Story Ideas and Where They Come From

Where do you get your ideas?

Photo by Anete Lusina on

This is one of those questions that I always find confounding. Everywhere. They come from everywhere. Of course, at first I didn’t realize that not everyone had this problem.

Back when I was a new writer, I was talking to a novelist who told me that she very seldom has new ideas. When she finishes a book, she always worries that she won’t have an idea for another.

Hmm. Maybe part of the issue is that we are calling different things ideas. She means something fleshed out and complex. There is a story problem and a premise and a setting.

My ideas? It might be an intriguing setting. What would it be like to be a girl living at a frontier fort in the high desert? It might be an intriguing character. Today I read about a saint who thrust his sword into a stone, kind of the opposite of King Arthur.

My advice to you? Consider little nuggets like this valuable and collect them. Write them down. Send yourself e-mails if you must and drop them into a folder. I send the e-mail but I keep the actual ideas in my bulleted journal. So far this year I have something like 170. Some are more fleshed out than others but that’s okay. These are simply seeds for future writing.

This past week, I found a really good one. I met a pair of brothers who are in their 70s. They grew up in a little town in Missouri called Old Mines. They live in my area now and we spent some time discussing history. I mentioned a local historic site.

“What’s important about it? What makes it unique?” Will asked.

“It’s the oldest church west of the Mississippi.”

“That’s not possible,” said Dwight. “St. Jo in our home town is the oldest. It has a historic plaque and everything.”

“Huh. That’s interesting.” And this wasn’t just me being polite. On the way home, I wasn’t the one driving, I did some googling and discovered that yet a third, bigger, well-known church also makes the same claim. It didn’t take long to figure out which one is actually the oldest but better yet . . . an idea started taking shape. Civic pride. Tourist dollars. A murder . . .

Seriously? If I didn’t have four books under contract, I’d be outlining this right now.


Zoom In to Bring Your Setting to Life

My husband walking ahead of me on the road.

Last week, we popped down to the lake for just over a day. Walking the gravel roads and gazing up at the trees, I started thinking about what makes the area unique. I started going there when I was a preschooler with my grandparents so I’m fairly familiar with the area. It is the shag bark hickory? Is it the gravel roads?

As I contemplated this question, I thought about the setting in one of my stories. It felt more than a little generic and I realized that part of the reason was that my characters were roaming Every Wood. I needed to zoom in to make the space feel unique.

Take a look at this picture above and you’ll see what I mean. My husband and I were walking through the woods and that’s about all you can tell. You can tell that this isn’t a pine woods but that’s about it. Ok, if you’re an arborist you might be able to tell from the shapes of the trees that there are hickory, etc. But most of us? We don’t have a clue. We need to zoom in so that we can see the bark or better yet the shapes of the leaves.

But aren’t forests more than just trees? Let’s zoom in again.

If you’ve walked gravel roads in the country you know that there are specific plants that grow along the roads. In southern Missouri, this might include multiflora roses or blackberry. Smaller plants include black-eyed Susan’s, Queen Anne’s lace, and thistle like this one with it’s accompanying bee.

Zoom in yet again and look down. When I was a kid, there weren’t any armadillo but now they are abundant. I’ve never seen them in the woods but my husband and son have. You might spot a terrapin and there’s always moss and, if you are here at the right time of year, a variety of fungus like this bright yellow wonder. Believe it or not, the colors actually looked brighter in real life.

When you work details into your setting, just remember that a little bit goes a long way. You want to work in specifics that are meaningful. A character who weaves might note the colors of the toadstool and the thistle and wonder how they would combine in a piece of cloth. Another character might mourn that this isn’t an edible morel but, most likely, one of it’s toxic cousins.

Zoom in and make it count and you’ll have a setting that is both unique and interwoven with your story.


The Danger of Doing Things the Way You’ve Always Done Them

Right now, this is me. I don’t mean that I’m green and I only wish that I was that slim. But I am busy typing away. My fingers a blur. I have four books due by the end of November. In addition to that I’m teaching, blogging and spending time doing non-writing things.

To meet these deadlines, I could work harder. I’m not a morning person so this mean staying up later, but I’ve discovered something. There is a point beyond which I cannot write. It isn’t a time so much as it is an output level. After I’ve done a certain amount of writing, my brain just goes off to the punchbowl as my dad used to say.

I change something. I change it back. I look up a few things. But then I realize that I’m not actually writing.

