Monday, July 12, 2010

The Secret: Where I Get My Ideas and a Drawing

As soon as people learn that I’m a writer, there are a couple of questions that I almost never fail to hear. Every writer who reads this is nodding his or her head. One question is particularly silly to me. I usually reply with a quip--that people take as a serious answer.

"I subscribe to Idea Monthly."
They say, "Oh."

"I close myself in a dark closet, chant a mantra, and don't come out until a complete story has come to me."

"I remember everything everyone tells me and I use it."

"Little green men come to me and night and whisper plots in my ear."

“There’s this little warehouse outside Tulsa…”

Seriously, writers get ideas just like everyone else does. Ideas just come to all of us. As writers, we learn to brainstorm and embellish on the original idea until it's plausible. Many of my ideas come from hearing a song, watching a movie, reading a book, or from my research. Something unique or emotional will catch my attention, and I'll think "what if?” Then I play with the notion until I turn it into a story. From the original concept, I develop the characters first. I ask what kind of person will fit this role or this scene or this setting? Then I create the other lead character with built in conflict and an opposing goal.

Here are a few examples:

-- Heaven Can Wait originated as taking a girl who knew nothing of the outside world from a sequestered environment and flinging her into a completely alien culture. That theme still fascinates me, and I have more ideas for others.

-- Rain Shadow developed from the desire to do a sequel to Heaven Can Wait, using a secondary character as the hero, and needing an exact opposite to pair him with. Thus the gun-toting Wild West character of Rain Shadow developed.

-- Land of Dreams came from my fascination with and empathy for the children who rode the orphan trains, and, as a result of the many diaries I'd read. So many of the children suffered in their new environments nearly as much as they had on the streets of New York, often being sexually abused or used as servants, and many thinking they'd been adopted into families, only to find out years later that they hadn't. I wanted to give some of those kids a good home. And Too Tall Thea was a character burning for a story and someone to love her.

-- Saint or Sinner sprang from my passion for watching late night westerns. There's an old black and white flick with Joanne Woodward where this guy comes back from the war and builds a church. She's just a kid he tries to reform, but I thought…”What if this fellow had a life after death experience and came back a changed man…and there was a woman who didn't believe he'd changed?”

-- Badlands Bride actually started out as a title I'd saved for years. The idea of having an unprepared reporter go west disguised as a mail-order bride popped into my head, and I decided to send her to the badlands and use that title. I dearly love to create the underdog characters. Hallie is desperate for her father's approval and eager to forge her way in a man’s world.

-- A Husband By Any Other Name came from the Bible story of the prodigal son. One son runs away, squanders his inheritance and comes back to his father's welcoming arms. The brother who stayed home and worked doesn't think that's too fair, even though he surely loved his brother. Seeing the father plan a feast and roast the fatted calf irks him. I further complicated that story by having the brother who stays home marry the fiancé of the brother who went away. Did I mention they are twins and he pretends to be the brother who went away?

-- The Truth About Toby. I've always been a bit fascinated with dream interpretations, I guess. I had originally titled the book Dream A Little Dream For Me, because the hero is helping the heroine with precognitive dreams. My publisher said dream titles didn’t fly and changed it. Susan Elisabeth Phillips then came out with a book using that title. My publisher forgot to qualify with the fact that dream titles don’t work -- unless you’re Susan Elisabeth Phillips. Austin came to me first, a reclusive tortured hero who simply wants to forget the horrors of his past. And for him I created Shaine, the woman he can't resist, and the one who needs him to remember it all.

-- The Mistaken Widow is a historical version of the movie, Mrs. Winterbourne, where Ricky Lake pretends to be Brendan Frasier's sister-in-law. As soon as I saw the film, I started picturing it in a historical scenario. My story has a bit more twists and turns, however.

-- The Doctor's Wife came from watching a talk show where the female guest told her story. She came from the "trash family" in a little town. I felt so sorry for her and her story was so sad that I sat and cried. Often when I'm moved by someone’s real life story, I want to write one that turns out better. It’s like I can fix the world one book at a time or something. The real person in this case was ridiculed and teased by the other children. Her family was so poor that she wore her brother’s underwear. Her mother gave birth to a couple of babies and made the daughter bury them. One particular time, she secretly gave the baby away. This was one of those reunion shows, and they brought out the sister whose life she had saved so many years ago, and they were reunited with hugs and tears. Bizarre story, eh? Once again truth is stranger than fiction. Well I changed all that and had the baby be my heroine’s and had her hide it to keep it safe. But that’s where the idea was conceived.

I just heard from a reader who read The Doctor’s Wife for the first time. Isn’t it exciting that books live on forever? There are two spinoffs from that book: His Secondhand Wife and The Preacher’s Daughter.

Last night I got an idea for a story in which a daughter arrives home to find her mother has died days ago and she has missed the funeral. I don’t know what will come of it, but the idea intrigues me, so that story will probably pop up someday.

And on and on....

I've never found that warehouse outside Tulsa, so I do most of the dirty work on my own. Actually, coming up with the ideas is the fun part, the part that never gets dull. Carrying out the work is the hard part. There are a lot of people who call themselves writers. Many come up with ideas, but few actually do the work and get it all in publishable story form on paper.

Okay, so enough with the joking, I’m going to once and for all tell you where writers get their ideas. Are you ready?


If you don’t believe me, I have a blog to prove it:

Today I’m going to draw a name and send the winner a copy of one of my books that they’ve missed. (And in the off chance that they have them all, I’ll make them a pair of earrings.) So leave a comment and I’ll put your name in my cowboy hat to win a book.


  1. First comment. Sweet!!

    Ohh--pick me, pick me!

    Love your books, love your earrings. It's a win win.

    I personally think ideas come from sniffing crayons while coloring. It's theraputic. LOL!

