Writers are often asked where they get the ideas for their stories. Readers are genuinely curious, but writers sometimes have a tough time answering that question. Some stories come into your head with a bang! and some arrive kicking and screaming. Every book is different.
Some ideas pop into a writer’s head after overhearing a snippet of conversation between strangers, or while watching a TV show or movie (I’d have done that differently!), or from a news story, and some from our own life experiences. Almost anything can trigger an idea for a story. Today I’m going to share a few things that have triggered mine.
#1. Fred Vickery. As my long-time readers know, Fred Vickery is the 70-something protagonist of my first mystery series. Fred started out life based on my next-door neighbor at the time, a man named Fred. Fred was nice to my kids, and every morning he’d come out into the backyard and talk to his chickens. I was writing a mystery with a 30-s0mething female protagonist, and I needed someone to find a dead body, so I put Fred on a path beside a lake and let him go. He was going to find the body and then get shot later in the book–only Fred was determined not to go anywhere, especially not into the light.
In fact, Fred began making noises that told me he thought he was the book’s protagonist. Long story short, he won the battle and I lost. Fred became the protagonist of the first book I ever wrote to the end, which, in turn, became the first book I ever sold. My editor liked him so much, the publisher offered me a three-book contract. While writing No Place for Secrets, I had my doubts about making an older man a protagonist. Could he hold his own out there in the world? Then I remembered my own dad getting into an argument with a much younger man when Dad was 65 and (unbeknownst to us at the time) suffering from prostate cancer. At first, I thought my dad was going to get his butt kicked by the 20-something guy, but I quickly began to worry that my dad was going to seriously hurt the other guy. (He didn’t.) That’s when I knew Fred could stand up to a challenge and prevail.
From this experience, I learned to let my characters speak and think for themselves. If I had persisted in shoving Fred into the box I’d devised for him, I doubt the book(s) wold have sold, or that readers would still be asking for more books in the series.
#2. The inspiration for The Cakes of Monte Cristo, came entirely from the title. My daughters and I had brainstormed ideas for the series titles, and wed had a lot of fun doing it. We spent hours pouring over movie and book titles, coming up with word-play possibilities. When one of the girls suggested The Cakes of Monte Cristo as a title, I was all over it immediately. I just knew I had to write a book with that title…and I did. There are just some things you can’t pass up.
#3.. The inspiration for Her Secret Family came from a conversation I had with my parents about genealogy. My family is big on family history,. For at least three generations, people in my family have actively worked on gathering records and keeping track of where we came from. On my dad’s side of the family, we hit a brick wall with one ancestor, born in Kentucky (we think) named John Lewis. John comes out of nowhere, suddenly, in the early 1800s.All we have is word-of-mouth from his son, who shared what he’d heard or guessed about his dad. My parents and I were talking about the possibilities that had occurred to us to explain John’s apparent lack of documentation Was he born with another name and taken in by the Lewis family after his parents died? Was he, perhaps, Native American, someone who managed to blend into white society? That question got the gears in my head spinning. I could have written an historical novel about someone like John, making up my own answers, but my characters wanted to go in a different direction. What would you do if you were raised with a prejudice–and then realized you were prejudiced against yourself?
From this and several other books, I’ve learned that it’s much more interesting to write a book in which I attempt to answer a difficult question than it is to write a book in which I attempt to make a point.
#4. The inspiration for Sucker Punch came to me while I sat through rehearsals of a community theater production of The King and I. My younger daughter had a role in the play, and she was just a bit too young to drive herself to and from rehearsals, so I went with her and sat in the theater, either reading or working while the cast and crew went about their business. I started thinking what a wonderful place a theater would be for a murder–all those storage rooms and back hallways hidden from the public… By the time I got around to writing this book, I’d become very fond of the characters in Paradise, Colorado, and I knew exactly which of them would end up the prime suspect.
This book reminded me what a powerful tool setting can be in a novel.
#5. The inspiration for An Echo in Time came from a conversation I had with an editor (not mine) at a writer’s conference. She and I were chatting over lunch one day and she was telling me how tired she was of getting the same old types of submissions. She said something about how tired she was of serial killer stories, which didn’t ring any bells in my head because even back then, I was already tired of them. Then she said how tired she was of the same old, tired time-travel devices. The amulet. The mirror (guilty!)…. It’s what she said next that stuck in my head. “Just once,” she said something like, “I’d love to see a book where the character chose to time travel on purpose.” And in that moment, I knew I was going to write that book. Of course, I was under contract to another publisher, so I couldn’t send it to her. I didn’t know how or when I’d write the story util Sam Evans walked on stage in Whispers Through Time. Immediately, I knew I’d found my man.
From this experience, I learned to listen to what editors and agents are saying, even when they’re not talking about you and your books!
Now I’m curious. Writers, where do you find inspiration? And readers, what kinds of books do you find most inspiring?