I love getting emails from readers, and this week I got one from Kim asking about where I get my ideas. She wrote:
I loved your Past Forward series – I was hooked from page 1. I have all the books in the Hearthland series so far but just started reading it last night. I hated having to wait for the next one to come out in Past Forward, so I waited with the one so I could just sit down and keep on going! You have such a variety of genres in your novels, WWII, pirates, self-sustaining communities, early 20th century mysteries – where do you get your ideas from?
Thanks for sharing your gift with us, it is such a blessing!
Two notes: First this post contains affiliate links that provide a small commission to me at no extra expense to you. Also, this is an updated version of a post from April 2015.
Aaah… ideas. They’re cool things, aren’t they? I wrote about this a little bit in another Author Q&A post HERE. Feel free to zip over and see what that one was about. But while Lisa’s question dealt with the fact that I have many ideas, Kim’s is more about where I get them. So, I thought I’d list out the ways I can think of. I came up with five main ones. I like lists and I’m in the middle of budgets and taxes, so I’m going all numerical on you guys!
Questions? How about Answers?
Many of my books begin with a question. My first, Ready or Not (though not my first published), was conceived because of a question people asked me all the time. “You have 8 kids (at that time). I can’t handle the one (or two or three…) kids that I have, and you have EIGHT! How do you do it?” I always had the same answer. “I didn’t get all eight at once. I got them one at a time and by the time I got used to that one, then another one came along. It wasn’t like I woke up one morning with no mothering experience and suddenly had eight kids to take care of.”
But, because it’s how my brain works, I immediately asked myself. “What if someone did?” And, because I’m an author, I have to torture the character. So I expanded it. And expanded it. And… Yeah. You get the picture. Pretty soon the question was, “What would happen if a recent college graduate with no practical child experience became guardian overnight for her sister’s eight children–with the grandmotherly equivalent to a stereotypical (not nice) mother-in-law?”
And Aggie was born.
Several books began that way. Noble Pursuits began as a question. “What would happen if the ‘plain, overweight, homemaker’ caught the heart of the ‘eligible bachelor’?” Justified Means began as a question too. “How could a stranger kidnap an adult for her own good?”
Another way I get ideas is through dreams–seriously.
Prairie and the whole Journey of Dreams series began that way. I kept hearing “Theme from a Summer Place” while I slept. I saw the golden prairie grasses waving in the wind–like ocean waves once you’re past the breakers. I could hear the slither of snakes in the grass and see the birds circling overhead. I felt the emptiness–the aloneness. And I heard the full orchestra sound of Percy Faith slip into the lone whistle of a man walking home in the twilight. I dreamed it several times in a row. And once I started writing, that book almost wrote itself. So weird. I don’t do it often, but I have. Now that I think about it, I think Thirty Days Hath… was the result of a dream.
Sometimes it’s inspired by my favorite childhood book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
That is the book that inspired me to write (but you can read about that HERE). A wise teacher in the book said, “Tell the exact truth. Write what should have happened” (or something very close to that).
Mismatched was inspired that way. It was when my husband was in the hospital three and a half years ago. A man stepped into the elevator with me–a man I usually would have given a wide berth. Why? Well, he looked “unsafe” to my eyes. See, when I’d arrived at that hospital, I had no idea it was considered a “rough place” to go at night. I blithely walked through the doors and stared in shock as I had to go through metal detectors just to talk to the guy at the ER counter. Whoa. So, I’d gotten a bit of an education.
Add to that a friend of my kids’ who happens to have a few tattoos and piercings, and such a gentle heart and love for Jesus, and I was desperate to write a book about “what should have happened.” I wanted to write a response that I hope, having learned more about life after my sheltered little existence, would show my love for the people Jesus died for–those who acknowledge it and those who don’t.
Sometimes, it’s a character. The Hartfield Mysteries were conceived that way.
You know how small towns often have eccentric elderly women who keep the community either amused with their antics or the kids a bit awed and afraid of her? I created one, but I wanted her younger. Her name was Millicent and she wrote mysteries–cozies. She dressed like Jane Austen, and the town gossiped about her rituals and the source of her inspiration. She changed. Next thing I knew, she wore clothing from all sorts of eras. Then I chucked the name Millicent. I didn’t think many modern agents and publishers would like a name so very old-fashioned for such a young writer.
She went from eccentric and reclusive to eclectic and private. She became generous and feisty–beloved and a little awe-inspiring. She got a new name. Annette. I gave her a pseudonym. Alexa.
Then I irritated her by giving her a clichéd plot and twisted it. I like irritating my characters.
Willow had several inspirations, and one was definitely Alexa, actually Another was her mother. Kari is very similar to my father–the reclusive side, the ever-teaching. The staunchly independent personality. Had he been able to do it, he would absolutely have given me a very similar upbringing. There are others… Charity from Introductions (you meet her in a few other books like Manuscript for Murder and None So Blind), and to some degree Not a Word. Mac and Savvy both had character things I really wanted to work from–his willingness to love when wounded and let that love ‘cover a multitude of sins’ and her being the ‘good Christian girl’ who felt duped by stereotyped lessons in Sunday school.
And lastly (for this blog post’s purposes anyway), photos.
Seriously. I go over to a stock photo site to find something for a current WIP (work in progress) and run across something else. That’s how I got the idea for the Meddlin’ Madeline series. I was looking for something- for a cover. And I found this pretty letter/heart combo thing. And I realized that it would be beautiful as a cover if I layered a girl over the top, “ghosting” it a bit. But the writing was older, Spencerian penmanship, so I wanted someone in a more Victorian or Edwardian outfit.
As I looked, I came up with an entire book idea just for that picture. But then I found a series of pictures with the girl on the covers of my Meddlin’ Madeline books. That magnifying glass tempted me. I suddenly had a character–a really cool and fun character. She’s sort of a mix between Jane Marple, Patrick Jane, and Nancy Drew–back at the turn of the 20th century! I mean, c’mon! How cool is she?
And that’s just the beginning!
Another book I did this with is one that will come out in a couple of years. My photographer daughter took birthday pictures of daughter #5. As a result… we got the cover for this book and with it, the idea exploded in my mind. I have the entire thing plotted out. I know what will happen when/how/where. I’m dying to work on it.
So… there you have it. The top five ways I get ideas for my books. As I said in the other referenced post, I continually have new ideas–daily, really. People ask what I’ll do when I run out. As of today, I could never write every book I have in my head or in notes. I simply won’t live that long.