can come in any number of ways. I guarantee the most successful authors, even if their books all seem exactly alike, are finding new elements to tweak and update. I recently read, Force of Nature, my twelfth Joe Pickett novel from C. J. Box and it’s a dead-on example of how to be a successful genre author. The “formula” is there, the characters I’ve gotten to know are there, but the plot details are fresh and new, so the formula never feels stale. It’s the things I know I love (ice cream and espresso) blended together for the first time.