Friday, February 17, 2012

How to Originate Ideas for Writing

How to Originate Ideas for Writing
By Jacqueline Seewald

I am often asked this question by readers: where do you get the ideas for your novels? I answer this question by saying I don’t just sit at my computer all day and pull ideas out of thin air. The ideas originate from living life as fully as possible. I am interested in the people and places around me. I pay attention. I observe with all of my senses. Reality gets mixed with imagination in my writing.
Writers are people, many of whom live interesting and unusual lives. Some of us tend to find the unusual in the ordinary. It all plays a part in what writers ultimately designate as “fiction.”
I am also a voracious reader as are many other authors. I read a great variety of books, magazines and newspapers. I read both fiction and nonfiction. Reading stirs imagination.
So what typically inspires a novel? What sparks a book series? With the Kim Reynolds librarian sleuth series (THE INFERNO COLLECTION, THE DROWNING POOL, THE TRUTH SLEUTH) the idea started with a lecture given at a symposium for grad students in the library science program at Rutgers University. A Princeton professor/librarian was lecturing on the subject of inferno collections. I was totally fascinated and decided to do some research on the subject on my own. I thought this would be an interesting frame for a mystery novel. THE INFERNO COLLECTION, initially published in hardcover and then large print, was the result. The novel is available in libraries all over the world, also available in all e-book formats: Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Overdrive, etc.

When a reader/reviewer of my novel asked if inferno collections actually exist, I responded that not only did they exist in the past but still exist in more sophisticated and subtle forms today.
I am not saying that we should anticipate a burning of the vanities as with Savonarola's followers in the past, nor do I believe as in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, that the firemen of the future will feel compelled to burn and destroy books.
It is a fact, however, that librarians have viewed themselves as gatekeepers. For example, libraries such as Boston Public at one time found it necessary to maintain separate inferno collections of banned books considered inappropriate for general public display and reading. Often these were books deemed salacious such as James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Did narrow attitudes end with the Victorian era’s sensibilities and prejudices? Apparently not. In the 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy instigated one of the most notorious waves of censorship the nation has ever experienced. Because of McCarthy’s ‘Red Scare’, classics like Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which encouraged men to peacefully protest unjust laws, was pulled from the shelves of the State Department’s overseas libraries. It was one of more than 300 titles McCarthy had banned or burned.
J.D. Salinger's 1951 classic coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye, has been the object of challenges nationwide for decades because of its language, references to violence and sexual content. According to the American Library Association, the book was the 13th most frequently challenged book in the country's school systems from 1990 to 2000.
In 2005, the Metropolitan Library Commission of Oklahoma City overruled recommendations made by library staff and established a special collection of children’s books with gay themes. The collection would be accessible only to adults. The Oklahoma debate began when a state representative worried that children would have access to books about gay marriage and sponsored a resolution to segregate all library books with gay and/or adult themes.
The list of “condemned” banned or censored books boggles the mind. It is not only governments and libraries that have chosen to ban books found objectionable for various reasons. Materials are often deemed unacceptable for political or religious reasons or are considered profane, pornographic or sexually too explicit for youth. Publishers and booksellers make these decisions and determinations as well. The advent of e-book self-publishing has tipped the balance in that regard.
It is well to keep in mind that good books often stir controversy. They are designed to question and make people think. That is not something to fear or repress but rather to admire and respect. As Voltaire, author of the banned satire Candide, once stated: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Today the internet is a largely unrestricted location to find information, including the subject of banned book collections. As to inferno collections, are they a thing of the past? Knowing human nature, it’s doubtful.
As a reader and/or writer, what trends do you find interesting in publishing? Do you see banned books as a thing of the past? What ideas or information inspire you to write?
What inspires you to write or want to write? What do you enjoy reading? Your thoughts and opinions valued here in this forum for open discussion!

Note: To celebrate the February 2012 large print edition of THE TRUTH SLEUTH from Kennebec, division of Thorndike Press, as well as the February 2012 paperback edition of THE DROWNING POOL from Harlequin Worldwide Mystery, I am offering a paperback copy of The Drowning Pool to a commenter. Leave an e-mail or web address if interested. Winner will be drawn at random and announced next week in Author Expressions.


