Friday, March 07, 2008

Bright Ideas

By Jennie Bentley

I’ve been tossing book ideas around lately. Being up to my eyeballs in DIY – revisions for book 1 were due this week, the completed manuscript for book 2 is due July 1 (I’m about ¼ of the way through), and then I have book 3 to write by the end of the year – I’ve felt the need to think about other things once in a while, just for a change of pace. And because I get my kicks from coming up with ideas and titles for books, that’s what I’ve been doing.

Where do these ideas come from? Funny you should ask.

One of my all-time favorite authors, the brilliant MPM – Barbara Mertz AKA Elizabeth Peters AKA Barbara Michaels – claims to buy all of hers from a small general store somewhere in – I think – Nebraska. (It’s one of those questions that best-selling authors get asked all the time, I believe, so it must be tempting to come up with an answer like that. I wouldn’t know, since I’m hardly best-selling. Not selling at all, yet.) Other people say they get theirs on e-Bay or from a secret website just for writers, where we auction them off to the highest bidder.

My first book – the one my agent loves, but that no one wants to publish – came about because of a career change. I had just gotten my real estate license and was starting to practice. As I walked into empty house after empty house, often in the company of some guy I didn’t know from Adam, any number of scary scenarios presented themselves to me. Dead bodies inside, or the guy beside me being a homicidal maniac; or a homicidal maniac inside, while the guy beside me was an undercover cop... That’s why, in the first chapter of A Cutthroat Business, my protagonist, new-minted Realtor Savannah Martin, is at first afraid to leave her car when confronted with her new client, and when she goes into the dilapidated house he wants to see, they find the butchered body of another realtor, throat cut from ear to ear, on the floor of the library. I’ve been there, done that. The only dead bodies I’ve found have been those of roaches, rats and birds, admittedly, but that’s where the idea came from.

As far as the DIY-series goes, the idea for Fatal Fixer-Upper was pretty much forced upon me. My editor asked, “Would you like to write a series about a renovator?” and I thought, you’ll pay me? Then sure. There had to be a house, obviously, and because of the kind of book it is, there had to be cutesy tips for projects, and a hot handyman – what’s a DIY-book without a hot handyman? – and because it’s a cozy, there had to be cats. The background for the mystery came from doing research on Maine Coon cats. Interesting animals, they’re either descended from Norwegian Forest Cats that the Vikings brought over when they explored Vinland, or from the cats of one Captain Coon, who used to sail up and down the coast 300 years ago, or maybe from Marie Antoinette’s cats, when they were brought over from France in 1794, after a botched attempt to rescue the Queen from Madame la Guillotine. Take your pick.

When we visited Pittsburgh last year, we had to take the kids for a trip on the Monongahela Incline. It was an early morning during Easter, with no one around, and there was a very creepy guy on the incline with us. “What if,” I said to myself – a big question, what if! – “someone walked into an incline car first thing in the morning, and found a dead body...?”

So what about you? Where do you get your ideas? Do you have a hard time coming up with them, or are you like me, so full of ideas you’ll never be able to write about them all? Would you subscribe to an exclusive site for writers, where we can post our ideas and auction them off for extra cash when royalty checks are lean? How much would you give me for Inclined to Murder? And since I’m eagerly awaiting the first time someone asks me, “Where did you come up with the idea for this?!” – how about some help figuring out what to say? Because somehow, saying that ideas are everywhere, just waiting to be scooped up by the handfuls, doesn’t have the same ring to it as saying the idea was hand-made and mail-ordered from a small convenience store in Nebraska...

30 comments:

rebecca cantrell said...

Isn't it typical that the owner was guillotined, but the cats got away? Very feline.
I get my ideas from research and history and a very dark imagination. But I've found if you ask most anybody how they'd kill someone in a given situation, they come up with answers. I once asked our raft guide. After pitching his tent far from ours the first night, he came up with some doozies...

Tory said...

IDEAs are not the problem. I always have lots. In fact, I started writing to put to use my morbid imagination about everything that can possibly go wrong in any given sitation. The problem is having the time and patience to grow them into something worth reading!

