Thursday, March 1, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I usually pause to scream when someone asks me this. Well, not really. Mostly I'm screaming inside my head. Three reasons. First, I  can't easily answer. Second, I'm wondering why it matters to anyone. Third, there is no one answer. It's different for each book. The first time I got this question I sat there with a blank expression for two seconds and then just made something up. I was speaking at a literary event. Way to impress, right?

I've never not had ideas for stories. Never. So the reason I'd go blank the first few times I got this question is because the whole idea process happens naturally. Now I'm a grown-up writer on purpose. By that I mean I've matured creatively. Certain aspects of my craft are  done on purpose. This has made me a better writer. The one thing I don't do on purpose is hunt for ideas. My brain just works that way. However, I realize that one day I may need a strategy for coming up with ideas. So here are a few I'll share:

1. Pimp your peeps! Sounds seedy doesn't it? What-ev. A good book is worth it, sugar. Think of dramatic, funny, suspenseful, and scandalous incidents in your family and friends circle.

Then play the "What if?" game. Many times the germ of whole books come from one snippet. For example, a novel I wrote is set is the small town of Solitude, Louisiana. Solitude is in West Feliciana Parish. My late uncle told me about visiting Rosedown Plantation as a child. He would swing  on the huge white gate while my great aunt had coffee and cake with the last descendant of the original family that built Rosedown. He said great aunt Julia looked just like Miss Barrow. Everyone knew what that meant, but speaking it aloud in West Feliciana Parish was (still is) taboo. Years later A Time To Love was written with a subplot inspired by that story.
A family account about a mistress and wife who formed an alliance, to the dismay of the husband, inspired Best Enemies. The real story took place in 1920s rural Louisiana. Best Enemies is contemporary, but the idea of a wife and mistress who become friends to solve a murder has roots in that one afternoon when my elders talked and, curious ten year old Lynn eavesdropped.

2. Be nosy. The cleaned up word for this is for writers to be "curious", or "observant". Let's be real. We're all up in OPB, "other people's business". I use the bad news that CNN, the local newspaper and a variety of news outlets love to report. This informs me about the criminal world, key since I write mysteries and romantic suspense. Of course I can fall back on pimping my peeps since I have some unsavory branches in the old family tree. In After All I used a local scandal that involved the public housing agency to build an entire suspense subplot interwoven with the romance plot. I simply used the newspaper articles that told the whole unsavory story. Easiest research I've ever done. Coincidentally I had met one of the players, a contractor who was later convicted and served time.

3. Use where you live shamelessly. Louisiana is a gold mine. Use your state and hometown. Historical facts and events can make the "What if" game a lot of fun. In A Darker Shade of Midnight the history  of Haitian descendants who came to Louisiana plays a big part in characterization (the heroine and her ancestors). In the sequel I'm writing now, Between Dusk and Dawn, I use more fascinating bits. One little know fact is that a group of Blacks from Louisiana moved to Mexico in the 1870s to escape Jim Crow. I weave these kinds of references in to add spice to my novels, which are mostly set in Louisiana.

February is Black History Month here in the U.S., and March is Women's History Month. Because I love history, I celebrate continuously. History helps me fill out settings, build characterizations and generate plots.

For more on getting ideas see this helpful site- Creative Prompts for Writers

I must feed my need for good fiction, so keep writing!

What part of writing comes to you naturally, and what have you had to work on? Setting, description, dialogue, plotting, transitions, pacing?


G said...

Description and dialogue comes naturally to me. Everything else I have to bust my butt in doing.

I can definitely understand the nosy process of being inspired to write certain stories.

When I was going through my flash fiction phase a couple of years ago, almost everything and anything was fair game for a plot. I think the strangest story plot I had was a conversation between two stop signs.

Nowadays, it's simply about hooking onto a random thought while I'm out and about walking. I do a lot of thinking (normal and free-form) while I walk, and every once in a while, something will connect and I'll start the writing process once I get home.

Liane Spicer said...

Exactly my take, Lynn. My peeps, my places, my observations, all chivvied along by my curiosity and my intuition (which I know is my subconscious mind working in mysterious and wonderful ways). Mix well and start writing!

I've been told I excel at setting, description and dialogue; these come naturally. What I have to work on is building conflict. In RL I used to avoid conflict at any cost so creating it even in fiction takes deliberate effort. I've also learned to watch my transitions; the editor of the first novel pointed out that several chapters ended with my heroine going to sleep!

Lynn Emery said...

Hi, G. Random thoughts while walking, gardening or housework come to me as well.

Liane, I had to work on the sense of time - still have to watch that. Don't know why, but I never think "how many days have passed?" when I'm reading. But that's a kind of transition and setting as well, the passage of time in the story world created.

Jewel Amethyst said...

What comes naturally to me? Everything except titles. I cannot for the life of me come up with a book title. I agonize over it for months while I'm writing and after it's completed.

Like you, I pimp my peeps endlessly. I use the "what if" scenarios and I gather a lot of ideas from the news. I even base some tideas on dreams I've had. Since my stories tend to be character driven, I usually have characters based loosely on people I know and spin the stories around them.

For my novella, "From SKB with Love" the characters stemmed from my then five year old daughter's crush on a classmate and her statement that she would marry him when she turned twenty. That sentence even made it into the book, complete with the name of the crushee who became a back story character.

Carol Mitchell said...

I have the great fortune to travel quite a bit, so there is a lot of fodder for writing. However, most of the really useful ideas tend to hit me by surprise. For example, I am working on a three story set which I started because of a documentary that I happened to see in the waiting room of my son's dentist.

Ideas are everywhere, once you are open to them. My strength is seeing the potential in the little details and developing the idea into an enjoyable story.

Lynn Emery said...

Jewel, your daughter's declaration was gold for your creative mind. Kids give us such great material.

Carol, can't wait to hear more about the stories and the documentary that inspired them.