Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Where Ideas Come From

I’m often asked where I get ideas for my novels. I have three published so far. A Question of Trust, False Pretenses and Sun Tunnels and Secrets
My ideas come from life situations. Ideas come from listening to the news, reading, listening to people talk in cafes, or in church, or on the bus. They come from dreams, or from driving down the road—in other words—ideas just come. Once at a workshop on writing, the presenter, Ken Rand, said our first ideas are often cliché. He said to twist the idea and then twist it again to come up with something fresh. With my newest published book, “Sun Tunnels and Secrets” I tried to do that.  The first idea was to have a hero from my other two books, Sam Carson, an all-American cowboy find a body near the Sun Tunnels. Images of Sun Tunnels
My husband and I had just been to see these and he had an idea to set a mystery there.  But then something happened in real life to change that. Some friends, two sisters and one other woman, all originally from Grouse Creek where my novels are set had an experience. In their experience they decided to take a little day trip to the Sun Tunnels also.
The Sun Tunnels are a land-art project done by the artist Nancy Holt in the 1970’s. Remember the Spiral Jetty? That’s the project done by her late husband Robert Smithson. Anyway, these friends, all over the age of 70 at the time came across a man who had been beaten and left. He could very well have died had they not come across him since the area is so remote, dry, and it was late June, so hot. Anyway, I heard about their incident and it got me thinking. I twisted the original idea. What would happen if not a handsome cowboy finds a body—cliché—but what if three women, elderly women, sisters, find a body? Perfect! Meet Norma. Norma is seventy-nine years old and her husband just passed away. She writes poetry, news stories, and is about to have her life disrupted with a secret her late husband kept from her. Mabel is eighty-two, feisty and optimistic, always wears skirts, Nikes, and a baseball cap. Then there is LaRue, the oldest who is prudish and never quite approves of anything her sisters or anyone else does for that matter. I loved these women from the start. They were fun to write because they were tireless and had depth. They had ideals and life experience. Writing older characters is one of my strengths. But I needed some younger characters in the story to give the book a wider appeal and so I could have more romance. It’s hard to write romance for people well over seventy—though possible and there is some in here for the older sisters too. So I brought back two characters, young handsome Tony, just graduated from college and beautiful, but shy and distraught Kelli Carson. She comes to Grouse Creek to work for the summer. Then Tony follows, pretending to be there for ranching, but really to convince Kelli that they could be more than friends. Well that part might be a bit cliché, isn’t romance always cliché? So these characters had to have some things in their life that was unique to them.

As writers, we could all take the same basic idea and yet write it in such a way that most readers wouldn’t notice that the idea was the same. Yet to make stories fresh is always a challenge. On the back on Sun Tunnels, the blurb says “On a trip to the Sun Tunnels in the Utah desert, Norma and her sisters find a body on the side of the road. But this awful discovery turns out to be the least of their problems. Norma’s husband just passed on, and she learns he kept a secret from her for sixty years. LaRue is keeping a secret from Norma. The sisters’ young friend Tony is keeping a secret about his famous father, and Tony’s mother is keeping a secret of her own. Tony is secretly in love with his friend Kelli who, recently escaped from a polygamist cult. And who is the mysterious young car thief with whom Norma feels a special connection? Everything converges in Grouse Creek at the Fourth of July celebration. Will secrets prove everyone’s undoing”

Another strength readers have noticed in my books is the ability to make the settings “real enough to taste the Idaho dirt and smell the pines” Jenny Hansen—Meridian Magazine. One way that I do this is to set my stories in places I know really well. Sun Tunnels takes place almost entirely in Grouse Creek and the surrounding area. My husband is from this small community and twenty years ago, we lived there for five years and taught school in the K-10, two-room school with only 24 students. There are very few places in the world left like Grouse Creek. I’ve written the way I remember it from twenty years ago. We still visit, but it’s changed somewhat. For one thing there are fewer people. It’s gone from 100 people down to around 70. People who live 60 miles from a grocery store are a special breed. I’ve set three books in Grouse Creek so far because of its uniqueness and how much fun it is to describe. Often people think a small town is a town of 2000 to 3000, and really they have no idea that communities as remote and tiny as Grouse Creek still exist. It makes for fun situations. It makes for some small-town eccentricities that are fun to play on. I remember once when we lived there, I was riding bikes with a friend and she noticed a piece of carpet that fell out of someone’s truck on their way to the dump. “Looks like so and so got some new carpet in their living room.” I laughed thinking where else would you know what was happening in town by seeing a piece of garbage on the side of the road? Grouse Creek has a sign at the beginning of town, that says “A Town like No Other.” As writers it really is hard to write about a place unless you have intimate knowledge of it. I have written about places I’ve only visited, but in those cases I’ve written as a visitor, not as an insider. Insiders have a special knowledge that others don’t. You can research, but make sure you know what the locals say, where they hang out, and what they do.

Ideas come. They come from everywhere. Making ideas fresh is essential in making your book stand out and matter.