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.”
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
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
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.