It would seem that the solution to getting everything done isn’t putting in even more hours. Unlike folding laundry, this isn’t the sort of thing I can give someone else in the family to do. That means I have to resort to a “work smarter, nor harder.”

I hate this saying with a passion. It always seems a bit condescending as if the person saying it can see an oh so obvious way to improve things. Why can’t you see it?

But I stumbled over this improvement all by myself. Usually when I write something novel length, the manuscript is a single file. When I’m working on a work-for-hire book, I copy the outline by editor and I worked through into my document and write one chapter at a time.

Since I am writing for variety of educational publishers, my work has to fit into a series. Each series has a specific “look.” This means that the book has to have a certain number of chapters and each chapters has to be a certain length. The reading level has to fall within a certain range. Easy peasy — right?

It really isn’t difficult but it is a hassle to check my word count. I must select the chapter before I can do this. Before I can test the reading level, I have to copy the chapter and paste it into my test document.

That may not sound like a lot. But when you have to do it multiple times per chapter, it gets old fast.

This time I had an epiphany. Write each chapter in a separate file. What’s the word count? Glance at the bottom left on my screen. What’s the reading level? Save the document. Then save it as TEST with the correct formatting. No more copy. No more paste. And no surprises when you select the chapter and realize it is 300 words too short or 200 words too long. Instead I just glance down every now and then and pace myself.

I’m wishing I had decided to do it this way a long time ago. And, now I have to admit, I’m looking for something else to do smarter.


Should Writers Read?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Yet again, I saw someone ask this question on social media. “Do you think a writer needs to read?”

Yes, I do. But I’ll admit that I know a small handful of brilliant writers who read very little. They are moving. They are caring for elderly parents. They have a day job. They are building a business. They are working on their home. They are writing but they manage to squeeze in very little reading.

Me? I don’t think that I could pull it off. I’m a solid writer because I’m a voracious reader.

I was the kid who rode her bike to the library and then had to figure out how to fit all of the library book into her bike basket. Sundays were spent at my grandmother’s after church. We made lunch and then watched tv. Translation: She napped on the sofa and I read.

Even today I always have a book that I’m reading and an audio-book that I’m listening to while I do chores. Voracious. Reader. That’s me.

But I credit the fact that I read so much with the fact that I have any skill what-so-ever as a fiction writer. I’m not saying I’m brilliant but I am saying that my skill level is excellent given the amount of time I’ve spent actually writing fiction. Reading helps you internalize a certain amount of craft. You get a feel for language and how words go together. You develop some idea of what works in terms of introducing characters and creating a setting. You also learn what you don’t like and don’t want to do.

Reading also helps you get a feel for what books are already out there. Read what has been published in the last several years and you start to develop a feel for the market. What topics are already well represented and where are there gaps for your own work?

There are talented writers who don’t read. But there are a lot more writers who don’t read and probably should. That’s my opinion and I’m not likely to change my mind. I’m way too busy reading.


3 Ways to Fit Writing into Your Life

Photo by Pixabay on

I’ll admit it. I’m a full time writer. This may make you wonder what I know about fitting writing into my day. The reality is that full time writers still have families and kids that get sick. They have friends and acquaintances who know they are home during the day. Some of us also have jobs that pay and jobs that don’t. Whether you write full time or on the side, fitting everything into your day can be tricky.

At the moment, I have four books under contract. That meant a total of 8 deadlines over four months. That’s a lot of writing around my blogging, teaching and spending time every day away from my computer. That last one is vital to avoid burnout. How to fit it all in?

I was talking to my writing friend Chris. She also has a large number of deadlines right now. Some are for work that pays right this very minute. Other work is contracted but won’t pay until the royalties come in. As a self-supporting writer, this means she needs to do both – income now and income later. Her solution? Income later occupies her morning work hours. Income now occupies her afternoons.

That made me think that a similar solution might work for me so I am doing noncontract work in the morning and contract work in the afternoon. So far it is working like a dream because I’m working on both sets of work each day and not putting things off. So what advice do I have for you?

Prioritize Writing

First things first, make getting to your writing a priority. Yes. You have to make a living and keep your kids healthy and all that. But if writing is something you really want to do, you need to prioritize it. Is writing something that you really and truly want to do?

Be Realistic

Okay, writing is something you really want to do. Now it is time to get real. Some people say you need to write every day. It definitely makes things easier, but that may not be feasible for you. One of my friends would get a cabin and write all weekend several times a year. That way she could be there for her kids the rest of the time. Only you know what your life is really like and what is possible.

