Monday, July 23, 2007

Where do ideas come from?

by Donna MacMeans

Inevitably, at some point in a conversation with a wide-eyed reader, the question will arise "Where do you get your ideas?"
And I struggle for an answer because the process never seems to be the same. I just have to trust that the inspiration for a new story will be there when I need it. (I PRAY that the inspiration will be there when I need it).
Stephen King suggests that story are ideas are buried in the ground just waiting for the author to unearth them. Jennifer Crusie credits the "girls in the basement" for sending up ideas when you need them - you just have to listen. A workshop last week in Dallas told authors to look to music and movie titles for inspiration. So I'm wondering - where do you find inspiration for a novel?
The Education for Mrs. Brimley was inspired a few years ago by Lori Foster's contest. She encouraged entrants to submit a sexy scene in either a contemporary or historical setting. The weekly winner's entry would go to an editor. Several novellas were purchased through that contest. My idea for a strip tease was ripe with sexual tension, but the scenario was hardly unique in a contemporary venue. So I decided to place it in a Victorian setting as those ladies wore enough clothes to make a striptease a weeklong event. Now I needed motivation for my characters, both hero and heroine. As I thought about it, an idea started to form that begged to be written. I never entered Lori's contest because the desire to work on my Victorian striptease took over.
My next book, The Trouble with Moonlight, was inspired by the recent preponderance of TV shows and heroines with supernatural powers. That, coupled with the story of the headless horseman, led to my fun story of an invisible (Victorian) heroine.
My current work in process was inspired in part by the historical homes in Newport, Rhode Island. Discovering the charm gates in New Orleans brought about a partially written time-travel that still sits on my computer. A talk show featuring a cardiologist specializing in heart transplants inspired an earlier romantic suspense.
TV shows, vacation spots, movies, and sure would be nice if the process was consistent so I'd know where to turn when a story idea is needed. Especially as deadlines loom.
Share the source of your inspiration, or the process you use to discover your story and I'll reward the best suggestion with a bandit mask and a Jane Austen action figure.


Anna Campbell said...

Donna, what an interesting post. It is a perennial question, isn't it? The thing is my ideas come from everything and they somehow seem to combine in my head like a soup and voila, bouillabaisse (sp?) aka another Anna Campbell story.

With Claiming the Courtesan, I'd always been interested in women in history and courtesans are one of the more visible female presences. I'd read a lot of books featuring the grandes horizontales (isn't that a great name?). I also, I realised later, moved into a flat near Sydney's red light area so I think walking past the working girls every morning fed into thinking about having to sell yourself to keep body and soul together, or in Verity's case, someone else's body and soul together. Kylemore was born from visiting those big houses in England and thinking about what it would be like to grow up there. What special pressures are placed on a child who knows from birth that he's singled out for all that responsibility? What sort of human relationships spring from the often heartless and unhappy marriages that the aristocracy often specialised in? How do you negotiate a satisfactory personal life in those circumstances? Then there were all those tragic stories of the Highland Clearances. Then there was... I could go on forever.

With book two, I think my influences went back even further to the fairy tales I absolutely loved reading as a little girl. I still love myths and legends. Untouched is Beauty and the Beast meets the Sleeping Beauty.

Book three which I'm working on right now is a Regency noir Affair to Remember. An Affair to Remember was my mother's favorite film and I can't tell you how many times I'd seen it. I started to think about those clever, cynical, witty characters in a Regency setting and how falling in love is the greatest threat those people could face.

I'd love to know where other people get their ideas from.

Keira Soleore said...

Donna, very cool post. I don't have anything suitably erudite to contribute here, just a laugh.

"Ideas? asked Nora Roberts. "I get them at the little store around the corner. I paid a buck ninety eight."

Christine Wells said...

Donna, I can't wait to read your books! It's fascinating to hear how people get their ideas--I think that's why readers ask!

I'm like Anna, a lot of wisps of ideas just percolate and I don't really know where everything in the story comes from when I write it. I do remember about my hero.