Patti Brooks said...

Eavesdropping is an author's biggest source of new material. Add a "what if" to what you overheard and run with it!

How about this for a starter: My husband and I dropped in at a restaurant for a drink and a snack because we had time to kill before going to a matinee movie. A few tables away were the only other people. Man and woman. Altho we didn't start wanting to listen, the woman's voice was clear and very audible. She was on the verge of an argument with the man.

It esculated over a half hour, giving us so many tidbit we just had to listen in. In the end the woman said, "No, FATHER, I will not move to Bermuda with you. My husband wouldn't tolerate it and I know I'm not the only one you have an interest in in the rectory.

At that point they got up and left.

We were so enthralled, we paid our bill and ran after them before we realized we'd never learn any more.

I had to put a "What If" on the restaurant conversation and carry it off.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Patti,

That's really interesting! Did you use it for a story?

The most interesting incident for me was when I was in the fast line at a supermarket. The lady ahead of me held one item, a package of ice cream. She told me that it was her daughter's favorite. Her daughter had died tragically young and she went to the cemetery regularly and brought the ice cream with her. The story stayed with me. The incident ended up as a prize winning horror story.

Radine Trees Nehring said...

WOW, Patti, that's a zinger. As a writer, I routinely listen to conversations in restaurants and elsewhere, but I've never heard anything as interesting as this.

Just living is good research, of course. I think the longer we've lived, the more we understand about human nature and all the quirks of humanity. Many ideas there.

As to banned books. No, we aren't through with that scourge, at least not in print books. In fact, in my area, (Bible Belt South) it seems to be increasing. More discussion than actual banning, however.

Anita Page said...

Jacqueline, an interesting post on a very important subject. I don't think banned books are a thing of the past, but it's heartening to read about groups like the Oklahoma Library Commission.

Betty Gordon said...

Jacqueline, a good blog - as always. I'm sorry to say I have to agree with the other comments that banned books are not a thing of the past.
Ideas some is many, many ways but mine have come primarily from my own imaginings or dreams.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I agree, as writers studying the quirks of human nature tends to be fascinating and makes for great lit.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Anita,

I think censureship in the form of banned books remains a serious concern for writers who need to feel they have freedom of expression.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Betty,

Writers of fantasy tend to use their imagination in a highly creative manner. I greatly admire that ability.

Pauline said...

Well, at least digital books can't be burned. (grin) One thing that has changed very much from when I was young, more people own their own books, rather than rely solely on libraries for their books. The internet has changed the way information and books flow so much so that I think it lessens the power of anyone who tries to suppress information. While I don't discount the power of govt to shut off that flow, we see what an imperfect process it is in countries like China, etc.

Banning books these days seems like someone trying to swat flies in the forest. I think talking about it is important, because look what happened in Germany. Hitler convinced people to burn their books themselves. Now that's truly scary to me!

Did anyone see the episode of Sliders where they went into an alternate reality US where people couldn't read or see the Constitution? We should always "what if," play the possibilities out so that we don't lose our right to access information.

LOL over the conversation with the father, Father? I think we all wish we knew the whole story there. LOL!

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

It never ceases to amaze me where ideas come from. Tuesday morning about 4 am I awoke - of course it's usually God who wakes me for some reason - as I lay there in prayer, an idea came and I wrote the entire introduction to a new novel. Now, carving out time to actually WRITE it is another story altogether LOL!

Good luck & God's blessings

LJ Garland said...

