It’s the question every writer gets asked, all the way from the first grader who hands in a three-sentence story about her pet cat’s adventures right on up to the folks on the NYT list. “Where did you get the idea for that?”
There are a couple of options available to an author at this point. My favorite is the dumb look, coupled with a heartfelt “Idunno.” You can also make up something about how the ghost of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway visit you in your dreams to dictate stories they never got around to writing. This last is best accompanied by vague mutterings to the surrounding air, telling Jane and Ernest to remember they shouldn’t interrupt you when you’re talking. The questioner may not believe you, but they will learn not to bother you, especially if you throw in a few references to your weapon collection.
But it is a real puzzler, you know, the source of the weird situations we put our characters through. Although I joke with my writing buddies about “the voices in my head,” sometimes I really do feel like someone or something else is coming up with the stories, and I just write them down.
But if you look back at your writing, especially after a little time has gone by since you finished a piece, you start to see little themes and concepts that picked up on situations in your own life. It’s kind of like dreams – your subconscious takes things that really happened, twists them, confuses them, and turns them into something completely different. Only by dissecting and analyzing each component can you figure out “where they came from.”
For example, you rarely find a heroine having a good time at a party in my stories. Now, seriously, who doesn’t like a good soiree? Music, food, and fun – what’s not to like? But my ladies have a serious habit of getting their hearts broken at parties. My upcoming release, Proof of Love, begins with Lady Susan Lanier arriving at a party prepared to have the time of her life. Unfortunately, the evening ends with her in tears, her future dreams shattered, and London’s gossips enjoying a most scandalous story at her expense.
Likewise, in the contemporary chick-lit I just finished, my heroine, Cassie, returns to her hometown in triumph for gala, and she expects to flaunt her big-city successes in front of all the people who looked down on her in the past. Unfortunately, the guy who made it all possible turns out to have some pretty serious secrets, and they all come tumbling out right in the middle of the party.
When I look at these scenes, I can’t help but compare them to a particularly rotten evening of my life — high school graduation night, to be exact. A night that went from the time of my life to utter humiliation in 42.3 seconds.
Now, I will tell you that, these many years later, I am ecstatic about the way it all worked out. Had the no-ambition, yet really gorgeous boyfriend stuck around, I would never have gotten my law degree, married The Lord of the Far Junior College, or had my precious babies. God knew what I needed.
But when I try to up the angst ante for one of my ladies, my mind goes right back to a midnight party at one of the Tallahassee sinkholes, where my heart got ripped apart to the crowd’s delight. If you read my stories, expect bad things from parties.
I can’t say that a story as a complete unit comes from any particular experience in my life – after all, I’ve never been a duchess in Georgian England (discounting reincarnation, at least.) But when I pick out each little component that goes into the story, most of the time, I can figure out where that idea came from, even if, as it usually is, it is contorted far beyond anything resembling the actual reality.
And that, boys and girls, is “how I come up with those ideas.”