Saturday, February 18, 2017

Where Do I Get My Story Ideas?

I like to answer questions about my writing. I much prefer that to the actual readings. I just realized that as I typed it, but it's true. I don't know if it's the interactivity of it or that I'm not confident that I do a good job of reading, but I do know that I like to talk about the process I go through in my writing. And that's true despite the fact that, no matter how many times I do events, I get the same few questions every time. Once in awhile, someone will surprise me, but mostly it's some combination of the same three or four questions. So I thought I would do a short series of posts in which I answer those queries. 

One thing that is almost always asked, especially at events that aren't with other authors, is where I get my story ideas. The first time I was asked that, I have to admit that I was taken aback to realize I didn't have any idea. And the reason for that is that when I first started writing Harsh Prey, my first book, it was more about the characters than the story itself. I had two people who loved each other deeply, but one of them wasn't sure if she could deal with the violent job of the other. It was almost like I had a snapshot and I built the whole story out from that still frame. It's not almost like that, actually. It's exactly like that. I had no idea where the story was going. At the beginning, I asked myself, what if she's been gone to decide if she can deal with his being a detective and she calls, only to have the violence of his job intervene? And that seemed to work, so I had to ask why the violence happened. The answer was what propelled the story. But regardless of what happened in the detective half of the books, they were, and always will be, more than half about that relationship between Harry and Dee, and now Jenn and Emma Grace too. The Shalan Adventures are, for good or bad, stories about a loving family and the things they go through together. It's almost incidental that he's a gumshoe. 
The second Shalan story, Kisses and Lies, was loosely inspired by an event in the life of the young lady upon whom I based the leggy blonde at the beginning of the book. She had gotten married--in fact, I had performed the wedding--and found that her new husband changed immediately afterward. It was nowhere near as violent as it was in my fictionalized version, but it was, as usual, this series of what-ifs. What if he had been hiding something darker? What if it got violent? What if there were a family dynamic that added a level of depth? And the story grew from there.

The next two, In the Shadow and Dawn of Grace, are really one giant story arc broken into two books. The arc actually begins at the end of Kisse and Lies when Harry finds out that Dee is pregnant. That story was always going to be primarily about them losing that baby and then getting it back. I made the story of Jenn to parallel that. The Jenn part was again inspired loosely by real life events, though no one incident in particular. I'm just exposed to and touched by stories of abuse against young people because of my job as a high school teacher. And when I started writing In the Shadow, I just chose a young lady who was my student and made her the face I saw when I imagined the story in my mind. This young lady wasn't just my student. She was one of my adopted kids, the gang who eat lunch in my room and stay after school to watch movies while I make pancakes and come see me after they graduate when they come home from college. So when I pictured someone doing terrible things to her, it helped me tap into the rage that drove Harry to do what he did at the end of the book. 

As for my current work in progress, it grew out of a scene from a classic book. I read it as part of the AP reading last summer. It was about a young lady taken in by someone purporting to be her father, but he turns out to be a very bad man. Over the course of the week of the reading, I started building a story on that concept that had nothing to do with the original book at all, but that evolved from that situation. What if a teenager had no family and suddenly someone came along saying he was her long-lost father and he wanted to take her in? So that made me ask the next question, which was how did she come to have no one? Was she always an orphan or did she have a family that she lost somehow? And what if, like in the original book, he wasn't really her father? Why would he be interested in taking her in? I knew he had to have some ulterior motive, but I really didn't want it to be anything sexual. I'd had enough of that dark realm and wanted his motivations to be evil in a completely different way. So the story built from there. 

So I guess the answer to the question of where I get my story ideas is that I start with a character or a group of characters and a beginning point--a snapshot in time--and I start asking what if. What if this happened? What if he or she reacted in that way? And once I've asked and answered enough of those what-ifs, I have a book. Piece of cake. Mmm, cake. I better wrap this up and have some breakfast. 

Next week: Where Do My Characters Come From?