Julie here, and as a card-carrying CDQ (caffeinated drama queen), I tend to like my stories with lots of passion, drama and angst … uh, not unlike my personality, of course, which is sure to earn ‘treasure’ for my husband in heaven. But I digress …
As writers, we all want to create a stiff breeze—causing readers to turn the pages of our novels so fast that they get windburn. But what’s the best way to do that, to create scenes and stories that jump off the page? Well, when I was a single in my twenties, I hung out with girlfriends called Russ, Charlie and Ernie (Rusceilla, Charlotte, Ernestine), which not only made me sound pretty darn popular, but gave me a wealth of fun ideas and memories to draw upon when infusing more drama and fun into my stories or scenes.
For instance one of these friends had a habit of daydreaming, eyes trailing into a glazed stare in the middle of a conversation, which is not only a cute and quirky idea for a character, but prompted us to label these episodes of hers as OBEs or “out-of-body experiences.” Which is something each of us should be adept at giving our readers—not just “telling” a story, but giving the reader an OBE that will effectively transport them from their own reality into yours, where they become one with the characters.
How do I like to do that? Well, there are lots of ways to hook a reader in—great characters, great plot, roller-coaster tension, etc.—but today I want to focus on how to dig deep to come up with story ideas that can add drama, fun, quirk, insight, inspiration, emotion or anything else that will whoosh your reader out of their world into yours. An out-of-body experience that can translate into an out-of-pocket purchase of books that steal them away.
The number one way that I come up with ideas to make my stories or scenes sing is drawing from personal experience, something that scares the living daylights out of my husband. So much so, in fact, that the poor man won’t even read my Journal Jots on my website, the weekly blog I write to my reader friends. He claims he’s too afraid of what he might find, and … well, he’s probably right.
For instance, once I had a friend over for dinner who was telling my husband how much she loved A Passion Most Pure, and the conversation went something like this:
“I really loved the relationship between Marcy and Patrick,” she said to my husband, sipping her soda in my kitchen. “Except for the fight in the bedroom. I don’t know,” she said with a scrunch of her nose, “that just seemed pretty hard to believe.”
Without missing a beat, my husband took a deep breath and exhaled, upending his Diet Coke before giving her a dry smile. “Believe it,” he said calmly, no doubt reliving the horror of a young wife who went ballistic when he worked late one night at a studio that didn’t have a phone. All that angst, all that tension dug up out of my own backyard and plopped right into my very first love scene between an older couple whose love was now as real as it was strong. Real life, real emotions infused into every scene translate into real tension, not only fast-flipping a reader through a chapter or scene, but through an entire book as well.
Unfortunately for my husband, I do this a lot, such as using his nicknames for me as my heroes’ nicknames for their wives (i.e. Little Bit, Little Girl, etc.) or utilizing scenarios from our lives to add drama and depth to the lives of my characters. In fact, I tend to do this so much that once at a family reunion, I told Keith I was tired and wanted to go home. “Yeah, Keith,” my brother-in-law said to my husband with a wink, “you better get going—I think you’re chapter sixteen tonight!”
Although I LOVE drawing from personal experience to add drama, fun quirk or reality to my books, there are a wealth of other means to do this as well, and following are some the ways I’ve dug deep in order to come up with them:
1.) PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: I’ve talked about this above, but since it is my favorite way to pump up a scene, I decided to give you an example from my upcoming release A Heart Revealed that answers the question I posed above of “What do ham, chicken and shaving cream have in common?” You see, in A Heart Revealed, I have a scene between newlyweds Katie and Luke who hit their first bump in the road when Luke discovers Katie has enrolled in law school without his knowledge. Thinking she had abandoned her quest to be a lawyer to become a mother to his daughter, he is shocked to learn of what he views as her deceit. A fight ensues that takes him from an amorous homecoming to sleeping alone on the couch.
