Where do best-selling authors get their great ideas? Sometimes when we mortal writers struggle to find an interesting topic, we feel as if we're drawing from a dry well. Our brains simply refuse to come up with anything original or interesting enough to hold a reader's attention (or even our own interest!) for more than a few pages. What then do we do?
Do we wait until we feel "inspired"? Until that one gem of an idea comes to us out of the blue?
No. Real writers write. You've heard that before. And catching up on cleaning out a closet, or knitting a grandchild yet another sweater that may never again be worn after Christmas day, isn't going to produce the novel you dream of writing.
Great ideas for fiction come from all around us. We just have to watch for them in their raw, and sometimes least appealing form, then write them down. But you can't stop there. Next you'll need to weave details around the basic concept to make it your own. It's this owning of the plot germ that makes a story special, and will eventually make it resonate for readers as "original" and exciting.
Let me give you a few examples from my experience. Years ago, not long after the end of the Vietnam War, there were a lot of newspaper and TV reports about the concerns of veterans over PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as a result of exposure to the horrors of battle. At the time, I was working to develop a Young-Adult novel. Although a great deal was being written for adult audiences on the topic of the after effects of war on soldiers—both fiction and nonfiction—I hadn't yet seen anything in the library or bookstores from a young reader's perspective.
It seemed to me that in any family whose mother or father was suffering from the emotional anguish of wartime trauma, the children would also be feeling the effects. So I developed a plot in which the teenage daughter of a veteran had to cope with her father's disturbing flashbacks. That plot became the basis for Pocket Change, my first published novel. The idea came from real-life news, but I made it my own story by altering the viewpoint to that of a child, and then used information I was able to gather through the Veterans' Administration.
Another idea came to me as a result of moving to Texas. Having grown up in New England, the move out west was an exciting and startling adventure. We ended up in San Angelo for a time, then later in Houston. All around me were real-life cowboys, men (and women) who rode around with rifles on the window racks of their pickup trucks, and the legends of gunslingers were everywhere. I loved it! Now, how could a Connecticut Yankee who loved romances write a Western? That was my challenge.
The solution I came up with was to develop a heroine who was familiar to me. She lived in the Northeast and was struggling to raise her child as a single parent. And my hero? He was a lawman from the Old West…and a ghost. I brought them together in a romantic time-travel adventure, which allowed me to visit this romantic period in American history through my New England heroine's adventures with her cowboy hero. Although hundreds of stories have been written with cowboy heroes, this one seemed to intrigue my readers, and Time and Again (written under my penname, Kathryn Jensen) outsold nearly all of my other romances.
Most recently, I've become interested in more distant historical periods and settings, and started looking at writers who have fascinated me and influenced my own writing career. I thought, why not write about these amazing people? I could include them in a story that is both adventure and love story. Not being one to shy away from a challenge, I chose the writer who is often named as having the greatest impact of any writer on the English language—William Shakespeare. I had loved the film Shakespeare in Love, and I thought, if the writer of this screenplay can create a film that makes Shakespeare human and fun for movie goers, I can write a novel that brings him to life for my readers. And that is what I did in The Gentleman Poet: A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare's "The Tempest".
That isn't to say there weren't challenges to pulling it off. I wasn't (still am not) a Shakespearean scholar, so I had to do some homework and lots of reading. I also had to create a heroine through whose eyes the story would be told, because I sure as heck wasn't going to try to get into Will's genius mind or write in his style—that was just too daunting a task. And I needed a heart-wrenching love story.
I found both my heroine and hints of her love story in a very old account written in 1609, a copy of which is in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The journal, written by a William Strachey, is an account of the wreck of a ship that was bound for Jamestown, Virginia. And along with that account I found a ship's manifest that lists the passengers, including an "Elizabeth Persons, maidservant," who (according to Strachey) later wed the ship's cook. Elizabeth and Thomas married on the island of Bermuda, where they and others aboard the ruined ship had managed to find safe haven for the nine months it took the survivors to build a new ship and complete their journey.
My point in these three examples is this: you take an idea that might seem simple, too-often-done, or just mildly interesting. You don't wait for the spectacular concept to strike you, because it's just never going to happen. Take what's around you, but don't stop there. Make it your own by adding your personal touch or a new twist, or by relying on real accounts of an event. Pull threads from wherever you find them. When you work this way, you'll never run short of ideas for stories. Soon you'll discover so many intriguing plots and characters that you'll complain there isn't enough time in your life to write all of your stories.
Don't wait for inspiration, fellow writers, grab it by the throat and make it happen.
Happy writing! Kathryn