Eating Apples in a Bathtub

The author of Death of a Cozy Writer , G.M. Malliet is an Agatha Award Winner, recipient of an Anthony and Macavity Nomination for Best First Novel, recipient of a David Nomination for Best Novel, and an IPPY Award Silver Medalist (Mystery/Suspense/Thriller). Death of a Cozy Writer was chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Books of 2008.

Is there anyone who by now does not know the story of how the Harry Potter series was conceived? Just in case: J. K. Rowling was on a train from Manchester to London in 1990 when the idea for the boy wizard suddenly came to her. As she relates it:

“I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who did not know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”

(Notice that she sat and thought. She wrote none of this down; she just let the ideas bubble away.)

But is this really how it happens? The idea for a beloved character just pops into your head? Or has the idea been there all along, percolating away, inspired by nothing more than a face in the crowd from months before, or a phrase overheard in a café? Some insignificant event that may not even have registered at the time? This question fascinates and vexes authors, who are always asked where their ideas/characters come from. In reply, we mostly go into blank-stare mode, or give some glib answer (“the idea tree”). The fact is, no one knows.

What is certain, however, is that a train ride is the world’s best conductor, so to speak, for the creative process. I think it’s because you are trapped. You can’t be distracted by the sudden urge to do laundry, or paint the house, or go make a cup of coffee. In order to do these things, you’d first have to throw yourself off the train, and wisely realizing that would be unwise, you are thrown back instead on your own thought processes.

This trapped concept doesn’t work—for me, at any rate—on airplanes, because I am too busy helping the pilot keep the plane aloft by aiming uplifting prayers towards the cockpit, and it definitely doesn’t work in cars, distracted as I am by some idiot changing lanes at high speed without using his turn indicator (just yesterday I saw a bumper sticker I loved. It said, “If Jesus Were Here, He’d Use His Turn Signal”).

You’d think the same “trapped” concept might work while you’re in the dentist’s chair, but it doesn’t seem to pan out that way. A dentist’s chair does seem to send my brain into high gear, however: What’s that noise? What is that big silver thing he’s holding now? Is that a needle—good heavens, is that a needle? Is this guy old enough to be a dentist, anyway? I wonder if I look like Hannibal Lecter in this rubber mask? Will this be over soon? What’s that noise?

In other words, it’s like having a hyperkinetic four-year-old trapped inside your head: It’s lively in there, but it’s hardly creative.

But on a train, the forward movement is restful. I’m freed from all obligations and distractions, especially if I’ve left the computer at home. Combined with the sense that I have been granted permission to just sit and daydream, that does the trick for me every time. Plot twists invented; characters who announce themselves, fullblown. It is pure bliss for a writer.

Agatha Christie wrote that her best ideas came to her while she was sitting in a bathtub, eating apples. Believe me, I would try this if I thought it would make me half as ingenious as she was, and I’d be willing to bet some mystery authors have tried it, but somehow I think this technique was unique to Agatha. Other authors swear by washing the dishes as a surefire generator of ideas, but that doesn’t really work for me: I just want to get the chore over with, not daydream. Walking? Sometimes works, but not really.

Maybe if I ate apples on a train while sitting in a bathtub…would another story as good as Murder on the Orient Express come out of it?

Please visit me at

G.M. Malliet

5 replies
  1. Maria Hudgins
    Maria Hudgins says:

    Hi G.M.
    I'm afraid I'd end up with a whole row of apple cores on the rim of the tub and wrinkled fingers and toes. I like your idea of a train. For me the thing that sometimes works, is a road trip. I don't text, phone or eat, but while driving on the interstate, the road doesn't have enough going on to keep my brain fully occupied. So I watch the road and let my mind wander around. Sometimes an idea pops in. Not always.
    See ya!
    Maria Hudgins

  2. Alan Orloff
    Alan Orloff says:

    Wherever you're getting your ideas, it seems to be working!

    I'm heading down to the train station right now, with a couple Fujis in my pocket.

  3. G.M. Malliet
    G.M. Malliet says:

    Maria – see you very soon in the UK! I can't believe it is August almost.

    Alan – you seem to have no problem coming up with ideas but let me know if the Fujis work.

  4. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    I get my ideas from newspaper articles which I save in a folder, things people tell me, things I've heard while eavesdropping (yes, I love to eavesdrop), what I've seen when people watching, and thinking back over things that have happened in my life.


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