He is a little like a fellow I worked with once--not only was he handsome, rich (family money plus he was a lawyer) and charming, he was a genuinely nice fellow who took an interest in everyone he met. Everything came easily to him and even though I couldn't help but like him (as did everyone else)something about him galled me. I couldn't help wishing that one day, a woman would come along to bring him to his knees.

I wanted to write about a man like that, and give him a heroine who would go toe to toe with him and sometimes win. So, I suppose part of my book came from a real life situation. The guy is married now, but I don't know the girl. I hear she's very beautiful (of course!)and sometimes I wonder whether he found someone who gives him a run for his money. Someone like my heroine, Gemma. Somehow, I doubt it! But you never know...

Related stories come to me about secondary characters as I'm writing a novel. Sometimes an interesting piece of research will spark an idea but the trouble with basing stories on research is that you have to remember the romance always has to come first.

Christie Kelley said...

What a fun post! My ideas can come and slam into me when I least expect it or just as I'm about to drift off, I'll get a wisp of a conversation. For Every Night I'm Yours, it started as the latter. I heard this woman telling her friends that she'd decided to take a lover. Well, that woke me right up. I write Regency set historicals, what woman is going to say something like that to her friends?

Well, my heroine did, after much contemplation of course. Being a bit logical, she decides on the perfect man. A male friend of hers whom she knows would never tell a soul about their liaison. But thank goodness for interferring friends who make sure the hero stops her. Only he doesn't and ends up blackmailing her into an affair.

I really had a blast writing that book (and rewriting, and rewriting).

The second book in that series has been much harder. I thought the heroine (book 1 hero's sister) had no conflict until I dug deep and discovered she has soooo much conflict and guilt that she can't tell anyone. Not quite as sexy as the first book but still fun to write.

Anna Sugden said...

Fabulous post, Donna and I can't wait to read Mrs Brimley. I've loved the title ever since I first heard it.

How cool to read where others get their ideas from too!

Mine come from all over the place too. Articles I've read, things I've seen on TV, snippets of conversation and those funny little wisps in the air!

Love by Bequest (aka the sheep book) came about from a talk given by the fab Tess Gerritsen. She was talking about taking a situation and making it bad, then twisting it to make it worse. Some time later, hubby and I were in Kansas City and there were posters up for a rodeo. I got to thinking ... what would be the worst thing you could do to a Texas cowboy and then how bad could I make it? Make him inherit a sheep farm ... in England ... in Yorkshire ... that used to belong to the father he hated. *grin*

Mortgaged Hearts (aka Barney's story - he's the little boy) came from bits and pieces of my teaching career which gelled into Barney. Then the first scene just sprang into my head!

Bad Boy, Good Man came about from one of my absolute favourite hockey players - Scott Stevens. Such a wonderful, generous, classy and nice man off the ice ... but a real hard man on the ice. He hit players so hard, he gave them concussion! The dichotomy intrigued me.

My current ms is about a puck bunny - she appealed to me from the start. Now how do you make her sympathetic for an SSE audience?! Think Pretty Woman crossed with Bull Durham with a hockey twist.

Caren Crane said...

Story ideas seem to always be a little bit of this and a dollop of that for me. I tend to read everything: news articles, books, magazines, billboards, cereal boxes, liner notes in my CDs. Lots of times, there are lines or phrases or bits of information that leap out at me. I may not know why, or what to do with them, but they get squirreled away (along with lots of other trivia) in my mind.

Sometime later, a character or story or situation will percolate to the top of my brain and--voila--a book is born. What is much harder (and my biggest fear when I sell) is trying to force that creativity. I need lots of story "composting" time. Which you can get if you're Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Jennifer Crusie. I hope they will give it to little old me!

Cassondra said...

I too am waiting for Mrs. Brimley and pounding the table impatiently--for each new book from my Bandita pals.

My ideas come from dreams, and I'll be marked as crazy I suppose, but I've begun to think my characters walk into my dreams and introduce themselves, and from there, I grow to know them--sometimes easily, somtimes not. AT times they are forthcoming with info, other times they're close-mouthed.
But the seed of the idea--it's been dreams for all but two of my manuscripts.

