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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 April 2007

Where Ideas Come From

Where do ideas come from? Is that your least favorite interview question? I was at a conference this weekend where Nora Roberts had an answer. "Ideas? I get them at the little store around the corner. I paid a buck ninety eight."

Even before Nora made us laugh, that question came to mind recently. Two Mondays ago a tree fell on our house. Our only “premonition” was the sound of the tree cracking and the crunch as it took out the deck headed for the roof and us in the kitchen.

Paul and I did, indeed, have a moment of eye-to-eye wordless communication we write about that went something like “Here is comes! Let’s get out of here!” We never once thought we would be injured. We were not. We don't recall any noise beyond the crack and first crunch. We have a very responsive insurance company and are well on the road to rebuilding one wall, the roof, the kitchen and the chimney.

As the dust settled (literally), I began to think, “How could I use this in a book?” Trees must have fallen on houses in the Regency. What did they do without cranes to lift them off? How long did it take to repair them? I have yet to find the answers online but I am sure it is out there somewhere. What amazes me is that an idea would pop up even in a moment of great distress.

At a friend’s house a few weeks ago I picked up a book on her TBR stack “The Giant O’Brien,” by Hilary Mantel, a novel about a late 18th century giant. What grabbed my attention was the work of man-of-science John Hunter and how he was castigated for the (illegal) acquisition of cadavers for his research. Here was exactly the element I needed for my book currently undergoing revision. I found an excellent discussion of Hunter's life and work in the (non-fiction) book "Doctors: The Biography of Medicine" by SB Nuland. The author also examines the lives of a several other pre-19th century men-of-science.” Giving rise to even more ideas.

Years ago, when we were living in Juneau, Alaska, I was hiking toward the Mendenhall Glacier with a friend who was visiting. All of a sudden I heard a sharp crack. Grabbing Teri's hand I yelled, “Run!” We headed out to the overlook in time to see the glacier calve, a gigantic piece, the size of a ten story building, broke off and fell into the river, causing a huge wave, rising up as a respectable iceberg and leaving behind the dark, dark blue of compacted ice.

Teri was not nearly as impressed as I was. I explained to her that this was a once in a lifetime experience. Her response: “I thought we were running from a guy with a gun!” That incident was the core idea of a book where the place – Juneau – is s much a character as any person in the story. (Sorry to say that book never sold)

I have an endless list of where ideas come from. Incidents, books, artwork, the actions of a complete stranger, all have pushed me to research beyond my own experience. That research often opens the door to whole new worlds. Isn’t that one of the best parts of writing? Creating a world and living it with your characters? A world you could never truly be a part of. Care to share where your ideas come from?

Mary Blayney

7 Comments:

Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Mary, I laughed so hard when I read that your first thought after running to safety was how I can use it in a book. So glad you're an author! You see ideas and stories everywhere. I would love to read your Juneau book. Reminds me of the Kate Shugack (sp?) series. And Nora Roberts is such a hoot! I have that quote written down.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Everything is fodder for a writer. I learned that when I was a kid and I would see my godmother putting stuff in her books that I knew really happened. LOL!

I'm so glad no one was hurt, though. Trees falling on your house is a scary thing!!!

2:16 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Kathy Seidel once wrote a scene that I had lived and she had observed -- she did not tell me it was in the book. I discovered it when I read it. It's a shock to see something like that isn't it Kalen?

Re trees falling: it surprises me that we were not scared -- not sure if that is human arrogance or a tribute to how fast we knew we could move when motivated!

Keira, That Kate Shugak series (by Stabenow) is impressive -- and yes her part of Alaska is very much a character.

Nora has a whole list of places where she finds ideas -- it's always the first question asked at this conference -- a tradition she prepares for -- another one I recall is that she has a subscription to the idea magazine. "Doesn't everyone" she asked.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I'm almost embarrassed to admit how many of my ideas spring from my reading and TV/movie watching--it makes me feel like I'm writing fanfic. But I'm forever reading books or watching movies and thinking, "That's not how I would tell that story/deal with that historical event," or, "This is fun in a macho way, but I'd like to try it from a woman's perspective," and next thing I know I'm writing a book about it.

The manuscript I started this week sprang from one of those "RWA Idol"-type seminars. I wasn't there, but a friend reported on a story getting gonged off the stage with the suggestion to set it in a more conventional location--only one that wouldn't have made sense at all for that kind of story in that era. My friend (also a friend of the gonged writer) commented indignantly, "Just change the course of HISTORY, why don't you?" I huffed along with her for a moment, since I thought the story in question sounded fascinating, but then a lightbulb went off. I'm a writer. I can do whatever I want, including changing the course of history. I figured out how to do it while driving home from work that day (good thing no one was within earshot to hear me say, "I know! I'll just kill so-and-so."). And so I'm now working on an alternate history/military adventure trilogy, all because of a comment by an agent I've never met at a conference I didn't attend.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm a writer. I can do whatever I want...

My version of that feeling, Susan, is suddenly to hear myself singing "it's my party and I'll cry if I want to." One of the ways my girls in the attic signal to me that they're up to something.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

How willing are you to play with historical reality? I ran into a problem in my current wip and did figure out a legit solution but was sooo tempted to fiddle with history a little -- very few would have known but *I* felt like a cheater. Your thoughts?

5:17 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I don't feel right making things happen that didn't (or even messing around with the dates of events). But I feel fine adding fictional people, streets, etc to the ones that were really there. It's as though I can't tamper with the bones of history but I can add a little flesh.

11:38 PM  

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