Friday, July 10, 2009

The "Idea Store" is where I get them . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

This weekend, at a family reunion, someone asked me where I get my ideas for my stories and how I come up with my characters. Writers get this question all the time. Most of us don't always know where we get our ideas, so we're honest about it. Other authors say they get them at the "Idea Store." Don't believe them.

I suppose for writers there is a little computer humming along in the back of our heads at all times. We see something and it sets us off. And sends us running to our real computers. For instance, last weekend we stayed on a farm in the beautiful rolling hills of Kentucky. The house is quite a distance from the road and the house directly across is also far back off the road, so you can see it, but at a distance. It's a REALLY old house, and quite beautiful, as is the place where we stayed. In the afternoons, I sat on the porch and looked across those hills and dreamed about that house. What's it like inside? What are the owners like? What is their story? As it happens, I know most of that particular story because I asked my host, but any writer could speculate and come up with a terrific mystery, or romance, or historical novel without knowing anything about the history of the old house. Whatever interests you. Or me.

My point is that if you are struggling for ideas to write about, stop and look around you. See any interesting houses, old or new? Other buildings? Cars? People? I don't have a picture to post about that farm, but I've got a couple of other pictures for you to look at. See any stories there?

Below is a reproduction of Fort Massac, on the site of a fort that existed here in the 1700's. Imagine the stories there? The other is a picture of a very old house not far from where I live. What's the story behind that house?

What about characters? How can you write believable characters that come alive on your pages? By watching the very real people around you. Incidentally, it's not always a good idea to totally base a character who is less than perfect on someone you know and who might recognize themselves in your story. And who then might want to sue or take a swing at you, neither being good possibilities. Instead, use a mixture of several people you've observed when creating a character. Build a whole new person in your head, then introduce that person to the world.

Quite honestly, I'm not totally sure how I create characters except that I'm a people watcher. I try not to judge people's motives, because I'm usually off the mark, but I like to watch mannerisms and behaviours and incorporate them into stories.

My characters do become real to me, and they often won't do what I want them to. Most writers will tell you that, and most readers are boggled by that information. After all, we created that character, why can't we make him/her do whatever we want? Probably that little internal computer again, instinctively telling us what a character will or won't do, based on our mind's eye vision of that character.

I know I get a lot of ideas from observations in real life and from keeping an eye on news stories. I know I get ideas from looking at homes or other unusual structures. How do I put them into the story? Not sure except visualizing the scenes as they would appear to my character, like a director in a movie would do. Watching the characters move around, seeing what they want to do, then letting them do it.

And I visit the Idea Store fairly often.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

It's true...we get our ideas from everywhere. I agree with you on creating characters; best to have them be a composite of several people.

I love old houses, too, and like to take my camera with me to take a few pictures. Later, when I'm working on settings, I can look at the files on my computer.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sheila Connolly said...

As a mystery writer, I keep finding new and interesting places to put bodies, which gets a little weird, expecially if you tell anyone else who's with you.

My Orchard Mystery series was inspired by one particular and real house, built by an ancestor of mine. It was for a time a bed and breakfast, and I had the chance to stay there more than once. I fell in love with the place, so I had to write about it to give myself an excuse to keep visiting.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I carry a camera most of the time too! Thanks for stopping by, ladies.

Anonymous said...

One day my husband and I were touring a restored 18th century house and I wandered off by myself. He found me a few minutes later, experimenting to see if I would fit under the stairs. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Looking for a place to put the body?"

Well, actually, yes I was.

Sandra Parshall said...

When anyone asks me that question, I say pretty much the same thing you do, Lonnie: All I have to do is look around me. "Ideas" for plots and characters are everywhere. Making them work in a story is the hard part -- especially when you have continuing characters who must be given reasons to care about solving the crime.

Pattie T. said...

I'm too ADD to ever write a book, so have only published a couple of poems and travel articles, BUT back in my youth (gosh I miss those days) when I worked in the personnel department of a Fortune 500 company the names on job applications that crossed my desk often sparked all sorts of thoughts as to what type of character they'd make. Some names just sounded despicable, others screamed suburbia, while others were straight out of romance novels. I could imagine an entire scenario just based upon that.

Jennie Bentley said...

I have more ideas than I could possibly write about in a lifetime, so I have postulated creating a website, just for writers, with perhaps a monthly fee involved. It's a place where those of us with more ideas than time could post them for auction to the highest bidder, and where those of us struggling to find something to write about, could buy new ideas. It'd help to pay the bills between contracts and royalty checks. What do you think?

Seriously, like you, I think ideas are everywhere, just sitting there ready to be scooped up by the handfuls. Houses, cars, people, snatches of conversation, some item or other of research that spurs a whole plot or subplot... even someone's name. It just comes down to being open to what you see/hear/read/experience, and it helps, especially as a crime writer, to have a mind that works in certain creepy ways. Not everyone sees a car trunk the same way I do, more's the pity. :-)

PS - are you coming to Killer Nashville this year, Lonnie?

Lonnie Cruse said...

Ladies, thanks for the laughs, particularly Sharon getting caught trying to get under the stairs. Jennie, probably won't make KN this year, but hope for next year when I have a new book out.