Create a Team

It also helps to have allies. These are people who recognize your desire to write and are willing to help you get there. They will ask you what you’ve been working on. They will nudge you when you don’t get to it. I’m super lucky. My husband and son are on my team. I also know a large number of professional writers.

No writing plan is permanent. I’ve had periods in my life where I only wrote 30 minutes a day. I’ve had times where I prepped all of my social media content in one day and times where I prepped one day at a time. When things quit working for you, reevaluate. After all, you’ll want to work it in if writing is a priority.


Packager vs Publisher

Yesterday I commented on the fact that I write for a book packager. Then I realized that perhaps not all of you are familiar with that term. Let me explain.

Writing for a packager means producing a wide range of content.
Photo by Anna Shvets on

I write for Red Line Editorial. When a publisher has an idea for a series, they can contact Red Line or another packager. Red Line then puts out a call to their various authors. “We are working on three new series — transportation, foods, and communications.” They list the books in each series and their authors get to claim various titles, usually no more than two per series.

After I turn in my manuscript, it is edited in-house at Red Line. Sometimes but not always the publisher in question seems to be in close contact. “The publisher wants us to do it this way, not that way.” But other times the comments are all from Red Line. Red Line also runs the book past a content expert. I get comments back from this person as well. Then I do my rewrites and turn the finished manuscript in.

I’m not paid by the publisher. I’m paid by Red Line.

But when the books come out, they come out from the publisher. My name is on the cover, but like Red Line I am a contracted worker.

Although I have books from Abdo, Capstone, North Star, and Brightpoint Press, I didn’t work directly with these companies. I worked for Red Line.

Why work for a packager? I get to do a greater variety of books and write on a greater variety of topics than I would if I worked directly for a publisher. I also get more assignments since Red Line is always signing new contracts.

This type of contracted work is usually on a tight deadline. So if you are good at quickly diving into a topic and creating an outline before getting to work on your draft, working with a packager might be a good match for you. You can find a wide variety of educational publishers, including packagers, on Evelyne Christensen’s site.


Just Say No

I know that I spend a lot of time on here encouraging you to say yes to new possibilities and to try new things. But the reality is that you don’t have to say yes to every job that comes along. Why would you say no? There are any number of reasons.

Bad Fit

I took an assignment with a company developing leveled reading material for school. The idea was that a highly skilled reader and a reader who was working from a first grade level would be able to read similar passages. I was provided with 10 different passages and had to convert them to the various reading levels.

This was an awful fit for me. Researching and writing a book in 4 weeks is a lot of work, but every day is different and I love doing research.

For me, creating the leveled passages was painfully tedious. I can level reading, I do it when I write hi lo, but I don’t have to write the book at six different levels. I completed my contract and I’ve avoided taking on similar work ever since.

The Money

Sometimes a job ad sounds enticing. “Make $75 – $100/hour creating classroom activities.” Then you get the material and discover that you aren’t paid hourly. You are paid by the piece. Don’t earn that hourly rate? Too bad. Get more efficient. And you discover that you have to wade through 5 different documents and a table to find out what they want you to do.

If it if fairly obvious that the money promised is not the money that you will receive or it is otherwise not enough for the job in question, it is okay to say no. And that’s still true if they’ve sent you the preliminary materials.

Your Calendar

You may also discover that the deadlines they want you to meet for a project don’t fit into your calendar. As I was finishing the narrative structure class that I took, I received an assignment sheet from the book packager I work with. “Do you want any of these projects?” I quickly scanned the topics and realized that some of the best, for me, overlapped with the class. I knew I needed to focus on one or the other so I chose projects that best fit my calendar. I did the same thing when the next list came along.

You may be in a situation where you feel that you need to say YES to every potential project that comes your way. Be careful. When you feel like this, it is easy for someone to take advantage of you. It could be a scammer or it could be a poorly paying job or a job that is just a really bad fit. Remember that saying NO is always an option.


Border Crossings by Emma Fick

I don’t read only the types of books that I write. I read most fiction genre, some nonfiction, and so much more. If an industry newsletter or something involved in writing, illustrating, publishing, or libraries recommends a book and it looks interesting, I head to my library’s online catalogue to see if I can request it.

That’s how I ended up with Border Crossings: A Journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I researched the railway for a project that isn’t out yet so I didn’t hesitate before requesting this book. It has been so interesting to learn more.