Great blog. I was in a restaurant once and heard a young military guy telling his wife that he'd been transfered overseas and that he wanted her to go with him. She kept hemming and hawing, she didn't want to leave. He asked her if she wanted to see the world, that Europe offered so many opportunities, lots to see, etc. He said, "The is my first marriage, babe. I want you to explore the world with me." I thought, wow, how cool is that? but by the end of the dinner, it had basically come down to the point where he would have to go alone. She wasn't going to budge. He didn't want to leave her and all she could say was, I'm sorry. I don't want to leave.
Then they got up to leave the restaurant... A young, clean-cup military guy walked by and just behind him....a woman who looked to be over twice his age.
I know he went...not like he had a choice. I think he said he was stationed in Germany. So Did she end up going with him? Did they get divorced? No clue...but it was a tense, intersting conversation...
No, I haven't worked it into a story yet...but it's tucked away, waiting. :)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Pauline,

Your observations are similar to mine. The ebook revolution although not providing big bucks for writers, at least provides a venue for publication. Writers can get their work out there.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Pam,

I often get my best ideas early in the morning as well. It's also one reason I like to write early. My mind is sharpest then.

Pauline said...

I should not think on Friday! LOL! Okay, a friend was ALA a few years back and overheard some librarians saying that a book would never be on "her" library shelves. Is that "banning?"

Growing up, I thought libraries had all books that ever were and new books, too. Naive, I know. BUT--when a librarian selects one book over another, is that "banning" the book that doesn't make it? Cause some of my books are "banned." LOL!

Why is is considered banning if a patron (who helps pay for the library) doesn't like what a librarian has selected or not?

Not trying to be argumentative, just wondering, how does it become banning? I mean, its not like a book isn't available elsewhere.

I "ban" books from my shelves all the time. I pick and choose what to buy, what to keep, what to read....

Like I said, maybe I think too much. LOL!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I read everything, which makes me want to write in multiple genres. I'm hoping changes in publishing make it easier for writers to write what they want instead of being "typecast."

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, L J,

That's a great story about the soldier and his wife. It really could be developed into a meaningful short story or even a novel.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


You bring up an important point. Librarians do consider themselves gatekeepers. They don't have to order books they don't approve of. That's done all the time. Publishers pick and choose what they will publish as well. As for ordinary folks like us, we also decide by what we choose to read or not read what books are significant. Banned books are more in the nature of collections that have been removed from shelves. Inferno collections are books that are put into special banned book collections are being removed from shelves.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I'm with you there. I like to read and write in a variety of genres and styles. I don't like being typecast either.

Nancy Means Wright said...

Excellent blog, Jacqueline. My YA Down the Strings was banned in Salisbury, Vt. I was asked to speak to the sixth grade about it, but just as I entered the classroom, the principal called me back and said a member of the school board was upset that my protagonist had a lesbian teacher --and that I used the word damn in dialogue. Shame on me! Therefore I was to talk with the class that day about writing in general but not to mention the book! Of course it became a best seller in local Salisbury.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Nancy,

Books for children and teens are always problematic. I've also written for both age groups. Having taught at every level at one time or another, I know the way they talk and act. It's not always what adults would approve of in books. Judy Blume showed real courage and honesty in many of her books for children. I wonder if Blubber was censored in some communities?

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

"Finding the unusual in the ordinary" is a good tip for story starters imho. I also do not believe in condemmed, banning or censoring books. Let us each be our own censor. Thanks for a provacative post, Jacqueline. It was terrific.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Thanks for dropping by and for your comments!

Ellis Vidler said...

Fascinating post, Jacqueline. I'm amazed at some of the books that have been banned, such as To Kill a Mockingbird. The Internet has opened so many doors for us.

Your books sound so interesting. Please put my name in the hat for The Drowning Pool. ellis at ellisvidler dot com.

Warren Bull said...

Great blog! The Tucson, Az school board boxed up book by Hispanic authors and removed them from the schools apparently because they reflected experiences and views of history the board did not think was "relevant." Some authors have a plan to sneak "wet books" back into the schools. There's a story in there somewhere.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Excellent article, Jacqueline. I agree that free copies place judiciously can make a difference in sales.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Ellis,

As a high school English teacher, one of the novels I taught was To Kill a Mockingbird. It remains a favorite of mine to this days, and it amazes me that it could have been placed on a banned book list.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Warren,

That's very interesting information. School boards can be very narrow-minded.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jean,

I do believe that giving away a certain number of free copies of our books gets the word out. Hopefully, more people will read and review our writing.

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