One of the most common questions most writers are asked is the “Where do you get your ideas?” question. In a way, it’s a flattering question. It’s like seeing an outfit that you really like that someone is wearing and asking, “Where did you get that?” It’s a compliment.
How a writer gets his or her ideas is as unique as the writer him or her self. For some writers, a certain place will trigger an idea, like an old building or a quiet spot in the mountains. Some writers get inspiration from an interesting person they spot at the grocery store or walking through the mall. And others will overhear a piece of dialog that sparks their interest and generates a concept for a story. Or it could be any combination of these things and more. But the typical result is that the inspiration strikes and the writer begins asking, “What if?” or “What about it?” – and from there, the story ideas start to take off.
Speaking personally, I find story ideas everywhere! This is great, because I’m never at a loss for things to write, but it can be a little annoying because at times I am overwhelmed with ideas! But how do these odd collections of inspiration turn into solid stories? I’ve talked before about the “story behind the story” that led to the creation of the crime/horror novel “Beautiful Monster” so I won’t go into that one again. How about the young adult novel I have coming out in October, “The Deepest Blue” – because it has a good story.
It actually started with my oldest daughter when she was 15. Her biological dad had remarried a few years prior, and she was struggling with the new arrangements when she visited him. She had a step-mom, two step-sisters, and a new little half-brother. Over a period of time, she felt that she was being singled out and picked on (which a lot of teenagers feel in that situation). But for her, it became so bad that she came to my husband and I one day and told us that she wanted her step-dad to legally adopt her. This was not a spontaneous decision. She explained that she had been wanting this for more than a year, but that she just hadn’t found the courage to ask. After some nastiness back and forth between the two families, she finally got her wish.
A few years later, my step-son came and asked me to adopt him. It was not a complete surprise since his biological mom had pretty much dropped out of his life a few years earlier. There wasn’t a fight like there had been for my daughter, and in the end, I became his legal mom not long after he turned 16.
Having watched two of my children go through this process, an idea began to formulate in my head. What if a boy only had one parent, and then lost that parent unexpectedly? What if he had to choose a new parent, but then had to stand up for himself and for what he knew was best for him? The ideas evolved. The story took shape. Pretty soon, I was off and writing. One of the hardest parts of writing this book was that, just before I had to write the scene where the boy sees his father dead (dad gets hit by a drunk driver), my own father passed away. I was at his house within an hour of when he passed and sat with his body off and on for hours while waiting for the funeral home representatives to arrive and take him away. Needless to say, writing those scenes became nearly impossible. It took me almost two years before I could finish this book. Even now, when I read the scene where the main character sees his father’s lifeless body for the first time, I become very emotional.
(That’s my dad!)
So how about the book I’m working on now? Well, there’s quite a story behind this one too, but it isn’t nearly so personal.
Early in my writing career, I had a contract to write an educational book for kids about Napoleon. I was hundreds of hours into the research, writing, and revisions on this book. In fact, the final revisions were being polished up to submit to my editor when I got a call no writer wants: the publisher had been bought out by another publisher (as was common in the 1990s), and the series that my book was part of had been discontinued. The editors were being let go or reassigned, and the contracts were being cancelled. I was allowed to keep the advance I’d been given, but there would be no finished book. SAY WHAT?? Yeah – it happens.
For years I let the research just sit and molder. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything with it because at first I was so angry, then so depressed, and then finally so exasperated by it that I just didn’t care anymore. But there were pieces of the research I’d done that stuck with me. There were details that would never go into that first book that I found quite compelling, and I would return to them over and over again. One piece of history that I knew wouldn’t go into that book was the information about the French executioners. They lived as social outcasts, even though they were paid quite well by the monarchy for the job they did. Even after the French Revolution, the executioners made a good living from the Republic, but they were completely ostracized by French society. Their children could not attend public schools, they were not welcome in shops or cafes in the towns or villages, and executioner’s daughter could only marry an executioner’s son.
This information has rattled around in my brain for years, and it has finally begun to take shape. I’m playing with several ideas, but already I know the book is entitled “The Executioner’s Daughter” and I know a great deal about this feisty young woman. She isn’t going to play by the rules that society has forced on her. She is going to have a little revolution of her own with far-reaching impact. I don’t know if the book is speculative fiction, or if it might even be Steampunk. (I envision my main character looking something like this.)
If you’re not familiar with Steampunk, I invite you to check it out on the internet. It is a subculture that fascinates me! It could also use some better literature.
So where do ideas come from? Well, pretty much anywhere and everywhere. I don’t think it’s so important to know where they came from as it is to identify how best to use them! It’s not so hard as you think. Mix some mismatched concepts together, swirl around, and then ask “Why?” and “What if?” and “Then what?” – and then let it fly!