Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Story is Born

By Lisa Karon Richardson

One of the most frequent questions a writer gets is: “Where do you get your ideas from?” It’s not an easy question to answer because ideas come from everywhere. Half-remembered conversations, TV news, people watching, good old-fashioned research.

There’s almost always some nugget that provides the impetus for a story. A brilliant little core. But it takes a lot of work to melt down the nugget, refine it and spin it into gold. Unfortunately, I can’t think of many stories that sprang full born into the mind of a writer like some sort of reverse Minerva.

The most common way a story is worked into shape is by asking questions. Lots and lots of questions. Seriously, writers are like toddlers. Ever answer provokes another why!

I discover who my characters are by asking “why.” Why does she respond like this? Why does she desire that? Why would she do such a thing?

Plots are developed by asking “what if.” What if the letter is never delivered? What if the ship sinks? What if the murderer figures out she’s on to him?

Getting the answers to the questions is a thrill. It’s the sort of rush that makes having to pitch the story to an industry professional worth the effort.

So let’s start with a nugget—It’s the 1950s and a young woman is hired to ghostwrite a Nancy Drew mystery, but as she is working on the manuscript she encounters a real life mystery.

Now if you’re up for it, let’s play story builder. There are lots of questions to ask and try to answer. Many I haven’t even thought of yet. Some of the ones I have thought of concern the heroine. She has to be flawed but likable. Is she excited about her writing assignment or does she just need the money while she tries to write the great American novel? What does she want more than anything else in the world? How does she grow through the story?

The nugget idea indicates that there needs to be some element of mystery. What central mystery could a single young woman encounter in the 1950s? That will probably change based on whether she’s living in New York vs. Palm Beach vs. Omaha vs. San Francisco so another very important question is where might the story be set?

In my opinion no story is complete without at least a hint of romance, so how does the heroine meet her hero? What kind of hero is he?

Yeah… there’s lots of work to do if we were really going to work with this idea until it was in shape to possibly turn into a story!

I’d love to hear what you would do with that nugget. I bet no two of us would come up with the same story in the end.

If you write differently, tell us about your process. We’d like to hear about that too!

Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, LISA KARON RICHARDSON’S early stories were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now, even though she’s (mostly) grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a brand new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Vanishing Act, co-authored with Jennifer AlLee, is coming September 2013. And is the second in the Charm and Deceit, series from Whitaker House. She also has a novella coming out September, 2013 from Barbour entitled “Midnight Clear,” part of the Mistletoe Memories collection.


  1. I think I probably do this, but in a more subconcious way. The story premise just sort of floats around in my head until the character poos to life for me.

  2. I never write a book the same way as any other. Sometimes I have certain "set pieces" I build around. Sometimes I just start at the beginning and work to the end. Sometimes I plan it out and then don't end up using that plan. Usually I end up simplifying and dropping or merging characters and scenes.

    It's always an adventure. :)

  3. You've stumped me here, Lisa. I have to pause and think about this.

    The last series idea I worked up began with me having an idea for book 1. Agent Tamela wanted two more ideas. So I sat down with my brainstorming partner Becca (at Starbucks) and said, "I need two more mail order bride stories."

    Then I explained my first idea.

    Her response: How are you going to solve that?

    Me: I have no idea. That's what makes it exciting.

    Her: "So what you're saying is you want two more mail order bride stories where the worse happens."

    Me: Yep. Worst possible scenario.

    Her: I see . . .

    From there we discussed the basic mail order bride story line then pondered how to twist it up. The next two also ended up with Becca asking, How are you going to solve that? and me answering, I don't know, but I don't have to figure that out yet. I went home and wrote up one-sentence premises on each story.

    After that, I researched where proxy marriages were legal because that will determine the general setting.

    But what germinates a story idea?

    When I was at the Waldorf taking pictures of old photographs, I came across one that literally made me stop and stare at it. I didn't know the Waldorf had a _________. And because they did, that means they had staff to manage it. So what if my heroine worked there, and something was stolen, and she was accused of being an accomplice to the theft. Would my hero be a policeman? federal marshal? a fellow employee of hotel? someone who also had something in that place where my heroine works? maybe he lived at hotel? maybe just a guest? maybe he has a secret of his own, is hiding, and now with all the media and police attention on the hotel, he fears someone will recognize him.

  4. Fun post. One of my novels started as a flash in my mind: a guy standing in rain. I asked myself, why is he doing that? And then I kept asking a bunch more questions that turned into 90K words.

    For your assignment, I'd have the heroine be writing for the money to support herself while writing the crime novel of the century. Meanwhile, she both admires Nancy for her pluck and skill, while she envies Nancy's nice car, nice boyfriend, nice everything. While she writes, she stumbles upon a mystery of her own, and a handsome fella, to boot.

  5. My character would be in San Francisco, living on Bush Street. Walking down the hill to Market Street, the Embarcadero, or Union Square, you come to a section where you're going under a cross street. There are stairs that take you under the street and down below toward Union Square. There's a point where it's dark and scary. And smelly. Our stalwart heroine, fresh from plotting her Nancy Drew mystery, is already a little spooked - because while plotting Nancy's mystery, she came up with an idea for an adult mystery and scared herself. As she nears the dark point of the stairway, where she's directly under the road, she stumbles over a woman sprawled on the concrete. A woman who is obviously dead.

    Fun post, Lisa!

  6. okay, Suzie just trumped anything I was thinking up.

    But I love the whole idea of a Nancy Drew ghost writer - and hey, she might have to pitch hit for the Hardy Boys!

    I was doing some brainstorming for a series. I had a lot of setting material to work with (The War of 1812) and I've picked my towns and my h/h for each. I like to start with ' who are two people that are on opposing sides of a big issue.' Might as well give them something huge to overcome... just for a start.

    I'd love to be brainstorming plot ideas now --it's one of my favorite things to do.

    Thanks, Lisa, you've reminded me of 'the fun stuff'.

  7. Dina, I think a lot of this is very subconscious for most of us. Unless we are rigid plotters, we don't have a set list of questions we ask of our characters. Though of course some do. I don't go that far. Can't. Would drive me batty, but it is fun to play with possibilities and that is what asking questions is all about in this context!

  8. DeAnna, I can relate to it being different for every story. No two stories have ever come to me the same way.

  9. Gina, as you were typing out your Waldorf story thoughts, I was thinking, "man this is just like me." Very stream of consciousness!

  10. Susie, a guy in the rain, huh? Was he wearing a greatcoat? What intrigued you enough to want to write his story?

  11. Suzie Jo, I love it! Sounds like the makings of a great first chapter. Hop to it!

  12. Deb, I can't wait to read your 1812 story. You have great characterization, probably in part because you start there!


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