When I was a little girl, I always wondered how authors came up with book ideas. How did Madeleine L'Engle dream up The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe? What made Frank Oz write about Dorothy, a tornado, and a yellow brick road? Why did Margaret Mitchell decide to describe Scarlett O'Hara as a willful, headstrong, young Southern belle?
A perfect world might include a 'Red Box' for Writers. I image that such an invention would be very popular--just stop by the neighborhood store, find the machine, and feed it a few dollars. Punch in your interests (drama, romance, thriller?), a setting, and basic description of your main character, and BAM! out comes a brand-new, fabulous story idea.
In reality, the process is much simpler, and doesn't involve money or touch screens. For me, story ideas are best-captured two ways: Listening and Asking Questions.
Listening: Whether you're at a party, in the workplace, or walking through the grocery store, unless it's midnight, someone's always having a conversation. Does your neighbor like to chat? Do your kids tell you funny stories about school or their new teacher? Did something strange happen when you ran into an old friend? All great story ideas!!!
I came up with the idea for Stay Tuned after hearing a true story about a fistfight between two news anchors in a local television station parking lot. Both were fired, and the incident stirred up all sorts of controversy for months. And people still talked about it years later!! It had all of the right ingredients for a dramatic story: Conflict, Suspense, and Action.
For Dancing Naked in Dixie, I had come up with a basic storyline--I wanted to follow the journey of a travel writer from New York City to small-town Alabama--but I was still searching for the "right" location. I kept hearing about a nearby town that hosted a "Pilgrimage" every April. This event involved mansions, period costume from the 1800's, music, and historic landmarks. Intrigued, I visited Eufaula and fell in love with the area's charm and beauty. It was the perfect location for Dixie.
Asking Questions: When you find an idea that stays with you, a notion that you can't get out of your mind, you can easily test out the concept. Here's what works for me, and I'll use my third novel, The Pie Lab (Feb, 2013), as an example.
My husband and I visited Greensboro, Alabama several years ago. While looking for a place to grab coffee and a snack, we stumbled on The Pie Lab, a local restaurant. It's a funky little place on the main street of Greensboro with rustic decor and huge, sliding wooden doors.
I immediately thought that The Pie Lab would make a wonderful setting for a novel, and started researching the location. Who owned the restaurant? Who worked there? Why did they decide on serving pie? Is the food any good? (Delicious, by the way...) Why did the name include the word "Lab?"
What I discovered was better than I'd hoped. The Pie Lab is a homespun project that serves a dual purpose: (1) Offering employment and training skills, and (2) Providing a forum for discussing and solving community problems.
While not every idea will end up a bestselling novel, listening and asking questions will generate a LOT of possibilities! You'll also learn so many interesting things about people and places while you're at it!
What do you think? What are some of the best stories you've read? What makes them special or different?
Lauren Clark is the author of Stay Tuned and Dancing Naked in Dixie. She writes contemporary novels set in the Deep South; stories sprinkled with sunshine, suspense, and secrets.
A former TV news anchor, Lauren adores flavored coffee, local book stores, and anywhere she can stick her toes in the sand. Her big loves are her family, paying it forward, and true-blue friends. Check out her website at www.laurenclarkbooks.com.
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