To infuse more drama and reality into the scene (and fun), I borrowed a situation from my own life where Keith and I got into a fight over a ham at the grocery store when we were newlyweds. Like Katie in the scene at the end of this blog, once I cooled down, I tried to tease my husband out of his anger by putting his shaving cream on the floor in the hall instead of putting it away. Suffice it to say that except for a ham becoming a chicken, Katie and Luke’s situation is grounded in reality where all the emotion and drama comes from the fertile ground of personal experience. As mentioned, if you have the patience to get all the way through this somewhat lengthy post, the scene can be found at the end of this blog.
2.) Geneology: Family background and stories are another excellent way to dig up great ideas. My Aunt Julie is Irish, so it was a lot of fun borrowing ideas, traditions and expressions from the wealth of her past. Expressions like “Oh, go on with you, now,” or “the pig roots out the money,” helped to add an Irish flair that gave my dialogue a little more authenticity.
3.) DREAMS: Probably the best example of this is Stephanie Meyer, whose entire “Twilight” series stemmed from a dream she had. I’ve talked to many authors who have said the same thing, that some of their best inspiration and ideas have come in the middle of the night when their head is on the pillow.
4.) THE BIBLE: Francine Rivers’ epic novel Redeeming Love is perhaps one of the best examples of digging deep into the Bible for story ideas. Based on the prophet Hosea who marries a prostitute because God commands it, Ms. Rivers transforms this Biblical account into a riveting drama set in the 1850 Gold Rush era. Another example is my all-time favorite, Liz Curtis Higgs' “Lowlands of Scotland Series.” This dramatic account of Jacob working seven years to marry Rachel, only to have her father trick him into marriage with her older sister Leah is a masterful and truly unique rendition of this biblical story, beautifully set in 1700 Scotland.
5.) SONGS: This is a big one for me, as I feel songs cannot only embellish a historical setting by incorporating popular songs from that specific era, but the lyrics themselves can help shape and mold the mood of key scenes. I’ve actually used this a lot in my upcoming release A Heart Revealed.
6.) BOOKS: Well, right off the bat, I have to give credit to Margaret Mitchell whose masterpiece novel Gone With the Wind not only inspired me as a twelve-year-old to write 150 single-spaced pages of my own novel (which became the basis for my debut novel A Passion Most Pure some 40 years later), but has been a kind of a romance template as to what I want to incorporate in my own books. But my digging deeper doesn’t just end with GWTW. Just last week I was desperate to come up with three new plots for my next 3-book proposal and I hit a snag. Guess where I ended up? Yep, standing in front of my bookcase, browsing hundreds of books I have read for a trigger of an idea, a plot, a direction. All of a sudden, an idea from one book would merge with another and before I was through, I had a unique direction and plot triggered by several books, but unique all on its own.
7.) FAIRY-TALES: This is a stellar source of ideas for plots and scenes, and if you don’t believe me, just ask Melanie Dickerson, whose wonderful YA novel The Healer’s Apprentice—a medieval tale loosely based on Sleeping Beauty—is nothing short of magical.
8.) NEWSPAPERS/TV NEWS: This is another great springboard for a wealth of wonderful ideas utilized by many authors, including our own Ruth Logan Herne, whose powerful stories are often a pulse beat away from the headlines of current events.
9.) PHOTO ALBUMS: Oh, man, what a blast I have looking through my 92-year-old aunt’s photo albums!! I’ll see a picture of three couples at a wedding, and ask who they are, and WHOA, BABY, can you get some great stories and ideas from a simple picture. Or just let your imagination roam while you browse, and you will be amazed with what you can come up with.
10.) MESSAGE BOARDS/SUPPORT BLOGS/PERSONAL ADS: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve researched something on various support blogs or even browsed the want ads, personal ads or message boards and have come up with an idea from comments left on blogs or situations wanted in newspaper ads.
11.) TV SHOWS/COMMERCIALS/MOVIES: This one speaks for itself because the visual medium provides a hotbed of great ideas. A storyline which you change or add a twist, or just play the what-if game—moving eras, locales, characters, scenarios around like chess pieces on a board.
