Melanie Dobson recently spent five months exploring Germany’s castles, cathedrals, and medieval villages. The author of Together for Good, Going for Broke, and her new novel, The Black Cloister, Melanie now lives in Oregon with her husband, Jon, and their two adopted daughters, Karly and Kinzel. More information about Melanie and her family’s story is available at www.melaniedobson.com.
One day as I was digging, I wondered what I would do if the next thing to come up wasn’t a household object but a bone...a human bone.
Ideas for a novel are hidden everywhere. They’re in the stories we hear (or overhear), our favorite movies, the local newspaper, the depths of our hearts, and even our dreams.
The idea for my latest novel, The Black Cloister, was sparked by hearing two similar stories from two very different time periods. During a trip to Germany, my family and I explored a medieval monastery, and I was enchanted by the story of Katharina von Bora (Martin Luther’s wife) and her daring escape from a German abbey. I wanted to write a novel about her imprisonment and courageous flight to freedom, yet a thread was still missing.
Months later, I met a woman in Los Angeles who had been raised overseas in an abusive cult. She shared her stories about growing up in a commune, and with her help, I wove together the history of Katharina’s escape from the abbey with the contemporary suspense story of a woman trapped in a religious cult.
When gathering ideas . . .
. . . ask questions
When I spoke with other novelists about how they get their ideas, I discovered that many of them found fresh inspiration by simply asking “what if?” about things that most other people consider mundane or ordinary.
The idea for Christy Barritt’s Squeaky Clean Mystery Series came after she interviewed a crime-scene cleaner. She wondered what would happen if the same cleaner also solved mysteries, and she began writing down her stories.
Mindy Starns Clark’s latest novel was sparked as she dug in an old flowerbed. “I found all sorts of buried ‘treasure,’” Mindy says, “from toys to utensils to strange objects we never could identify. One day as I was digging, I wondered what I would do if the next thing to come up wasn’t a household object but a bone . . . a human bone. That idea rolled around in my head for years until it eventually came out as Whispers of the Bayou.”
. . . ponder movies
Movies are another fun place to extract an idea for a novel. Subplots can be turned into an entirely different story, or novelists can pluck out a secondary character and create a whole new life for them.
The idea for Julie Klassen’s Lady of Milkweed Manor came from a movie character. “The cast included a wet nurse—and although this woman was only a minor background character, she intrigued me,” Julie says. “I found myself wondering, What would it be like to live with strangers and nurse their child night and day? I began researching the private lives of women in the early 1800s, and what I discovered fascinated me and provided the backbone for this novel.”
. . . glean from news stories
Newspapers and magazines are also a great source to find a factual story and turn it into fiction. Many novelists keep a file filled with news clips so they have a place to turn when looking for a new idea.
Colleen Coble’s newest novel, Anathema, was inspired by the news of the Amish school shooting. “My agent and I were struck at how the Amish reached out to the family of the shooter,” she says. “Amish are human too, and I got to wondering what might happen if something horrific happened and a young woman couldn’t forgive like she’d been taught.”
Jefferson Scott’s Operation: Firebrand series was originally inspired by reading an article about a mass grave that U.S. soldiers had discovered in Kosovo. The dead included very young children still dressed in their little coats, and Jefferson was beside himself with grief. Because the U.S. military couldn’t save them, Jefferson wondered who would save the children. He began writing this series to answer his question.
. . . experience personal healing
Sometimes the idea for a novel comes from a much more personal journey, often as we search for healing for ourselves or those we love. As we try to understand situations that are beyond our control, creating a story can help grow our faith and heal our hearts.
Hannah Alexander’s Hideaway was written after the death of her nephew, who had dyslexia. “He was abandoned by the school system as unteachable, and descended into drug and alcohol abuse,” Hannah says. “I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if someone had taken the time and energy to teach him.”
The idea for Leslie Gould’s Beyond the Blue was grounded in her adoption of young girl from a Vietnamese orphanage. As Leslie held and rocked her new daughter, she prayed for Thao’s birth mother in Vietnam.
“During that time, I pondered the reasons a mother would come to give up a child, and from those thoughts the novel Beyond the Blue was born,” Leslie says. “Writing the novel became a tribute to Thao and to her má.”
. . . remember your dreams
Even as we hunt for fresh ideas, sometimes the idea for a novel simply finds us. Marlo Schlasky’s new novel, Beyond the Night, found her in a dream as she watched the love story between her characters Paul and Maddie.
“When I woke up, I couldn’t get the two of them out of my head,” Marlo says. “I thought about them in the shower, on the way to seminary classes, in the grocery store. Everywhere! For weeks, I found myself replaying tidbits of their story in my mind, until I finally figured out that maybe God wanted me to write their story.”
Even when God revealed that Maddie was going to be blind, she thought it was interesting but still not enough to write a book. “Then I saw the big twist,” she says. “The incredible truth that I had no idea about before. It took my breath away.”
Once the story solidified in her mind, Marlo captured it on paper, and then, when she finished writing Beyond the Night, she began searching for her next idea.
Where will your novel idea come from?