I’ve had friends ask, after reading one of my books, “Where do you get your ideas?” My husband asks, “How do you think all that up?” I’m quite sure every writer gets the same questions. And, like me, the answer might be something like, “I’m not exactly sure,” or possibly, “Or, here and there.”
The true answer is complicated. It’s a bit like the way I follow a recipe when I’m cooking. Love the picture that goes with it. Beautiful. The ingredients? Oh, sure. Except, I don’t have all of them. In fact, even if I do have an item, I really prefer another. I’ll trade off Worstershire sauce for soy sauce every time. Let’s see, unsalted butter? Heck, I have salted. No problem. Broccoli is just as green as green beans. Recipe calls for veal, but I happen to have pork. Oops, that item is one husband doesn’t like—I’ll skip that. I think I’ll serve the dish with noodles instead of rice.
You get the idea, right?
Now, how about the title of this piece. Yes, it also explains at least one writer’s system (mine). Maybe snoop is a bit extreme. Let’s say, I discover something that appeals to me. For instance, my YA Cherish, began with a road sign. “Sandy Bottom Road.” That book definitely used my recipe-following system. I’d discarded the manuscript years before, but I started with that and substituted. A skeleton became a ghost. The girls switched boyfriends. I changed names, dipped into a variety of viewpoints. I added real history to alter the story. And, I definitely updated my teens into twenty-first century kids. Those last two required the student mode with information and assistance from the internet and advice from teens.
Okay, maybe that’s not illustrating the snoop-student mode of a writer. Snoop: Scan newspapers for something new I can incorporate into a mystery. How about the item about a seven-year-old girl who takes fantastic photographs? Check. Now, here’s an item about Workampers, or people who live in their RV campers but travel around taking short term jobs to support themselves. They stop to work for a season at theme parks or a few weeks at local celebrations. Check. How about those books I’ve gathered during our sailing years at small Chesapeake Bay towns—books about local history, many mentioning the War of 1812? Check. Okay, now for the study. Read and compare those local histories. Check it out on the internet. Study reenactments, historic figures’ lives, maps for placement of my fictional town. That’s the template for my upcoming mystery, Forgotten Body, now awaiting one final run-through, formatting, and cover.
But I do have a still better example of the student mode for an author. I’m now working on a short story that may turn into a novella. I’m planning to make it permafree to interest people in my mysteries. It’s gotta be good for that. And, I’m struggling. But, I’ve found help by reading the writing blogs, newsletters, books, and magazines I’ll never abandon. That’s because, invariably, a phrase or sentence will spark an idea. Most recently it was part of a sentence in R.A. McCormick’s article in the Sisters in Crime Guppy chapter newsletter, First Draft. Quote, “surprise as the story goes in a direction that readers don’t expect.” It’s not new information to me, but those words reminded me—“Hey, that’s what I need!” The other manuscript help was a guest appearance by another Guppy, Kaye George, on B.K. Stevens’ blog, The First Two Pages. Yep, after reading Kaye’s clear show and tell of the way she added each element, I knew what I had to do. Ramp up my beginning as well as surprise the reader.
So, next time someone asks me where I get my ideas, what will I answer? “You see, there’s a talking bird—not a parrot, I’ll have to look that up, and one of those mini-houses I’ve read about that is cramped with one person, but I’m putting two in there. And there’s this guy who faked his death and will come back to upset the lady who thought she was a widow about the time she’s getting serious about someone else.” Will that be my answer?
More likely, I’ll reply, “Oh, here and there.”
As a reader, I’d probably love to hear more. But, as a writer, do I want to rattle on and bore my reader even before the book is out? Hope. How about you?