Thursday, June 9, 2011

From Idea to Story

From Idea to Story
Guest Post by Lynda Simmons
Author of Island Girl

Island Girl

Where do you get your ideas?

It’s the question writer’s love to hate, but I believe the people asking are wondering about more than mere inspiration. They know that ideas are everywhere and they also know that an idea does not a story make. The article you read in the newspaper about a box of ashes being stolen from the back of a motorcycle might spark a “there’s a story in there somewhere” feeling. But the ashes and the motorcycle by themselves are simply an anecdote, something to relate at a cocktail party or over dinner. Which is why I think the real question is not Where do you get your ideas? but rather How do you come up with a novel? I think that is what intrigues people, especially if they have truly enjoyed a book.

Let’s suppose then that someone has read Island Girl and posed the question: where did you get the idea? but is really asking how did you come up with the novel? There isn’t room in a single blog to talk about the process from start to finish and frankly much of the process is boring – sit in chair, put fingers on keyboard, type. Not great optics. But if we look at what got the writer into the chair in the first place, and what keeps those fingers moving, then we have something to talk about – which brings us to the first hurdle;

What Comes First? The characters or the situation?

The answer varies from one book to the next, but if I’m talking about Island Girl, then the situation came first. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s fifteen years ago, and in that time we have watched this illness steal her memories, her personality and eventually her ability to communicate. Along the way, we have met a number of families and caregivers going through the same thing, and I began to see a clear difference in the way the generations approach this illness.

My mother-in-law’s generation largely views Alzheimer’s as one more cross to bear. They easily hand over control of their futures to doctors, government and family, trusting them to do what’s best. The caregivers, on the other hand, the people of my generation, trust no one, and we are not about to hand over control of our futures to anyone without a fight – especially if that future involves Alzheimer’s. And therein lay the idea, the spark for the story that became Island Girl – the conflict between what a person wants, and what she can realistically expect.

I knew I’d need a strong central character in order to make this story work. Someone who prides herself on her independence and demands control of every aspect of her life. Then I had to take that control away. In other words, I had to figure out what scared the crap out of my character and then do it to her, which brings us to the next hurdle:

How do you create believeable characters?

It’s an old adage, but you really do have to know your characters better than you know yourself. You might not admit your own shortcomings, but you have to be acutely aware of every one of your character’s. Which is why I always start with an exercise I call From Where I Sit. I put my fingers on the keyboard, imagine I’m the protagonist and start to write about everything I can see, hear, smell and feel from where I sit – or rather from where my character sits. She’s certainly not at my desk which means I have to figure out where her favourite spot might be. Perhaps it’s her kitchen, or her garden, even a local Starbucks – the location doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s her favourite spot, not mine. This is when she begins to come to life for me. This is when I start to experience the world through her eyes, and judge what I see based on her core values and her memories. It’s a little like method acting and it’s not always easy, especially if your character is not particularly likeable on first meeting – like Ruby Donaldson, who at 55, has recently been diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s.

Turns out that Ruby’s favourite place is the living room of her house on Ward’s Island. Did I know that when I first put fingers to keyboard? Not a chance. I assumed the setting would be downtown Toronto. Maybe Queen Street West. It wasn’t until I started writing From Where I Sit for Ruby’s youngest daughter Grace, that I realized Queen Street wasn’t going to work.

Grace is an adult with the mind of a ten year-old. I knew that for some reason she only felt safe within a certain area. I didn’t know the reason yet, but I was sure of one thing: I did not want her to be agoraphobic. So when I started to think about where Grace was sitting, it came to me that an island would be perfect. But what island? I had no clue, so I had to abandon the keyboard and do some research.

At first, I thought about one of the Gulf Islands off British Columbia, but one morning when I was on my way to the library in Toronto, I happened to look out the window of the train and realized the perfect Island was right there in front of me. I hopped on a ferry instead of a subway, and spent the day wandering the narrow streets of Ward’s Island, confident I’d found the setting for the story.

So now I had Ruby and Grace living on the Island, and a diagnosis of early on-set Alzheimer’s but that wasn’t enough. Still just anecdotes. There needed to be someone between them and there needed to be conflict. That someone turned out to be Ruby’s older daughter, Liz, an aspiring alcoholic who told me to screw off and leave her alone when I started to write From Where I Sit for her. I liked her instantly!

You can tell by now that nothing in writing is straight forward. Everything is tied to everything else and you can’t possibly know all the details of the final story when you first encounter the idea, the spark that sets everything in motion.

All you can do is stay open to possibilities, explore every tangent and trust that nothing is ever wasted – not even the hours of research you did for the Gulf Islands because you’ll use the information some other time. Or maybe not. The only thing you know for sure is that writing is a messy process. Messy and frustrating and completely overwheming at times. But for me, it’s also a necessary process because once that spark is lit, it’s impossible to put out. And that’s when where did the idea come from quickly becomes where is the idea going, and that is what we all want to know!

Thank you Lynda!!  I LOVE this post!  It really gave me a look at your writing process and made that famous, age old question come to life with an interesting and realistic answer!  Thanks for writing this post!!

Readers - Have you read Island Girl yet??  I loved it!  I really suggest reading it.  I reviewed this title on Monday so feel free to check June 6th's post for my review!  Lynda also offered 2 copies of her book for giveaway with my review!  Make sure to enter.  The quick link is on the top right hand column of my blog.  As always, I'd love to hear what you think!  Leave a comment or note for Lynda!  Happy Reading!

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