As a psychologist, I believe all ideas ultimately come from something we've experienced in our lives (except the ones that mistakenly slip in because we've read them somewhere and then forgotten we've read them.) Still, the other day I was reading a board member talking about the "idea fairies" in board of directors meetings (you know, the kind that come up with lots of wonderful ideas, but won't help with the follow-through?)

So, how about this line, "I leave a blank page under my pillow and the idea fairy comes during the night and writes them down."?

Gina said...

I agree with you, Tory. I am beset by idea fairies that constantly bombard my mind with plot possibilities and little strings of words. Yesterday, I suddenly thought:
The Storm King walks the darkened halls,
His fists beat thunder on the walls.
Where did that come from? I don't know. Will it turn into anything? Your guess is as good as mine.

Joyce said...

I have more story ideas than I know what to do with. I'll never have time to write them all. I even have a new protagonist stuck in my head who is demanding that her story be told. I told her to wait in line.

Jennie, speaking of scary realtor stories, have you read former Working Stiff Rebecca Drake's Don't Be Afraid?

I like the thought of idea fairies, but I get a lot of ideas just reading the news. Believe it or not, I don't get many from working in a police dept. The bits and pieces I use from work are mostly for color and realism.

Oh, and sorry about the squiggly letters. The spam fairy returned last night.

Annette said...

Idea fairies? Mine are more like idea gremlins. Or idea trolls. Pesky little vermin, all of them.

Annette said...

Here's an idea for you. A bunch of mystery writers and bloggers gang up to plot the demise of certain spammers who force them to type word verifications over and over again.

JennieB said...

Hi, Becky! Thanks for stopping by. 'A very dark imagination' - that's not a bad answer. ;-) And that poor raft guide... he must have kept looking over his shoulder for the rest of the trip.

Tory - the idea fairies, huh? I haven't come across the term before, but I like it.

Gina - that little string of words, as you call it - a couple of lines of poetry, or the beginnings of a children's book? - sure is pretty! I think you should definitely do something with it.

JennieB said...

Three more comments while I was writing mine...!

Joyce - no, I don't think I've read 'Don't Be Afraid'. I'll look it up.

Annette - idea trolls? Idea gremlins? I could get behind that. The idea of gremlins has certain connotations, doesn't it? Fairies seem nice and friendly, gifting you with quarters and ideas, while gremlins are doing it all to mess with your mind. I know that feeling only too well. ;-)

Lee Lofland said...

Gee, I wonder how I could come up with ideas for murders and murderers? Hmmm, let me think...

JennieB said...

Be nice, Lee!

Lee Lofland said...

My first idea - Slap around the person who added those irritating squiggly letters. It's bad enough to have to do it once, but twice. Grr...Come over here, Joyce.

Joyce said...

Lee, aren't you forgetting I'm trained in the martial arts? I might be old and rusty, but I haven't forgotten all of it!

ramona said...

Nice blog, Jennie.

I get most of my writing ideas from my family. They're all nuts. For nuttier ideas, I peruse Oddly Enough News on Yahoo. Most of that is stranger than fiction, but so is my family. Between those two, I don't know that I'll ever run out of ideas.

BTW, since you mentioned Marie Antoinette, did you know that she never said, "Let them eat cake." And Dr. Guillotine did not invent the head chopper?

I never run out of useless info, too.

JennieB said...

Ramona, I did know that Marie Antoinette didn't say 'Let them eat cake!', actually - it's in my book, as a matter of fact - but I didn't know about Dr. Guillotine. Thanks for sharing. You'll notice how extremely knowledgable you seem now! ;-) I'm sure you know the answer to this, but let's see if anyone else does: If not Marie Antoinette, then who really said 'Let them eat cake?'

Joyce said...

French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1766.

Lee Lofland said...

You don't scare me, tough girl. Besides, you don't know where I live.

Hey, Rebecca Drake really "nailed it" in Don't Be Afraid," huh?


Oh, shoot, there are those squiggly letters, again...

JennieB said...

Is "Don't be afraid" the book with the nail gun as the murder weapon? I've heard about that.

