Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Where do you get your ideas?

People seem fascinated by the whole process of writing. Writers are baffling creatures to many, and there is such a wide variety of reactions when I tell people what I do.

Some people talk about their own aspirations to write a book, and the brilliant idea they have that would be an instant bestseller if only they had time to commit it to paper.

Others ask, “where do you get your ideas?” Actually, that question can come phrased in two ways, with two meanings, depending on the emphasis. It can be genuine interest, or the kind of question you’d ask someone who’s slightly demented. “Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s an intriguing question, no matter how it’s put.  

The life of a romance writer isn’t easy. Readers crave realistic heroes and heroines, but they want a story that’s luscious, heart-pounding fantasy. The emotional journey must be satisfying, the sex amazing, the setting exotic. It must pull people out of their everyday world, yet offer something they can identify with. A good story must have the familiar happy ending, but it must be new. 

That’s a tall order. 

Imagine going into a new restaurant and ordering your favorite dish, You want it perfect, familiar and expertly prepared, but different too, with a dash of spice and sweetness in the sauce, and a surprise burst of flavor to make it a breathtaking, unforgettable experience. A good story has the same requirements. 

They both start with a basic idea or recipe, and come to life in the hands of a master chef. 

Now, I must admit that I write historical romance because I love history. I also love a good story, and the past is full of them – great legends, real life heroes, brave women, and incredible love stories. And the costumes are fantastic. Who can forget Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in A&E’s Pride and Prejudice, standing before his estate, watching longingly as Elizabeth Bennett drives away in her carriage? I get shivers just thinking about it! 

While real history offers writers a rich tapestry, imagination can dramatically improve the duller parts of history. Imagine if one of the sober, middle-aged statesmen at World War II’s Potsdam conference had a love affair with an enemy that could compromise everything he stands for. It might have happened. Not comfortable casting the honorable President Roosevelt in that role? What if the hero was a close advisor to the President, with access to every American secret, and he was the one who fell in love with a beautiful Russian in Stalin’s service? See how ideas grow?

But where do ideas come from? A&E. Jane Austen. The perfect fit of Colin Firth’s breeches. Faces on the subway. True stories. Lies. Trees. I named all the trees on my way to school when I was little, invented homes in the woods where elves lived, and imagined hidden doors among the maples that led to the past. 

At the airport, I look at my fellow passengers and wonder what their love story would be. Some perfectly ordinary mother with a fractious baby might end up imagined as a desperate woman flying off to confront the father of her late sister’s illegitimate child, only to discover her sister was entirely wrong about the man, and he’s her Mr. Right. 

Sigh. So many places to find the germ of an idea for a fabulous story, so little time to write them all… 

The idea for my upcoming debut novel Secrets of A Proper Countess came from wanting to write something lighthearted and sexy over the summer, something without research or complication. It was going to be a story about a rake who seduces an anonymous lady at a masquerade ball. In this Cinderella tale, the rake would be spoiled for any other woman, and would be determined to find his lady love among the thousands of women in London. 

Well, that was the original idea. It wasn’t satisfying enough, or rich enough, though. It was ordinary. The story needed a twist, a hero readers could fall in love with, and a heroine that women could see themselves playing, if they ever made a movie of the story. 

I hate predictable. I feel let down when I can guess the outcome of a movie or a book before it’s even halfway through.  Perhaps that’s an odd admission for a history lover, since I’m a sucker for any new biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Anne Boleyn, and I certainly know how they’re going to end.  Still, nothing is more thrilling than a book that makes me gasp, curls my toes with wicked delight at the unexpected, and keeps me up reading all night. 

In a romance, where the ending is always happily ever after, adding intrigue, or a mystery adds spice to the old recipe. Since the couple is going to end up happy together in the end, why not torment them on the way to the finish line, if only so they appreciate each other all the more when the big wedding scene comes along. It’s also more fun for the reader. Will they make it out of the snake pit unscathed or not? Will he have to suck the poison out, or will she? 

