Virginia Smith

Virginia Smith is the award-winning author of twenty novels and over fifty articles and short stories. Her first cowritten book with best-selling author Lori Copeland will be released in November 2011. For information about Lost Melody, including an alternate ending with a unique spin, visit

For Writers Only

An Author's Spin

“Where do you get ideas for your books?”

That question is one of the most common asked of authors. The answer by most authors sounds vague enough to be a dodge, but it’s the truth: ideas come from everywhere.

“When I saw an article about the 1917 Halifax Harbor disaster,” says best-selling author Lori Copeland, “I knew it was a story that needed to be told. But I wasn’t interested in writing a historical retelling of the actual event. I wanted to put my own spin on it.”

That’s where I came in. When our agent introduced me to Lori, we spent an hour on the telephone talking about an idea for a coauthored book. Lori described an article about the explosion in Halifax Harbor, and I caught her enthusiasm for the project. We talked about various ideas to spin the story. We discovered we had a favorite movie in common, Passenger, starring Anne Hathaway. The movie’s plot had a twist that we both loved. (Spoiler warning!) At the end of the movie, viewers discover that the viewpoint character has been dead since the beginning.

“I would love to do something like that in a novel,” Lori told me.

The idea smacked of fantasy and science fiction, which appealed to my love of all things weird, so I agreed. Lori and I settled our arrangement to coauthor a story and made plans to spend a weekend together plotting out a book.

Something interesting happened during that plotting session. Both Lori and I decided that the idea of the viewpoint character being dead throughout the story wouldn’t work for us. But we loved the idea of a twist at the end. And we were enchanted with the introduction of a hidden element in the plot that is revealed in the last chapter. The finished product, Lost Melody, is a book we’re both pleased with.

The process Lori and I went through together was the same one many writers work through as they’re plotting stories of their own. An idea is generated from anywhere: an article, a history lesson, a television news report, a movie, even another book. But as the idea germinates, different possibilities unfold. What makes the idea unique is the author’s spin.

There are thousands, perhaps millions, of books available to today’s readers. I once read an article that claimed only four story plots exist, and every book is an elaboration of one of those four common plots. The Bible tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. If those things are true, then what makes your story stand out?

The difference is the spin you give it, the unique slant you apply to a bare idea to make it your own and to conform it to your writing style. Story ideas occur all the time. A writer’s job is to add the spin.

For instance, television viewer sees a news report about a convenience store being robbed and thinks, “That poor store owner. His store has been open for only six months, and already he’s a victim of a violent crime.”

But a writer takes that initial empathetic thought one step further. We add backstory to the bare elements we know. What if his whole family back in Mexico scraped and saved to pay for

him to open this store? What if this robbery means they’ll never be able to pay back the loans they took out to fund his store? Layers of a story can develop from those questions.

The romance writer might ask, “What if this robbery forces his sister to forsake her true love and marry the son of the man who provided the financing for her brother to open the store?”

The suspense writer would question, “What if the money to start the business came from a drug cartel? What will this guy do now that he can’t repay the debt?”

A women’s fiction writer sees that news report and thinks, “What does this mean to his wife, whose brothers sank their life savings into her husband’s business, and now they’re ruined? How will this impact her relationship with her husband, who is inadvertently the cause of her brothers’ ruin?”

An author’s spin can be applied to any idea. We only need to practice, to exercise our spin muscles by training ourselves to look at every circumstance in terms of a story that we would tell our readers. A dog running down the center of the street in front of our house, dragging its leash behind. A toddler running joyfully away from an inattentive parent in the shopping mall. An announcement over the airport PA system asking a traveler to return to the airline ticket counter to claim a lost briefcase. An overheard snatch of conversation in a restaurant: “Mom, I can’t risk a divorce. What if I lose custody?” Any one of these circumstances occurs to all of us every day. But as writers, we can train ourselves to translate these situations into unique stories told in our own voices. In other words, we can put our own spin on them.

Story ideas are everywhere: newspaper headlines, evening news television programs, even monologues from late night talk show hosts. Yes, millions of others have heard the same report as you. Don’t worry about that. Your story will be memorable because of your unique spin.


Lost Melody