I think it's a magic moment any time the seeds for a story come together. A scent, combined with the way the sun hits the landscape while you're driving with the windows down in the evening. Or drifting off almost asleep on a Sunday afternoon with the radio playing in another room so softly you can hear it, but can't. A snippet of conversation heard through a closed door as you pass by.

Caught at just the right time and in the right frame of mind, it turns into magic.

Donna MacMeans said...

Anna -

Untouched sounds fabulous! Can't wait to read it.

An affair to remember is one of my favorites too. Can't wait to see how you twist it in the regency setting (guess meeting at the top of the Empire State Bldg is out -)

Donna MacMeans said...

Keira -

I wish!!!!! I need to know the location of that store!

Donna MacMeans said...

Christine W -

Do you find that developing an idea for a sequel is more difficult than writing the first book when you could create from thin air? I do.

Do you think this guy would recognize himself in your book? I know I teased one of my husband's friends years ago that I was basing my rogue on him because he's such a womanizer. He recently asked my husband if this book is the one I wrote about him. Hah!

Donna MacMeans said...

Christie K -

Ooooh - I love that line! It's a shame that it was uttered by a stranger, I'd love to know if the real live woman followed through with her plan!

Yes, I feel your pain with the second book. I wrote the first without much thought to a sequel. It's different starting a book out with certain characters already defined. I'm sure struggling through this will just add to our growth as authors - at least that's the plan!

Donna MacMeans said...

Anna -

Your ideas are so much fun! Did you see the sheep I carried around with me in the bar in Dallas. Talk about an ice-breaker! The day Love by Bequest sells - I'll ship her off to you.

Sports - or at least hockey - obviously inspires you. One of the many "taboos" that were whispered in the halls was that you couldn't use sports figures as heros. Are you finding this to be a stumbling block with editors? Just curious -

Donna MacMeans said...

Caren -

Felicia Mason used to say that your writer brain looks at things around you and sees them in a way no one else would. There are things that you as a writer are meant to see, or overhear. It was after her comment that I wondered what I was meant to see in New Orleans and remembered those charm gates standing by a less popular entrance to a famous resteraunt.

I just wish those "things that you're meant to see" would come with flashing lights and whistles!

Donna MacMeans said...

Cassandra -

Love the magic... I can't say that any of my ideas come from dreams, though I know other writers who use dreams as inspiration. Do you keep a journal near the bed to record those magic moments? I think I tried once to record a dream while I was semi-awake, semi-asleep. The next morning I looked at the journal and couldn't read a thing!

Anna Sugden said...

Actually, Donna, I've been surprised by the positive response. I think the way has been paved by SEP (football), Rachel Gibson (hockey), Deirdre Martin (hockey), Kate Angell (baseball), Carly Phillips (sports) and shows like Friday Night Lights, Dream Team and Footballer's Wives. Also there have been a few popular sports based movies lately.

I think, as always, one's own passion coming through is a big part of it *grin*.

FilmPhan said...

I'm not a writer but mostly a reader. I wrote some stories in high school though. My ideas for those came from facial expressions. There are usually whole stories behind someone's smile or tears.

When I'm at work, I know the customers that are stressed or laid back by their facail expression. And it makes me react differently to each customer. People give off vibes from what their face says.

I find that an expression is a glimpse of a secret. If you catch someone smiling and ask them why they are, there is most likely a story behind it.Whether or not it's good enough to elaborate on, it is still the start of a story.

I don't actually know if this is a good way to start a story. I only know that when I go out to the mall or something and see someone laughing or practically in tears, I want to know why. Then I can either laugh along with them or give them a hug and tell them it will be alright.

Caren Crane said...

Filmphan, that is a great observation. I've noticed that whenever I see someone driving around with a smile on their face, I always want to know why! I mean, how many people do you see who look happy in their cars?*g*

Caren Crane said...

Donna, your "bells and whistles" comment made me laugh! I am (as some may have experienced) a "non-noticer". Things have to be very obvious for me to notice them. Then again, I often "see" things nobody else seems to notice.