Joyce said...

Yes, it is!

ramona said...

Jenni, I wrote an article about Marie Antoinette called "Let Them Eat Cake!" for the juvenile magazine, Cricket. The contract offer was for all rights. Stupid me, I was so thrilled to get published in Cricket, a magazine I loved, I sold all rights.

That article was picked up by Encyclopedia Britannica Online and reprinted in other online educational publications. Did I see a single sou from all of that? Mais non! This is not bragging, but a cautionary tale: Never sell all rights. When I think about it, I could chop off my own head.

mary kennedy said...

Hi Jennie, I don't think this went through the first time (if it's a duplicate, I aplogize!) I was wondering if you could give us the release dates of your DIY series?? I know it is going to be a huge success! best, mary kennedy

JennieB said...

Gosh, Ramona, that's just awful! Terribly thrilling for you to be picked up by Encyclopedia Brittanica and all, but what a bummer, not to see a dime from it. Cautionary tale duly noted. Thank you!

JennieB said...

Hiya, Mary! There you are! Glad you got through this time.

DIY#1, now officially named Fatal Fixer-Upper, is due in November of this year. No specific date yet, just sometime in November. A good time to pick up lots and lots of copies as Christmas gifts! Book 2, which is nameless, but which deals with a haunted house (or not), is scheduled for August 2009, and book 3, which isn't even a gleam in my eye yet, is scheduled for May 2010. No idea what that one's about. Thanks for asking!

JennieB said...

I forgot to mention that my friend and yours, the lovely and talented Miss CJ Lyons, is over on the Good Girls Kill for Money blog today, for Tasha Alexander's Virtual Cocktail party. http://www.good-girls-kill.com/ Go on over and check it out.

Anonymous said...

Fatal Fixer-Upper is a fabulous title. Just wondered if your colleagues in the real estate business know you're a mystery author? Do they share any horror stories? Or wonder if they're going to turn up in one of your books? It is such a terrific idea for a series, can't wait to read it. Maybe at some point, you'll post an excerpt on your website???

Jamie Livingston said...

I hope I get to the point where someone asks where my ideas come from. Right now no one gives a rat's woowoo. And the teens who work for me at my restaurant are sick to death of storylines, plotting, and character development. Heck, most of them don't even read outside of school.
But my last storyline did come from a conversation with the teens about castrating horses. And no the plot has nothing to do with equines.

Jamie

JennieB said...

As you've probably figured out, I'm writing these books pretty quickly. I sent revisions for Fatal Fixer-Upper back to my editor this week. Once she signs off on them, I'll definitely post a chapter to my website for all to see.

My colleagues turn up in my books sometimes, yes. Hopefully I've managed to change them enough so that they don't recognize themselves, but one evil, greedy realtor is much like another, you know. ;-)

It's common knowledge among people I know who the victim in A Cutthroat Business is. We'll look at her and snicker sometimes. No one has killed her yet, but I'm pretty sure it's just a matter of time.

Martha Reed said...

I love it when a new idea presents itself - first I get a tickle in my brain, a 'what if?' idea. Usually it comes from something I overhear someone saying, and then another small idea sticks to it, and then I realize that: 'Hey, I might have something here'. It's fresh, it's unfinished, and I love it.

Jennie, thanks for posting!

JennieB said...

Hiya, Jamie! Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, I know what it's like when the people around you start rolling their eyes and sidling away when you open your mouth.

You'll let me read the book inspired by the horses sometime, won't you?

JennieB said...

Thank you for stopping by, Martha. Yeah, new ideas are the best, aren't they? That tickle in the brain, and the kind of snowball effect as little things start coming together, kind of like magnets... Very cool feeling!

Jamie Livingston said...

Yeah, Jennie, it's the one I blurbed to you in an email last week. Thriller about a serial killer who castrates his victims. He uses the same method used to castrate horses, but he doesn't give the patient any drugs before he cuts.
Not exactly the chick lit voice I usually like to write. It's taking me a long time to write, because I have to step away from it every so often.
As you can imagine, the teenages thought this idea was a hoot.

Jamie