Romancing the Idea
People always ask how a writer gets an idea. Ideas can come from anywhere and generally reflect the kinds of things that interest us and that fit in with the kinds of stories we write. Read the newspaper, watch TV with the thought “what if?”
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell says the best books come from who we are.
- What do you care about most in the world? What are your passions? The best novels come out of outrage.
- How do you feel about your physical appearance?
- What do you fear the most?
- What are your major strengths of character?
- What are your major flaws?
- What are you good at? What do you wish you were good at?
- If you could do one thing and know you’d be successful, what would you do?
- What three events from your childhood helped shape you into the person you are?
- What are some of your annoying habits?
- What secret in your life do you hope is never revealed?
- What is your philosophy of life?
Now think about your story and distill the basic premise to one sentence. What’s a premise? The main “hook” that lifts the story out of the ordinary. For Mermaid Moon it would be: a young woman must find her father’s killer before her past catches up with her.
Figure out the setting. Setting is much more important than most writers realize.
I want you to figure out an interesting place to set your novel, then go online and read news stories set in that area. Jot down things that can ONLY happen in that area.
- Research setting. Come up with different ideas based on the setting. It can add to the plot. For example, in writing Beyond a Doubt, I read about how they’d taken copper mines and turned them into plant growing facilities. Part of the plot sprang from that research.
- Flip a genre. Take a look a genre other than the one you’re writing in—westerns, for example—and see how you can flip it and make it a romance. See what makes it work and figure out if the elements of that other genre will raise your own story a notch.
- Take a look at trends by reading current magazines like Scientific American, TIME, Newsweek, and USA Today. Maybe you can pick up on a coming wave and ride it for a while.
Okay, now you have your idea. But are their problems? Has this type of story been done before? Almost always the answer will be yes. But what makes your idea stand out? What makes it different from others?
Is the story BIG enough? Can you come up with a great hook that will catch the reader’s attention?
Is there some other element you can add to make it more fascinating? Quirks, obsession, a fresh angle?
Let’s talk about plot layers.
Ever since I started writing, I’ve heard that it’s tough to get published. And it is. But it’s not really tougher today than it was last year or the year before. It’s always been hard. Good layers are often the key to making an editor sit up and take notice. So much of the time, stories that hit the editor’s desk are so similar. Romance especially can be tough to make fresh. But it’s all in the layers.
Here are the layers I work on with every story:
- As I mentioned, setting is huge for me. A character who lives in Boston is very different from one who lives in Indiana. The culture that shaped him/her is different too. Think about where your characters are. Read newspapers from that area and see if you can find a plot layer in what is going on currently there. Is there a culture group that’s strong there?
- Character types. Take a look at character types and pit different types against one another to play off weaknesses and pet peeves. This can add a really great layer of conflict that’s ongoing. Maybe your female lead loves the wilderness and the hero’s idea of a great vacation is a cruise where everything is served to him. Maybe your heroine makes gourmet chocolates and the hero breaks out in hives from the aroma on her clothing. Do your research by reading obituaries and noticing people around you.
- Can you give your protagonist an obsession? That can really springboard you to plot ideas as she pursues it. This is often where to layer in your theme.
- Interesting occupation. This leads me to story ideas all the time. I’ve written about a SAR dog team, a dolphin researcher, a smokejumper, an antique quilt expert, and an old time telephone operator at the turn of the century.
- Think of plot layers that are problems for your main characters. Try to come up with at least three. For example, in Lonestar Homecoming, Gracie is running away in her wedding dress from men who just killed federal agents in front of her. She has no money and no way of supporting her daughter so she agrees to be a nanny to a man’s two children. She’s estranged from her father because only she knows she was responsible for her mother’s death. The problem with many manuscripts I see is that there isn’t enough conflict and it isn’t varied enough. It’s not enough to have just ONE conflict.
Layers will life your book out of the rejected pile. They will add depth and interest to your characters and your plot. If you’ve already written the book, it’s still not too late to tear into it and make it something special. Don’t be afraid to start from scratch and add the things that need to be there.
Best-selling author Colleen Coble’s novels have won or finaled in awards ranging from the Best Books of Indiana, the ACFW Carol Award, the Romance Writers of America RITA, the Holt Medallion, the Daphne du Maurier, National Readers’ Choice and the Booksellers Best.
She has more than three million books in print and writes romantic mysteries because she loves to see justice prevail. Coble is CEO of American Christian Fiction Writers. She lives with her husband, Dave, in Indiana.