I like to think that my brain just works differently and that it isn't a bad thing that I miss the obvious. Then again, maybe I'm simply delusional. Hard to tell!

Christine Wells said...

Donna, about sequels--I'm not even contracted to write a series but it sounded like a good idea at the time, so off I trotted to write my next book about one of the men in Scandal's Daughter. And yes, it is far more difficult, because my characters tend to evolve as the story plays out and you need the character to be consistent with how he was portrayed in your first book.

Oh, no this guy wouldn't recognise himself. I was really writing about his 'type', or at least the type he appeared to be so nothing in it is specific to him. Perhaps he had hidden depths of torment I can only guess at!*g*

This is fascinating. I'm enjoying reading the way everyone works. Thanks for the post!

Joan said...

Great post Donna,

I'm not sure I can point to any one thing that inspires me. Heck, I haven't been to Rome but there are those three Roman set historicals I've written/am writing. (Haven't watched any gladitorial contests LATELY).

I do know that two secondary characters from THE PATRICIAN'S DESIRE strutted right onto the pages in that first mss. and demanded their own stories. It was fascinating AND a bit scary how real they were and how they almost took over the whole show.

I did have a dream the other night, set in contempary times to which I woke up thinking "Hmmm...that would be a great scene." Then promptly forgot it. :-0

Helen said...

Hi Donna great blog I don't write but I read heaps and I am always interested in where you wonderful authors get your ideas. I just hope you all keep getting them because I can never have too many books to read.
Have Fun

Anna Campbell said...

Whaddayamean I can't have the Empire State Building? ;-) Perhaps they'll have to meet in the top of the dome of St Paul's instead...

Loving everyone's stories about where their ideas come from. Great topic, DM!!

Donna MacMeans said...

Joan -

I can guess where your inspiration comes from - can you say "pectorals" (big grin). Don't you love it when your characters become so real - they tell you the story and not the other way around?

Donna MacMeans said...

filmphan -

I think you're more of a writer than you may think. Attention to facial expressions is very important to an author wanting to show emotion.

I'd probably drive you and Caren nuts as I'm usually lost in my own little fiction world with a big ear-to-ear grin on my face.


Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Helen who reads heaps -

So what kind of heaps do you read (grin)? What kind of book would you like to see? Your suggestion could prove inspirational to another -

Suzanne Welsh said...

Ideas just pop into my head as full-fledged visions. (I know, another freaky moment.) Often they are accompanied by questions I must answer.

REFUGE, my murder-witness-turned-mail-order-bride historical was like that. I could see a very pregnant heroine fleeing up a mountain-side on a horse. Little did I know that scene was in the middle of the darn book! Why is she fleeing? From whom? How did she get so pregnant and why is she so desperate to hide?

KIDNAPPED, one of my GH finalists, came about as an attempt to write a story where all the action took place in one week. I could see the beginning, the hero huddled outside an ER, bleeding. Why? He's been shot and so has his witness. Why can't they go in? He thinks the cops shot him and the ER has to report shootings. What does he do? Wha-la...he kidnaps a nurse! (grinning at Joan!)

MY current WIP? The hero, a small town sheriff startles a woman who is standing on a car searching a large trash-bin. She falls into his arms and dumps garbage on him. Who is she? (Teacher-turned PI) What is she searching for? How does his life change?

Helen said...

Donna, I love historical romance I have been reading these books for about 30 years now and have read many authors and many different styles I love the hero and heroine to be strong and caring I love the obstacles and hurdles they cross for their HEA they may have dark pasts that they need to overcome I also love mystery mixed in with all of this and humour all different types. I am not into paranormal or vampires etc I am reading A Warriors Taking by Margo Maguire at the moment where the hero is from the past not what I usually read but I am really enjoying it, excellent read and of course I love Claiming The Courtesan by Anna Campbell but basically I love medieval, regency,victorian historicals and with all the recomendations from blogs I visit my TBR pile is growing I just need to retire from work so as I can get them all read.
Have Fun

Aunty Cindy said...

