Over the past sixteen years I’ve made a lot of appearances as an author. I’ve spoken to kindergarten students and senior citizens, other writers and “pre-published” authors, library patrons, school groups, conferences, festivals …. a lot of people, in a lot of places.
And when it comes time for questions (my favorite part of presentations) one question always comes up: “Where do you get your ideas?”
Of course, I’m tempted to say “They’re on special, this week only, at Wal-Mart. Aisle five.” But I don’t. Because whoever is asking the question is serious.
But there’s no easy answer. To start, authors get ideas from their own lives. I write the Shadows Antique Print mystery series because I was an antique print dealer for 35 years. My protagonist in that series wants to adopt an older child. I adopted four. But, on the other hand, I’ve never solved a crime, or found a body, or taught in a college or opened an antiques mall. Maggie Summer, my protagonist, has done all of those things. So I researched a lot of situations she could be involved with.
When I started writing the Mainely Needlepoint series, I needed to come up with all new characters and a new location. Angie Curtis spent ten years in Phoenix, Arizona — a city I’ve visited perhaps a dozen times, where one of my daughters attended college, and where a nephew-by-marriage and his wife live now. Now Angie’s home is Haven Harbor, a town similar to many small Maine seaports, from Belfast to Searsport to Boothbay Harbor.
For each book in the series I’ve pulled some plot details from “real life” — mine or other people’s.
A body was really found in a freezer in a storage locker in Maine a few years back. (Twisted Threads.)
I’ve always been drawn to old, neglected and forgotten, homes, especially Victorians — like Aurora, in Threads of Evidence. And I was a drama major in college, studied improvisational theatre in New York City, and was once married to a comedy writer who worked with well-known comedians and actors. So, creating famous actress Skye West was an easy leap. Skye’s son Patrick is an artist: so was my mother, and so is my husband. I’ve spent many hours at art galleries and openings.
My own home is the Marie Antoinette House that was owned by the Clough family, and which is where an early piece of needlepoint is found in Thread and Gone. Mary Queen of Scots might have been a distant relative of mine, and I knew her story well. She also ended up in my book.
When I was a child I saw a man who lived alone on a barren island off the coast, rowed into town occasionally for supplies, and who rarely spoke with people. I was fascinated by him then, and his story (or lack of one) stayed with me through the years. I created Jesse in Dangling By a Thread to give that man I’d seen as a child a back story and a purpose.
Australian Sarah Byrne is an antique dealer in Haven Harbor because the real Sarah Byrne is an Australian who won naming rights to one of my characters in a Bouchercon auction. I knew some day I’d have to explain what brought Sarah to the coast of Maine. As a long-time adoption advocate, I’m drawn to adoption and foster care situations, and children who need rescuing. Several years ago I happened to find a movie on Netflix called Oranges and Sunshine, about the horrible “child migrant” program which took children from England and transported them to Australia and other countries. I knew immediately that somehow Sarah was connected with that program, and further research showed me how that could be. Tightening the Threads, which will be published in ten days, is Sarah’s story, about her longing for family, and her quest to discover her roots. And, since it’s a mystery: what happens after she finds them.
Thread the Walls, to be published next October, brings actress Skye West back to Haven Harbor from her movie set in Edinburgh (which I have visited), along with some of her show business colleagues. The weather, the food they eat, the way they celebrate Christmas (minus the requisite murder, of course) are all very familiar to me.
All these stories, and the others I’ve written, started with a glint. An idea. A question. A fact. And then I asked a lot of questions (what if? how? why?) and did research to connect the dots and create characters who could ask some of the same questions.
Research is one of my favorite parts of writing (the other is editing) and maybe that’s why I write mysteries: solving a crime requires a lot of questions and a lot of research. Isn’t that what an investigation is?
So, how do I get my ideas for plots and characters? Our of real life; out of my imagination; and, best of all, from the glint of an idea for a plot and from the characters themselves, who lead me to the story. Not just “what happens next” and “who done it” but why? Because the emotional context of that “why” is the real basis for any mystery.
Thanks for asking!
Great post Lea. I’m constantly fascinated by where story ideas and plot elements come from. For those willing to listen, someone will offer up an intriguing tidbit worth running with almost every day. There’s also what I call the ‘God’s Pinball’ effect, where one thought morphs into 33 more in the blink of an eye and tracing the path often leads to insights about how things really are connected.
Absolutely, John! Hard to predict where the next one will come from … which is part of the fun!
Love this description of where your ideas come from!