One of the most common questions writers get from their readers is “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s also the one most writers have to fight to answer respectfully, avoiding eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, and exasperated sighs. Most writers have more ideas than they have time to write stories about them.
This isn’t always true, especially when you’re new to writing. It takes learning a different approach to the question since ideas are literally everywhere. You just have to be on the lookout for them. You train yourself to read the newspaper or online sites with an eye to things like plot and character and location. You overhear a conversation in the grocery store and start making up the bits of background the people talking aren’t filling in because they know all of that. You walk up the path on Grotto Hill at San Xavier Mission, and the lack of a guardrail makes you think of pushing someone over to the desert below.
Just yesterday, on my way from the laundry room, I met a woman who is an Iraqi vet because I was wearing one of my Red Sox tee-shirts. She’s from Massachusetts, and we started chatting. (I once wrote a blog post titled “You’ll Never Be Lonely in a Red Sox Shirt.”) A little bit about Massachusetts, but more about her dislike of crowds and traffic (much stronger than mine), her missing finger and blind eye from the vehicle she was in being blown up by an IED, and other things. Of course, after a few sentences, I was thinking about basing a character on her.
And sometimes a reader gives you an idea.
For “Holly Green Murder,” two different beta readers seeded the ideas for parts of subplots I used. Several books ago, a beta reader whose name I don’t recall (she only read the one book for me) was fantasizing about Christopher MacAlistair. (I do that a lot.) She’d noticed that he doesn’t have a whole lot of background and is very mysterious. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he were a spy working for MI6?” she wrote.
Well, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go in that direction. The African Violet Club Mysteries are cozies, not thrillers. And I certainly don’t feel capable of writing a spin-off thriller series, which would be almost mandatory. At least, I think it would be. But there was something else in Christopher’s background, something I’d mentioned in the first book he appeared in, but never elaborated on, that was almost as good as being a spy. So, at the end of “Holly Green Murder,” you’ll find out what that is.
The other idea came from beta reader extraordinaire Judith Horner. Judi brings both an editor’s and a writer’s eye to my story. She’s very good at pointing out inconsistencies or things that don’t seem realistic to her. In my last book, “Ghost White Murder,” she said that all the retirement homes she knew of were owned by large corporations, not privately owned. I told her Tucson was a little different, in that we had both. But it started me thinking about the question “What if the Rainbow Ranch Retirement Community were bought by a big corporation?” So I explored that in this latest book.
I can’t end this post without mentioning another beta reader whose suggestions I find invaluable. Melodie Gren is a reader, not a writer, so she’s not handicapped by all the rules writers think about all too often. Instead, she’s viewing the story as a reader would. She provided an incredible amount of feedback and suggestions for the relationship between Lilliana and Christopher in “Ghost White Murder.”
I’ll soon be sending “Holly Green Murder” off to my beta readers. I can’t wait to see what they come up with this time.