Friday, November 6, 2009

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

by Susan McBride

One of the questions that writers are asked most frequently has to be, "Where do you get your ideas?" I remember hearing Denise Swanson once tell someone, "I order mine from J.C. Penney," which I thought was pretty funny. Personally, I pluck mine from the Idea Tree which grows right beside the Money Tree in my backyard (oh, man, don't I wish!).

Okay, seriously, I find ideas everywhere all the time. It's almost impossible for me to go out anymore--or to take a shower or get on the treadmill--without the seed for a plot planting itself in my mind. When I first began writing seriously post-college, I'd cut stories from the newspaper that intrigued me, usually those concerning a missing person or a baffling homicide that got me thinking, "What if it had happened this way instead?"

That's how I wrote AND THEN SHE WAS GONE, my very first published mystery. A little girl had gone missing from a public park in broad daylight in Plano, Texas, with loads of people around watching T-ball games; yet no one had seen a thing. That bothered me to no end until I had to sit down and write about it. The next Maggie Ryan book to follow, OVERKILL, had its plot loosely based on a school bus shooting in St. Louis. Something about being able to control what happened in my fictional tales had a soothing effect on me, like justice did win out (even if it doesn't always in real-life).

Once I started writing the humorous Debutante Dropout Mysteries, I couldn't exactly use such heart-wrenching real-life stories as my jumping-off point. I had to tone things down a lot (although there's no on-the-page violence or much of anything graphic except emotion in either GONE or OVERKILL). BLUE BLOOD, the first in the series to feature society rebel Andy Kendricks, involved the murder of the loathsome owner of a restaurant called Jugs (think "Hooters" with a hillbilly theme). I'd gotten so sick of seeing ginormous Hooters billboards all over Dallas that it felt pretty good to exterminate Bud Hartman, a sexist and hardly beloved character. Next, in THE GOOD GIRL'S GUIDE TO MURDER, I offed a Texan version of Martha Stewart after watching one too many of Martha's holiday specials and feeling like an inadequate dolt. I must admit, that felt very cathartic, too.

When I was asked to write THE DEBS young adult series, I had to change my mind-set. I mean, I wasn't going to kill anyone in those books (except maybe with dirty looks and reputation-destroying words). Then I got to thinking about the teens and twentysomethings I know, and I realized that technology might have changed since my high school days but emotions had not. So the ideas for the plotlines in THE DEBS; LOVE, LIES, AND TEXAS DIPS; and the forthcoming GLOVES OFF stemmed from relationship issues. Who hasn't experienced a friend's betrayal, a broken heart, a mother's ultimatum, or a dream dashed? The best part about writing those novels was getting to re-enact some of my high school drama via the characters in the book...and getting to have my debs say all the witty and acerbic things that I wish I'd said in similar circumstances. Ah, sometimes it's really therapeutic playing God, at least on the page.

When the chance came to write THE COUGAR CLUB, I leapt at it. I'd been dying to write about women my age who happened to date younger men (I only dated one but I ended up marrying him). I'd gotten sick and tired of the way the media portrays "Cougars" as desperate old hags with fake boobs, tummy tucks, spray-on tans, platinum hair, and Botoxed features. My friends in their 40s and 50s who've dated and/or married younger guys are smart, successful, classy, and real. So I came up with the idea of three women who'd been friends in childhood but slowly drifted apart through the years because of jobs, marriage, children, and distance. When they're all 45, they end up coming together again as they each hit huge potholes in their respective roads. What they help each other to realize is that true friendship never dies, the only way to live is real, and you're never too old to follow your heart. These are the middle-aged (but hardly old) women I know. Heck, the kind of woman I am.

I've got a zillion ideas floating around my brain for the next books I need to write (namely, a young adult novel that isn't a DEBS book and another stand-alone novel to follow THE COUGAR CLUB). The hardest part for me is getting the ideas down on paper for my agents and editors to see in a way that makes sense and conveys all the nuances I'm imagining. But enough about my Idea Tree. I'd love to hear from y'all. Do you order from J.C. Penney like Denise? Cut out pieces from the newspaper? Eavesdrop in restaurants? Inquiring minds want to know!


  1. Amen on Cougar Club, girl! Can't wait to read it. Finally, a middle-aged woman who is not portrayed as a dried-up harridan or a past-her-prime on the make feline? CAN'T WAIT.

    My ideas? Constantly percolating. I can make up a story about anyone or anything I see every day so I carry around a notebook and jot everything down. I'm particularly interested in people's habits, so I people watch and then devise a story. Can't balance my checkbook to save my life or make change at the grocery store but have a vivid imagination. Maggie

  2. Loved your post!

    Ideas do seem to pop into authors' heads.

    My grandson is a new police officer in Aspen CO and his posts on Facebook, followed up by me asking questions via email have given me great ideas for my next Tempe mystery.

    And, confession, I always listen into conversations--especially in restaurants. Drives hubby crazy, especially when I hush him so I can hear.


  3. Maggie, I can't balance my checkbook (or the joint check book) either! It's numbers. They make me dizzy. ;-) I have a little notebook in my purse, too! I think carrying one is genetically encoded in authors' DNA. (I might have to sneak you an ARE of THE COUGAR CLUB if I can manage to save one since I didn't get many!)

    Marilyn, I eavesdrop, too! Mostly in restaurants and airports but anywhere people are talking loudly (some people on cell phones might as well be on megaphones and that can be interesting!). Wow, a grandson who's a police officer must sure come in handy. I'm jealous!

  4. I love the line (and often quote it) in "Desk Set", when Spenser Tracy is so flabbergasted by Katherine Hepburn's memory skills and asks her how she does it. Her reply? "Many things remind me of many things."

    I think that says it all.


  5. Wow, this is such a great post. I admit, I wish there was an idea tree, because sometimes the ideas just don't come easily to me. I'm plot challenged and rely on friends and critique partners a little too much to help flesh ideas out. The Lola books come easily for me because those characters are so fully fleshed out. They're real so it's easier to imagine them in all kinds of fun settings and situations and predicaments.

    The book I'm working on now has been really hard for me to develop, but I'm finally there. I agree, it's often the hardest part to communicate what I envision to my agent, but as I get better, it all becomes a little easier.

  6. Hey Susan! For me the ideas are easy--it's getting the darn things on paper that gets a little fuzzy. A lot of my plots are ripped from the headlines and twisted to fit my story--and some of it just comes from my twisted mind.

  7. Hey, Heather and Ms. Misa! I so agree. It's hard to put ideas down on paper when they're just swirling around in your brain in a way that will make sense to other people. I find that what I write down is never exactly what's in my head. Oh, and, yes, Heather, having a twisted mind definitely helps! ;-)

    Gayle, love that line! And it's actually so true. :-)