Writing Process: Ideas For Books

 How does an author get an idea for a book? I think if you asked a dozen different authors you’d get a dozen different answers. I’ve heard people say they take ideas from their family histories, overheard conversations, newspaper headlines and even dreams. In my book, An Uncertain Grave, I started with just two words: colossal ineptitude.

I love words. I have fun playing with them in different combinations, playing with alliteration, putting together catchy phrases, basic writer type stuff. When I make a phrase I like, I write it down in a notebook and save it for the future, like a musician might save a series of notes that has the potential to grow into a song.

Colossal ineptitude was one of those phrases. I liked the way it sounded when I said it, and I liked the way it started to paint a picture in my mind. If I applied that phrase to a person, what would he/she be like? They’d be a bumbler, someone who never seemed to do anything right. It would be more than just clumsiness; they would have to perform poorly in most things they tried, but in order to be colossal they’d have to try many things. Therefore, they wouldn’t realize they were inept; they would have the illusion that they were ace-ing an activity.

What would sustain that conviction? Equipment. Lots of shiny new gadgets. Heaps of high tech gear and the most advanced tools and tackle. Sport specific clothing and footwear that branded you as a participant. Now one of my main characters was taking shape. An inexperienced guy who felt he knew it all because he’d bought all the coolest stuff. He would be a hiker. Someone who felt buying the best paraphernalia would propel him up any mountain he wanted to climb.

So what was this guy going to do? He was going to prove he was more show than go, and then completely fall apart when faced with a real crisis – finding a body.

Now that I had my first character I needed a counterweight. Someone with the opposite characteristics to provide conflict. Who better than a pair of experienced State Troopers? Excellent. I put them all on a mountain and let them interact. The first couple of chapters were fun, but I could see that just emphasizing the ineptitude wouldn’t be enough to sustain an entire book. I needed another main character.

I decided to add in a newspaper reporter, someone who also felt he knew it all, and in most cases, actually did. All these characters would be competing to discover the identity of the body found on the mountain, and would be guaranteed to get on each other’s nerves. Excellent, plenty of conflict and plenty of opportunity for snappy dialogue. I added a few ancillary characters for local color and I had the ingredients for an engaging book. All from a simple phrase!

Writing Is Like Making A Layer Cake

Most people are familiar with a layer cake. You start by baking two or three thin plate sized sections of cake, stack them with some type of adhesive filling such as jam or pudding, and then frost the outside of the entire package. My book writing follows a similar path.

I start with the very basic story – characters meet, speak, move from place to place and interact. For the first draft I just want to get the basic story on paper. This is the cake part of my book, the main structure that supports and holds the project together.

After the first draft is done, I go back and add the filling – the things that hold the story together. These are the background information on the characters. This is where the supporting characters like Cliff’s wife and daughters or Mike’s mother step on stage. These supporting characters give the main characters a chance to reveal more about themselves and their motivations for the choices they make.

Then I add what I consider to be the icing – the descriptions of the incredible scenery in northern New Hampshire that ties the stories together. The scenery, terrain and weather form a constant presence in my books and exert an enormous influence on how the characters react and the choices they make. And it’s beauty truly is the “icing on the cake”!

When Is The Right Time To Write?

It doesn’t exist. The “right time” to write just never arrives. There is always a garden to be weeded, a meal to cook, a room to be dusted, and errand to be run or a closet to be completely overhauled complete with a new storage box system with matching labels (picture) (This was me last summer when I was desperately into intense task avoidance.)

The truth is that the first tough chore in writing is carving time out of an already full schedule and putting writing first. Here are some of the techniques I have used in the past to make sure I’m sitting with my fingers around the computer keyboard:

  • When my kids were younger, I would drive them to their two hour after school job and remain in the car with my laptop while they worked.
  • Once the kids were old enough to drive, take off in the car and find a park to sit in and work.
  • Close my office door and write during my lunch break at work.
  • Find a small, uninteresting and inexpensive hotel for a twenty-four hour writing blitz.
  • Close my office door and stay after hours at work to write.
  • Accept my husbands’ offer to go pick up take-out and write for the forty-five minutes he was gone. (We live in a very rural area!)
  • Write while traveling in the car, on the bus or on the plane. Good earplugs are extremely helpful.
  • When desperate – set the kitchen timer and don’t stop until it rings, even if it’s only 20 minutes. And if the 20 minutes goes well, do another 20!

Laundry as a Writing Tool?

My writing schedule depends on the time of year. In the summer, when school is not in session and I only work one day a week in summer school, I am a morning writer. I get up, take the dogs for a walk or some outside playtime, then sit down on the front porch with a cup of tea (okay, it’s more of a super tanker). I like to be settled in by eight o’clock. My goal is to work at least until noon.

Once I’m writing, I’m not necessarily glued to my chair. I find, if I get stuck in a scene or stretch of dialogue, that getting up and moving around helps encourage my creativity. If just walking around doesn’t do the trick, I try doing a brief repetitive task, usually laundry. Something about hanging laundry out to dry, matching socks or folding sheets and towels seems to nudge the next step in story into my head.

Of course, the minute I have the solution, I abandon the laundry and head back the computer. So laundry in the summer can stretch out into an all-day chore, but as long as I keep moving through the chapters, I have no problems with that!

Why I Can't Write In Public

I have author friends who talk about going to a favorite coffee shop or library to do their writing, but that can never work for me. It has to do with how my characters interact with each other and their environment.

A major strategy that helps me get words onto the page is “acting out” what my characters are doing. If Cliff and Mike (the NH state troopers who are the main investigators in my books) arrive at the scene of a crime, squint up at the trail they need to hike, rub the back of their necks because they are tired, wrinkle their noses at the smell of a passing skunk, and square their shoulders before confronting a witness, I perform all these actions to get the feel of a shirt rubbing against my neck or having to push up a pair of glasses after squinting. This makes for more realistic writing but would get me some strange looks if done in a café or coffee shop.