  2. I like your theory. I may have sniffed too many crayons as a child.

  3. Hi Cheryl,

    I write but am one of those who don't carry out the work.
    I enjoyed your version of "Mad's Snappy Answers to Dumb Questions."
    My ideas from everywhere too, though I can't pinpoint some of them. It's more a conglomeration of events that fall into place.

    As a crisis phone counselor (sexual assault), I'd love a chance to win Land of Dreams. I don't have pierced ears anymore.

    BTW, I was thinking of you just yesterday as I dug up those ornery, long-rooted spider worts springing up in my yard.

  4. Love your books. Please enter me. Great post.

  5. I don't know how many ideas I have gotten from brownies but maybe I wasn't paying attention. It was interesting reading where you get your ideas from and there are plenty of sad stories out there so I like the idea of spinning them around to give them a happy ending.

  6. Great post!
    Hey, some Finnish song writer wrote a song about this topic, only he wrote a song about writing songs.

    (The topics of my songs) Lauluni aiheet Tapio Rautavaara

  7. cool. I'd love to win one of your books. How neat. brownies are chocolate not. Love it. Thanks

    ABreading4fun [at] gmail [dot] com

  8. idea brownies, what a concept! Do you think they have brownies that help you with job hunting and/or interviews?

    I could use a brownie (the real one)

  9. Whew, I was afraid for a moment there you weren't gonna give the real answer! ;)

  10. I loved this post, and I'm so impressed that you remember where you got your ideas. I certainly can't and I haven't had nearly as many good ideas as you have!

  11. Great post! I love hearing where authors get their ideas from!I could never write a book, I guess I just don't have enough ideas in that area, but I admire authors, that they can do this! Thanks for the chance to win!


  12. Am I the only one that thought of something else when you said brownies lol. I think many people would say that got lots of ideas from "brownies" roflmao. I love your funny answers as to where you get ideas. That's one question I've never asked because I assumed a write got them from everywhere but what makes you a writer is that you know what to do with those ideas and us readers are so glad that you do!


  13. I've always thought that was a dumb question and I love your comebacks, especially the one about the warehouse! Thought it was funny that your published said titles with "dream" don't sell. Now I'm craving brownies for some reason....

  14. Julie, put those spider worts in a box of dirt and mail them my way, why don't you? Mine have never spread out of the flowerbed, but they have gotten a lot larger. I have a purple one in the front and a blue one in the back. I need to move the blue one because a fern is overtaking it.

  15. Now, Minna, you do realize that I don't understand Finnish? LOL You'll have to interpret the gist of the song for me.

  16. Of course I had to go look up Mad's Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions after I heard about it. Pretty funny:

  17. I once had a reader ask: Is that you on the cover?

    Yes, when I had long dark hair, similar to a Native American, wore a fringe jacket and was 5o pounds thinner.

  18. Too funny, Cheryl. My dad used to love reading Mad Magazine before bedtime. He's still keeps a pile next to his side of the bed. Love your reply about the Native American. Yep, I got his facetious humor.

    eEally? You want some spider wort?? Goodness knows, they'll probably even keep growing in an enclosed mail package. They're a periwinkle color, or it could be my clay soil. Maybe they're like hydrangeas, and bloom different colors according to the soil content?
    Warning, If you put these in the ground, they may spread.

  19. Very interesting post. I often see things in everyday life and think that would make a good book if I was a writer. I was in the waiting room of a hospital just recently and watched a police chase unfold as they caught a nurse from another hospital going into patient's rooms and withdrawing pain medications from patient's IV's.They had her on the floor and cuffed almost in front of us. I thought there had to be a story there somewhere.

  20. I wonder if we call different things spiderwort, Julie. I'll post a pic tomorrow.

    Holy cow, Judy, what an experience! Sounds like a suspense or mystery writers dream. I will be sure to tell my friends in my critique group.

  21. lol--well, you answered one of my dumb questions...i have a tiny bit of creativity...but if you put it on a schedule it would squash i would think it would be hard to have creativity be your job...too much pressure

    i love that you said some of your ideas come from wanting to fix real life stories you have heard...i think that is so sweet :)

    i think i could come up with an idea for a you said...the easy part...but then the research, the drafting the editing...the taking one paragraph and changing it around to make it more interesting...then again and again and again for hundreds of paragraphs...yikes...sounds like torture!

    ps--maybe the idea part woudln't be easy...i might accidently think a book i read in the past was my idea and re-write it, lol

  22. Tabitha, sometimes it *IS* torture. And there is deadline pressure. But when it's going well--or when it's finished, it's all worth it.

  23. I know the drawings over, no worries, I still had to pop in and say hello. For your information, I am eating brownies as we speak - the ideas are flowing - and making a list of your books to buy!

  24. Here I sit on my break eating cocoa-covered almonds wishing I had Brownies--love your blogs, your books, & your on-line classes! Thanks for all,Sheila

  25. I knew it, I knew it! Ideas...brownies, yes, I do believe we could eat our way through brownies to great story ideas!

    I need to get back to writing, so first, I'd better go back a pan of brownies!

    Hugs to you, my dear!


  26. Very interesting post, especially the great comebacks when asked where you get your ideas.

    A J Hawke

  27. Cheryl, I see your spiderwort posted on May 27, 2010. I was on a cruise at that time. I thought you had posted another picture of it earlier this year, but I can't find it. Anyway, it looks like the same thing. I have a patch by the back door where it sprang up. I like that. And I have some on the edge of a natural 'bog garden.' It's okay there. But when it spring up in my other garden patches or my front yard, that's a different story.

  28. I read almost all of your books Cheryl. I have about five more books I have to read .. I love those books you write.

  29. i love all of what you write i like to write myself but for fun i have a web club called writerswanttobe it's for all who like to write