Maybe you read a lot of travelogues. I do not. So I’m not sure which would be more accurate. Is this a graphic travelogue or a graphic memoir? Fick has written about the journey she and her husband, then boyfriend, took on the railway from Beijing to Moscow. There are three different lines on the railway, and they chose this one because it passes through three countries – China, Mongolia, and Russia.

They got off the train in several key locations and even stayed with nomads in Mongolia. I think that was my favorite part of the whole book – reading about living in a ger on the steppe. That said, I also enjoyed getting a new perspective on both Genghis Khan and Lenin. That isn’t how Fick spells Genghis Khan, she uses the transliteration of the Mongolian, but I’m going with what you all are more likely to recognize. These men are heroes to their own people and still celebrated in their home nations.

What makes this travelogue most unique, and why I requested it, is that it is in graphic novel format. Most spreads include at least some illustration and the text is all hand lettered. I especially love her watercolors of the various buildings that captured her attention. If you’ve never seen a Russian train station, you’ll be in for a surprise. Imagine a vast building painted turquoise or yellow. If you are curious about other cultures, this is a book you are likely to enjoy.

If you are a writer, this one is also a lesson in creating something that only you can do. Fick made the journey. The observations are her own. And no one but Fick could have created these illustrations.

Think about it. What can you do to make your current project uniquely your own?


Watch for These Mistakes in Your Close 3rd Person POV

I tend to think of 3rd person point of view as the easy one to write. As much as I love reading first person, I don’t love writing it unless I’m writing memoir or autofiction. Otherwise I’m not the character which means that I sometimes forget to write in first person. If I’m going to drift into third, I may as well start there.

And I do such a good job (snort!). After all, I don’t drift into other character’s heads. That’s the big thing, isn’t it?

Maybe but there are a lot of other things that I need to remember when I’m writing 3rd person close. In no particular order, these include:

I have to remember not to name someone the character doesn’t know. Yes, she is going to meet characters who are as new to her as they are to me. But this means that I shouldn’t call them by name yet. He had to be “the teenage boy” until she knows his name is Cyrus.

Similarly, I need to refer to characters as my POV character would. Teddy isn’t “the little boy” but he can be “her little brother.” Its subtle but the details matter when you are following one character around.

When I write my characters thoughts, otherwise known as inner dialogue, I need to switch from third to first person. This means that I can either say “Ada wondered where she has left her keys” or “Where did I leave that key chain?”

My character knows how her little brother feels about all of the members of their family. After all, he’s four and not especially subtle. But I can’t write “Teddy preferred XYZ.” That would work in omniscient point of view but in third person close, I need to say “Ada knew that Teddy preferred…”

Whew. They are picky changes but they will keep my reader close which is what I want. And don’t we all like the way that sounds? My reader…


Killing Your Darlings

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Recently I had the opportunity to have the first three chapters of my middle grade novel critiqued. Yes! Madeline Dyer is a published novelist and top notch writing instructor so I quickly polished my chapters and sent them on their way.

When I got her comments back, I skimmed through them quietly doing a happy dance. It had to be quiet. My husband (we share an office) was on a conference call. She liked my characterization. I’d done a good job with setting. Happy Happy Dance!

Then I got to almost an entire page that she had highlighted. Uh oh. Somehow that felt ominous and that premonition wasn’t wrong. “The pacing feels slow and this needs to be condensed.” I’m paraphrasing because . . . ouch!

I had gone through the trouble to invent a board game for my characters to play. My point-of-view character loathes it but it is her little brother’s favorite. I knew I spent a lot of time describing it but I reasoned that that was okay. Yes, the reader might think it was all a bit s-l-o-w but so does my character.

Madeline wasn’t having it. She didn’t ask if I invented it. She didn’t note how clever it was. She simply told me to tighten things up and get the story moving. “Your character doesn’t even like the game! Don’t spend so much time on it.”

Blah. The problem is that I can see her point. And, really? I had all but walked up on it myself. It is okay for the reader to be a little bored because so is my character. Um, no. No, it isn’t.

But I invented a whole game!

Too bad, so sad. So many fewer words need to be devoted to my darling game.

When I read about people having to cut their darlings, I’m usually reading about a particular phrase or description that just has to go. But really, it can be anything that doesn’t function well in your story. It could be needlessly complex details about your setting. It could be a lengthy flash back that slows down the action. It could be a monologue delivered by your antagonist.

It doesn’t matter how long you spent on it. If it doesn’t work, it needs to go. Bye-bye my darling!