Susan Vaughan: “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s the question writers most often hear from readers—and even from friends who aren’t readers. Every writer answers it a different way, but here’s a general overview. Ideas pop up everywhere. For example, a news story, an overheard (read: eavesdropped) conversation, a suspicious character on the street, or a couple seen arguing in a restaurant. I’ve begun books based on only a location or a particular character, an object, or a plot thread. Not all ideas can be massaged into a plot and characters in a viable story. I’ve dumped a ton of what at the time I thought were terrific ideas but that led me nowhere. But some ideas do lead to completed books.

A few years ago my husband and I vacationed in the Yucatan area of Mexico on what is called the Mayan Riviera. After some beach time, we toured two of the ancient cities. Chichen-Itza offers the most famous Mayan pyramid and is mostly restored. Fascinating but not inspiring. Another tour led by a Mayan guide to Cobá, an un-restored ruin deep in the jungle, flooded me with ideas and questions. I pictured archeologists working alongside nearby Mayan villagers. When the guide said some of the buildings’ destruction was from earthquakes, I thought: what if the people believed an artifact with a curse caused quakes. These musings eventually led to my romantic thriller On Deadly Ground, set in a fictional Central American country with a pending earthquake.



The picture here I took at Cobá is of the temple dedicated to the god of commerce, shaped like a beehive because one of their big trding commodities was honey. A similar temple appears in the book.

For the second book in the series, another romantic thriller, Ring of Truth, an idea I had years ago about a puzzle ring and a news article about lost crown jewels set my plot in motion. My puzzle ring isn’t exactly like the one pictured, but you get the general idea.

puzzle ring

Also, I wanted a story for Mara Marton, the researcher introduced in On Deadly Ground. Puzzling over these seemingly unconnected ideas led me to the unlikely hero of the story and the threads of the overall plot of Ring of Truth. What if Mara’s deceased father had been the insurance investigator tasked with solving the theft of the crown jewels of Gramornia, and what if the heist’s mastermind had been ex-con Cortez Jones’s father? What if they had to work together to find the jewels?

Another news article contributed to the plot of the third book in the same series, Cleopatra’s Necklace. In 2009, Egypt’s top archeologist, Zahi Hawass, claimed to have found the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at a site near the Mediterranean Sea. Hawass displayed artifacts found inside the tomb, exciting everyone about the possibilities. No one has reported any further discoveries since. Upheaval and continued unrest in Egypt may have stopped the search, or that particular tomb turned out not to be the Queen of the Nile’s resting place. A disappointment, but that didn’t stop me from imagining what might be in Cleopatra’s tomb. What if the tomb contained jewels and scepters and other treasures similar to those from the tomb of King Tut? And what if while these were on tour protected by Devlin Security Force, they were stolen?

Egyptian beaded collar

The necklace seen here is as elaborate as the one in my book, but doesn’t contain the precious gems of Cleopatra’s. The typical necklace pictured on images of Cleopatra became the dingus, the Maltese Falcon, if you will, that Thomas Devlin himself must find, and his heroine, an old flame, had to be named Cleo.

You may have noticed that my plot musings seem to begin with “What if” questions. I don’t think I’m alone among writers in asking that question.

And here’s a final example. When I began writing for publication, rejections from editors often mentioned weak conflict. I saw that as a challenge. What would be the strongest conflict that would prevent my heroine from becoming involved with anyone? What if she believed that she was cursed, that everyone she became close to would die? Starting with that premise, I was able to create the characters and plot of what became my first published novel, Dangerous Attraction. I now have the publishing rights back to that book and have revised and updated it for re-publication soon as Always a Suspect.


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  1. Nina Pierce says:

    How great that a trip turned into a series of books … or perhaps it was the other way around? I hope your Devlin series continues to do well.

  2. Great post, Susan. I sometimes start a story idea with “what if”, but I usually begin with a character, and then I struggle to find something for him/her to do, LOL!

  3. Great post, Susan. What if? is the best question EVER!

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