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!