Hi Donna and Everybody!
Yup, my story ideas come from anywhere and everywhere! However, I must admit with my 3 "romantic suspense in exotic locations" stories, I came up with the settings first and the stories just kind of "grew" from there.

It's also very amazing how once you have the first piece or two how other pieces just "fall into place." Once I started writing about Venice, I began seeing and hearing all kinds of things about Venice that fit into my story. Ditto about Northern Ireland. Serendipity... I LOVE IT!


Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Helen, thanks for the plug! You're always welcome at the Banditas, my friend! Historicals are still my favorites too although I've got to say I'll read anything if it's a compelling story. You're right about so many books and not enough time!

Donna MacMeans said...

Aunty Cindy -

Yes! I love that serendipity thing! Working on Mrs. Brimley, I kept bumping into corsets. I've now got them in pewter magnets, in purses, in keychains, in cookie cutters. I've got them on mugs & bags & stamps. Once I started Moonlight, everything with a moon design on it seemed to come my way. With my current WIP, the heroine is a wealthy American heiress - maybe currency will find its way to me! Hey - a girl can dream.

Donna MacMeans said...

Helen -

You are a reader after my own heart. I hope you give The Education of Mrs. Brimley a whirl as it's sexy and funny. Fingers crossed that you'll like it.

Anna Campbell said...

Donna, funny you say that. When I was writing CTC which was originally called No Ordinary Duchess (now, anyone who knows my silly sense of humor will know I then I couldn't resist calling it Noddy), I kept running into stuff about Noddy, you know, the Enid Blyton kids' character. Kept thinking it might be an omen. Hey, it might have been! Hmm, your omens were much sexier than mine! And I can't wait to read Mrs. Brimley too. And don't forget, Banditas, that Christine's fabulous Scandal's Daughter is out in September. Whoo-hoo!

Joan said...


Pectorals? Hmmmm....with tunics :-)

And Suz. Thank God the nurses FINALLY get to have some fun! Does your dialouge include "Here, hot, sexy man. Let me put a bandaid on your boo boo" VBG

Helen, Yay for the historical reader! My favs have always been and always will be the historicals. Right now, its the only thing I can think about writing.

I'll read any time period. Like Anna, a compelling story is a compelling story no matter what time in history. (That movie "Clan of the Cave Bear"? Not one bit of dialouge, the occasional grunt but the story held me enthralled.

If you want to whet your whistle, Helen, go read the excerpt from Anna's next release "Untouched" on her website. You'll count the hours until it's on the shelves.

Anna Campbell said...

"Can I put a bandaid on your boo-boo?" Joan, I bet you're the most popular nurse in your hospital!! Killing myself laughing here. Almost too much to thank you for the plug!

Helen said...

Donna I will most defiently be getting your book as soon as I can and am sure I am going to love it and Joan Yes I am already counting down the days until Untouched is released.
Have Fun

Donna MacMeans said...

Helen -

And on that note I officially rule that you are the winner of the Jane Austen action figure and bandit mask! How can I deny such a fan of bandita historicals. So here's what you do. Please visit my website at and email me your snail contact information and I'll send Ms. Austen pronto. Thanks for visiting the Romance Bandits!

Helen said...

Thank you so much Donna I love all you guys you are so much fun and the blogs are really interesting and inspiring.
Thanks again
Have Fun

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Helen, how cool. The JA Action figure is coming down under! Congratulations!

Anna x

Helen said...

I am so excited the action figure and bandit mask will take centre place in my cabinet with my autographed books and coverflats and I will treasure them always.
Thanks again everyone.
Have Fun

Christine Wells said...

Foanna, your cheque's in the mail! Thanks for the plug.

And I hope no one will murder me when I brag that I HAVE read Untouched and it IS brilliant. Did everyone see the cover on Anna's website? It's gorgeous and really fits the story too.

Kate Carlisle said...

I'm jumping in at the last minute, sorry! Great post Donna, and lots of good comments that really made me think about where I get my ideas. As everyone else has said, mine can pop up anywhere, including that corner store, LOL.

I can't wait to read our Bandita books after hearing all these cool story ideas!

Congratulations, Helen!!