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Anne McAllister | Where do you get your ideas?

December 15, 2008

The most common question writers are asked is: Where do you get your ideas?

Generally the people asking it are perplexed because they can’t quite fathom how such ideas come or how they are different from other ideas or what writers can possibly do with them when they do turn up.

Usually I say, “Ideas are everywhere.”

But that doesn’t really help. So in case you’re wondering how things come together, let me just illustrate with my January Harlequin Presents, Antonides’ Forbidden Wife.

It certainly didn’t come as a full-blown story. No IDEA (in capital letters) popped up in my head. In fact, it wasn’t supposed to be a story at all — because PJ Antonides is not what is commonly considered “a Presents hero.” He was a surfer, for heaven’s sake!

He made an appearance in an earlier book. As the younger brother of the uptight, determined, severely responsible hero, PJ was by turns annoying, misunderstood, breezy and charming. Pretty much everything his brother was not. He also didn’t own any multi-national corporations on the side.

He was also, in that book, called Peter because that’s my husband’s name and I called him that because I wanted a name I liked but one that I wouldn’t be using for a hero (one hero named Peter is all anyone is allowed, I figure).

But I needed a book (I’d just stopped writing the one I had been working on, due to circumstances beyond my control), and one of the higher beings in the Harlequin pantheon of editors suggested Peter’s story.

I said, “What story?”

Long pause on the trans-atlantic telephone line.

“He’s a surfer!” I said.

“I thought you left him running the company,” she replied, “when Elias went off to build boats.” There was a sniff of disapproval about Elias’s behavior.

“Well, yes,” I said. And already the wheels were turning. I had left Peter running the company. But he was pretty much an unknown quantity as far as the family went. They’d barely seen him in ten years. He’d gone off to Hawaii and rarely came back. He’d even left his old identity behind. He’d become PJ out there. (Tricky guy. He obviously had designs on becoming a hero).

I wondered what other secrets he might have.

No secrets, he told me. Just a wife.

A wife? Where did that come from?

I have no idea. I guess it was mulling over what shocking revelation might create an interesting set-up and provide a stepping stone for some conflict. Yeah, a wife would definitely do that!

But where did he get her? Hawaii, apparently, because that’s where he’d gone. Who was PJ likely to meet in Hawaii?

And just when I needed her, Ally Maruyama waltzed into the book.

Ally was a combination of several girls I’d known growing up in California — daughters of mixed cultural backgrounds who had to try to deal with “old world” expectations within the world they wanted to live.

But why did PJ marry her? And where was she now? And what had brought her back?

All these questions demanded ideas to answer them. They were questions that took a lot of thought — a lot of playing around with who these people were, what mattered to them, what drove them.

And then, of course, I had to ask who was Ally now, so many years later?

There were, as I said, lots of ideas involved in discovering the answers to that.

And that’s where another bit of my own background came in. One of my best friends, growing up, has become a talent fiber artist. Melody Crust has won awards, written books, taught scads of workshops. Her career informed Ally’s. I read Melody’s book, A Fine Line, trying to see it through Ally’s eyes.

I didn’t know a lot about fiber art. I’m not an intensely visual person. But one of the joys of writing, as Silhouette author Karen Sandler said the other day at the Harlequin Open House, is learning about so many different things in the course of research.

Melody’s vocation was my starting point. Ally’s career and Ally’s personality grew from there.

That’s what most ideas are — they are beginnings. They are catalysts. But alone they are no more than sparks. They need to ignite interest, research, discussion, and ultimately they need to create more questions and more answers until the story begins to develop and, eventually, takes on a life of its own.

And when it does, the characters come up with their own ideas — and it’s all I can do to keep up with them!

Anne McAllister

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