12.) THE DICTIONARY: I know this is going to sound crazy, but once I wrote an entire story based on a word I found in the dictionary, and just last week, I needed ideas for a title, so I poured over the pages of the dictionary until I came up with tons of great ideas, not only for titles, but story ideas too!!
Trust me, this is just a tiny glimpse of the many ways you can dig deep to find hidden treasure right in your own backyard. So, roll up your sleeves and let’s dig up some more dirt on the best ways to unearth great ideas. Leave a comment to be entered into the giveaway for a signed copy of any of my books, including my upcoming release A Heart Revealed. If you leave a comment AND a new source of finding story ideas, you will not only be entered for a signed copy of one of my books, but an additional prize of a top CBA book as well.
Without further ado, I give you a scene from A Heart Revealed, which hopefully, will illustrate that digging deep in the soil of one’s own backyard is one of the most effective ways to get down and dirty in stealing your readers’ heart.
“Katie?” Luke tucked a finger to her chin. “Why did you go to the bank?”
She wriggled off his lap and stood to her feet, her breathing compromised considerably. “Because … I … well, I needed the money.”
He blinked. “Money? For what?”
She hefted her chin, steeling her nerve, but a lump still caught in her throat. She swallowed it and met his gaze head-on, her body as tense as when she’d broken curfew with Father. “For law school,” she whispered. “First-semester payment was due today.”
He stared, mouth slacking open. The deep tan in his face faded several shades, highlighting the spray of freckles across his sculpted nose. “Law school?” he repeated, his voice as raspy and thick as if the chocolate pie he’d devoured was lodged in his throat. He rose to his feet while a muscle twittered in a jaw of rock. “Tell me you’re joking.”
Katie took a step back, one hand braced to the chair for support as her eyes pleaded with his. “You knew from the very beginning that law school was my dream.”
He slammed his chair in, his voice hard. “That was before I made you my wife, Katie, the mother to my child. Not once since I put that ring on your finger have you mentioned anything about law school.”
“Luke, I know this is a shock—”
“A shock?” He jerked his plate and fork from the table and practically hurled them into the dishwater, sloshing water all over the sink. He turned and ripped the tie from his neck, singeing her with a glare. “No, Katie, this is more like getting slammed with a blunt object.”
His temper ignited hers. “You’re being ridiculous; this is not a big deal.”
“Not a big deal?” His brows lifted to a dangerous level. “You take money we don’t have, then lie to me about law school—”
“I didn’t lie!”
He fisted the tie and took a step closer. “You deceived me, Katie—it’s the same thing. You’re my wife, for pity’s sake—we’re supposed to make these decisions together.”
“Would you have said yes?” Her chin jerked up.
“Are you crazy? No, I wouldn’t have said yes. You have no business in law school. You have a daughter to care for, a part-time job at the BCAS, and we don’t have the money.”
She sucked in a deep breath, willing herself to be calm. “Lizzie’s agreed to watch Kit five days a week, and you know yourself Carmichael plans to trim the payroll.”
“And the money?” he asked, his voice as cool as the chicken bleeding on the counter. He braced hands on his hips, forearms strained with muscles.
The words on her tongue thickened, hesitant to part from her lips. “It’s Parker’s,” she whispered, feeling the heat swarm in her cheeks at the mention of Luke’s best friend whom she almost married. “From the account he set up for me when he broke our engagement.”
His eyes flickered in hurt, as if she’d just swung that blunt object he mentioned right at his head. And then in a slow blink of his lids, his gaze hardened to ice and his jaw went rigid, shadowed with bristle that made him all the more ominous. “I see. Well, you sure know how to kill a mood, Katie Rose.”
“Luke, this can work, I promise.”
“No, it can’t … because I won’t allow it.”
A harsh breath heaved still in her throat. “Excuse me? You won’t allow it?” She slapped hands on her hips and leaned in. “In case you forgot, this isn’t the BCAS and you’re not my boss.”
