Monday, October 18, 2021

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Welcome back, James Benn!

This week Jim raises a proverbial question, by way of introducing something completely new for him. I already have an answer to his question for us  do you?

Every author has heard that question. Often.

For my latest book—the stand-alone novel SHARD—the idea came in a roundabout way. A few years ago, I read Laura Hillenbrand’s outstanding book UNBROKEN: A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption. It chronicles the experiences of Louis Zamperini and his years of hellish treatment as a prisoner of war in Japan. Near the end of the book, Hillenbrand discusses how Zamperini and other veterans adapted to life back home after the war. 

It wasn’t easy.

One fascinating tidbit stood out for me. One of the former POWs admitted he could not stop stealing food. He’d used his sleight of hand to swipe anything he could eat from his captors, and when he arrived back in the States, he simply couldn’t give up the habit.

I thought this was a telling emotional tic for a character, and I decided to write the story of a returning POW and his problems adjusting to civilian life. An uncontrollable urge to shoplift candy bars, cans of tuna fish, apples, and whatever else could go in his pocket would create challenges for the character and opportunities for storytelling.

So, I had my idea. Then I decided to move the setting forward a few years and make it the story of a returning POW from the Korean War. No big deal, I thought. It’s just a matter of reading a bit of history, right?

I was stunned by what I found. 

Until Korea, capture by the Japanese was considered to have been the most horrendous POW experience for American forces. But that changed with the treatment of American and other United Nations troops at the hands of the North Koreans and then the Chinese.

Of the 7,190 American servicemen captured during the Korean War, approximately 3,000 died in captivity. This mortality rate of 43 percent far exceeded the highest recorded death rate of American soldiers—34 percent—held in Japanese prisoner of war camps during World War II. To be an Allied prisoner in North Korea was a terrible and brutal fate. 

The Korean War was the first conflict in which the opposing powers desired to convert the thinking of American POWs, not simply incarcerate them for the duration. Torture was combined with repeated exposure to Communist propaganda, or “thought reform” as the Chinese termed it. The Chinese called the prisoners “war criminals,” because they had fought against Communism. They said POWs were dupes of their own “reactionary” and “imperialist” governments, and that if they reached the necessary state of repentance, they would be forgiven for their “war crimes.” 

Our government had not anticipated the enemy’s dedication to coercing POWs into confessing false war crimes or denouncing the evils of capitalism while praising the Marxist system. Prisoners were left to their own devices to deal with the intense demands of their captors. Some went along, often to gain access to extra rations. Others resisted and were harshly punished, often murdered. 

“Thought reform” was effective enough to convince twenty-one American soldiers to stay behind and live voluntarily in China.


When the war was over, the American government suppressed the truth of what went on in the camps, embarrassed by how our men succumbed to the pressures of captivity. The myth of “brainwashing” (from the Chinese word xǐnăo meaning wash brain) was born to explain away what had happened and to cover up the government’s lack of preparedness.

That’s when my thinking shifted. This wasn’t going to be a tale about a returned prisoner of war adjusting to life in the States. The story had to be set in the camps. The POW experience wasn’t going to be the backstory, it would be the story.

We meet Private Ethan Shard in 1950, part of the US Army of Occupation in Japan. He’s knee-deep in the black market, getting rich stealing from the Army and selling to Japanese gangs. All that changes when the North Koreans invade South Korea and overwhelm the defending forces. Ethan Shard is sent to war, along with his partner-in-crime Elliot “Skitter” Skinner, in a desperate attempt to stop the North Korean advance. In their first skirmish, the two men are captured. The brutality of their captors, the harsh and unforgiving climate, and the constant threat of betrayal all conspire to test Shard’s ability to survive.

All that’s left of my original idea is Shard’s light-fingered ways. In the camps, he constantly takes risks to steal even the tiniest morsel of food from his captors. In this hellish landscape, criminal skills mean the difference between life and death.

The photograph below is emblematic of what these men endured.

Meet US Army PFC John Ploch. This picture was taken at Freedom Village, the location in South Korea where American POWs were processed immediately after release. He’s fresh from a Chinese POW camp. He’s been deloused, had a shower, been given a shave and haircut, and outfitted with a new uniform. He’s been fed. Now he’s seated at a table with books spread out in front of him and a cup of coffee at hand. 

He’s in shock. The look in his eyes? That’s the book I tried to write.

So, where do you get your ideas?


  1. Sounds like a spectacular story, James. I can't wait to read it.

  2. Thanks, Michael. These are indeed the forgotten men from a forgotten war.

  3. I'm always fascinated at how ideas are brought to fruition and turned into an actual novel. I hope writers and readers find these tidbits about my wandering thought process of interest.

  4. My standard answer to this question, Jim, is that I can get a score or more of ideas every day but only one or two a year is any good. Truth be told, once I start to write the book, and the characters take over the story, they tell the story they want told. I just describe what they do and write down what they say. I stopped trying to explain this to audiences. They have once or twice accused me of trying to be cute. I think I stopped being cute on my third birthday, so I make up an answer that is not as opaque is the truth.

    1. Yes, it is a hard question to answer without sounding too woo-hoo!

  5. My ideas come from James Benn. I just move them from a war zone to an Aegean party island. Congratulations, Jim. You have another WINNER.

    1. Your secret is out, Jeffrey! ;-)
      Thanks so much for that and all the mental vacations I've taken to the Aegean through your books.

  6. Sometimes GIs don't like it that their government has sent troops to another country to kill people with whom they have no quarrel.

    Thousands of U.S. soldiers, largely draftees opposed going to Vietnam or being there. Many fled Vietnam or defied orders or went to Canada to avoid the draft. Some went to prison here for refusing to go.

    I have friends who are veterans, severely wounded in Vietnam and/or psychologically wounded with PTSD. Their slogan is: "Support the veterans, not the war!" I can get behind that slogan, especially since so many veterans are poor, unemployed, homeless.

  7. Yikes, this one and the comments above give new resonance to "Murder Is Everywhere!" Jim, I'm wondering if the book was much more harrowing to write than the Billy Boyles. Also, I assume that haunting photo illustrates the famous thousand-yard stare.