In Secrets of A Proper Countess, my carefree rake became a man with a secret of his own. He’s a spy, a man merely playing the role of a rake to discover what England’s upper classes are hiding. He listens to the whispers of the noble ladies he beds, and searches their boudoirs for evidence. He notes the drunken ramblings of their husbands, learns who is in debt, who has nefarious connections, and who is skating a thin line between respectability and treason, so the crown knows just who to trust. 

The heroine, far from her humble origins as a lady who simply wished for a quickie at a masked ball, became a woman who had secret of her own, and an important reason to keep her identity hidden.

As you can see, I based Secrets of A Proper Countess on the story of Cinderella. I love using themes that readers are familiar with, then creating a fresh expression to the story. My hero is based on The Scarlet Pimpernel, a wonderful story about a gentleman spy. 

In Secrets of A Proper Countess, my heroine is a young widow. Her husband’s will states that poor Isobel must live a proper, respectable life under his mother’s supervision. If she remarries or forms friendships her in-laws disapprove of, then she will lose all contact with her child. Rather than rags, Isobel is expected to wear widow’s weeds long past the usual grieving period. You can picture our Cinderella standing in the shadows as everyone whirls past at the ball.

Since truly worthy heroines never do the expected, Isobel gives in to temptation at a masked ball. She’s in disguise, and she’s admired this man from afar for ages. This is her one chance for a bit of male admiration, a bit of flirtation. Who will ever know? Isobel takes a bold risk, and lets the hero seduce her in the dark garden. Quite out of character, perhaps, but in keeping with how Isobel feels inside, and what she wants. That’s the first twist. Sex in Chapter Two. 

Isobel goes home, feeling safely anonymous imagining that’s that, but it never is in a good story, is it? 

Destiny is like that nosy aunt. She pokes her nose in and ferrets out family secrets, and of course there are several doozies to be unearthed in Isobel’s case. 

And the poor, tortured hero – another element of a great story – he’s a spy, and a rake, and he smugly prides himself on knowing every secret and every desirable woman in London. Still, he can’t find his lovely femme fatale, and has no idea that it’s the dull widow with the truly horrible hairdo.  

While Phineas might not recognize his lover, he does discover that Isobel’s family has some deep secrets. Smuggling, certainly, but possibly even worse. Murder and a royal kidnapping come up, smelling suspiciously of the heroine’s perfume, so to speak. 

The thing I love best about writing, the most amazing aspect, is that even with plotting, ideas have the most incredible way of blossoming in surprising ways as I write. An idea might take an unexpected twist I didn’t foresee, or a character will say something that changes everything. 

It’s those breathtaking ‘aha’ moments that keep me writing, turning those little ideas into big books. 

I can’t tell you how many times I decided I had a brilliant idea in my head that would magically transform itself into a full-fledged story. I have twenty or so partial manuscripts in my basement, started and abandoned. I still love some of those ideas. Others are shudderingly bad, and are labeled ‘burn, bury or shred in case of untimely death’. 

I can look back on all those ideas now and understand something important, years later, having actually completed a few manuscripts. It’s what you do with the idea that counts, how you nurture it. 

Do you watch those design shows on television? The ones where the brilliant designer comes to the rescue of a desperate homeowner? 

The homeowner knows there’s an element missing that keeps their living room from being as magnificent as they envision. Think of that blank room as the original idea. 

The designer (you, the writer) knows exactly what to do (this is where your story ideas come in, so bear with me). They start with a paint color. Too dark, or too purple, you might say. It will never work. Then, they bring in the sofa. Stripes and flowers? Think of the opposite natures of your characters here. The sofa suits the room perfectly. The lamps and cushions and art come next, the secondary characters, unexpected plot twists and settings. By the time they lead the hopeful homeowner (your reader) into the finished room with their eyes closed, the idea has come together. All the elements are there – the wow factor, the “oh-I didn’t-expect-that”, and the “I love it!”

And if you don’t love it? Repaint it. Rewrite it, rearrange the cushions and furniture until you do. 

So where do I get my ideas? Everywhere! As the Isobel and Phineas discover in Secrets of A Proper Countess, finding that first romantic spark isn’t the hard part. The challenge in writing a great story lies in creating a relationship out of that first moment, and nurturing an idea through all the difficult ages and stages until it becomes a rich and satisfying book.