He moved close, hovering over her like impending doom. “I’m your husband, Katie Rose,” he said in a tone as tight as the muscles in his face. “What I say goes.”
“Over-my-dead-body,” she enunciated, incensed at the crick in her neck as she seared him with a look.
“If … necessary.” He ground out the words between clenched teeth.
She spun on her heel and stomped to the counter, snatching a knife and cutting board from the drawer to hack at the chicken. Heaven help me, I married a Neanderthal. She stabbed the poultry with the blade, sawing it into pieces with her husband in mind. Down the hall she heard the bathroom door slam and the shower turn on, and she was sorely tempted to steal his water pressure by turning the kitchen spigot full force.
He’s just tired. Guilt slithered in, as slick as the chicken grease now coating her hand. A thought flitted through her mind, and her knife stilled on the chicken, embedded deep in a thigh. A smile tugged at her lips. “Of course! I’ll tease him out of it like I do when he’s a grump.”
She glanced down the hall at the sliver of light beneath the bathroom door and grinned. Yes, a cool shower would calm him down, but hopefully not enough to cool the passion she’d seen in his eyes. Rinsing her hands, she quickly dried them off and reached for the tube of Barbasol shaving cream she’d bought him from Woolworths. A grin tipped her lips as she placed it in the middle of the hall floor rather than waiting to put it away in the bathroom, almost giddy at the prospect of his response over her little “tease.” Humming to herself, she finished cutting the chicken and sealed it into two butcher-wrapped packets. She paused, noting the shower had stopped, then smiled and hefted a package of chicken into the icebox. Singing her favorite song, she reached for the second packet. “Five foot two, eyes of blue, but oh, what those five foot could do. Has anybody seen my—”
A massive hand clamped on her wrist, and she gasped. The chicken in her hand plummeted to the floor in a dull splat as she broke free and spun around. He stood barefoot, striped pajama bottoms and muscled chest bare, blond hair dark and spiked from his shower. “Pick it up,” he breathed. A spasm twittered in the hard line of his jaw. “Now, please.” With a heated gaze fused to hers, he jabbed a stiff finger toward the Barbasol in the middle of the hall floor. The deadly voice held a note of pleading, although his features could have been sculpted in stone. “Pick it up, Katie.”
“No, you pick it up,” she quipped, her smile suddenly fading at the fury in his eyes. “Luke, I was just teas—”
“I said, pick it up—now,” he repeated, his face as white as the paper-wrapped chicken now lying on the floor. Body quivering, she did as he asked, and when she rose, he snatched the tube from her hand. Without another word, he stormed down the hall and entered their room, then left once again with pillow and sheet in hand.
She followed him to the parlor, her heart in her throat. “Luke, it was just a joke, the shaving cream in the hall, I promise. Can’t we talk this out, please?”
He hurled the bedding on the sofa before striding to the window to jerk up the sash, muscled arms bulging with the motion. “The time for talking is long past, Katie,” he said in a harsh tone. “Go to bed.”
“I said … go to bed.” He stilled her with a look, the clench of his words as tight as the tension in the room.
She blinked, fighting the sting of tears in her eyes. She’d only seen him like this one other time—the night Parker had walked out on them both. Hard, cold, angry … and hurt. She shivered and backed away, well aware that nothing she could say would soften him tonight. “I love you, Luke,” she whispered “Good-night.”
Katie returned to the kitchen, the heave of a sob in her chest as she put the groceries away. Her lips quivered when she spied the package of chicken on the floor, and she closed her eyes, hand to her mouth. What have I done? She sagged against the counter and began to pray, not sure when Luke would forgive her or even when he would speak to her again. And at the moment, she had no earthly idea if she would even see law school in the fall.
But … there was one thing of which she was absolutely certain. She swiped the tears from her eyes and bent to put the chicken away, a cold realization shaking her to the core.
The honeymoon was definitely over.