I watch a lot of TV. In fact, as I’m typing this, I’m watching the CW’s Beauty and the Beast remake and thinking about tomorrow’s episode of Nikita. I’d like to think that I’ve kept my obsession under control, but at a recent Lady Jane’s Salon event, fellow HCRW member Jennifer Delamere asked me how my WIP was going and followed that up with “Watched any good TV lately?” Ooh, busted.
But here’s the thing–my procrastination method is also one of the way I field ideas. Awhile ago, I read a writing book which referred to this as “casting an idea net,” meaning that everything you do in your daily life as a writer should be fielding new ideas for your stories. The mind is a tricky thing, and ideas can strike at any time. You’ll see something that resonates deeply with you and it’ll stick in your head. Pretty soon, you take elements from that and you start to play the “what if?” game. While watching Elementary, I’m drawn to the opposites attract dynamic. Sherlock and Watson are very different people, both with their own mental crutches and battered pasts. From what I see on screen, I’d create a heroine that can’t get past one failure in her life, and a hero that is above average in intelligence but has problems comprehending basic social interactions and getting close to people. Because I write regency romances, I’d start to figure out how I could make this work in the proper time frame and in a setting that would stick with my current focus of the London rookeries.
I can’t take credit for the “What if?” game though. That belongs to one of the best writing manuals I’ve ever read, James Scott Bell’s Conflict and Suspense of the Elements in Fiction Writing series. Chapter 2 focuses on brainstorming for plots rife with conflict. Bell details many different ways to foster plot ideas, from the Dictionary Game, the Passion Center, Social Demography, Setting Examination, and Movie Mind. I won’t go into every exercise he suggests, but know that each has an element of merit in it.
In my case, I was most intrigued by the section entitled “Steal old plots.” Bell references the Body Snatchers movies and Dean Koontz’s, and how he ended up giving a silent nod to both in one of his published works. I want to clarify immediately with saying that in no way is Bell stating we should plagiarize. Bell’s theory goes back to the same statement about inspiration–you take bits and pieces from everything that see around you, and somehow you throw them together in a way that works. “Don’t be afraid to borrow, steal, update, or combine old plots and chock them with conflict,” Bell writes. This goes back to the idea that there are no original ideas in fiction, just retellings and variants. I remember hearing that every witness to a crime will remember the scene a little differently. They will notice certain details–in the sun the shooter’s hair glinted gold, the gun was an assault rifle, the shooter had a Ukranian accent–but not others. Theory states this is because no two people see things the same way. Their experiences, their moods, their perceptions color things. Thus, no matter how many times you write a marriage of convenience plot, it’s going to be different from what’s published because you are writing it.
When building conflict in your novel, Bell states you should begin by thinking of what feeling you want your character to enlist in the reader. He talks about a “give a hoot factor,” ie. creating a rooting value in your hero and heroine. If you want people to cheer on and support your character, then you have to build certain things into their past and their personality. To do this, Bell suggests making a list of your favorite Lead characters from film/television/books/media. From that list, you can find a character that channels the emotion you’re trying to create, and that gives you something to pick apart when crafting your hero/heroine.
I have a lot of favorite characters, so I narrowed my list down to heroines. Here’s what I’d pick:
Kate Beckett (Castle, TV), Nikita (Nikita, TV), Sarah Walker (Chuck, TV), Irene Adler (Sherlock Holmes, book), Mary Chartley (What Happens at Midnight, book), Juliana Fiore (Eleven Scandals to Win a Duke’s Heart, book), Fiona Glenanne (Burn Notice, TV), Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice, book), June Havens (Knight and Day, movie)
Looking at this list, I find that the majority of my favorite characters have one thing in common: they’re spunky, fierce women who can take care of themselves. Even in the case where power has been taken away from them, like with Irene and Mary, they find a way to rise above the obstacles and stay true to themselves. When I started to plot my current novel in progress, I was drawn to an image of a woman being followed home, a pistol in her hand to defend herself. I pictured a woman like Kate Beckett on Castle, and indeed I used pictures of Stana Katic (who plays Kate) for reference. I wanted a heroine with a jaded past, who has put up walls to keep people out so that she can remain safe. Beckett’s greatest strength is her ability to care for others, fighting for those who don’t have a way of defending themselves. While Castle’s Kate is a cop, I just wanted my Kate to be able to see the London rookeries differently than most of the noblemen around her. I wanted her to look at the prostitutes and thieves she met, to recognize the danger, but also to know that they were people too.
From there, I started to layer in elements of plot. I created a hero who would bring out her best, but hit on those most sensitive areas to bolster conflict. While Beckett’s love interest Richard Castle is a definite beta, I didn’t want that type of hero. I needed someone who could fight for my Kate’s heart and never back down. And so you see–you start with a simple archetype and you move on. The more things I found out about my heroine, the more different she became from the television version. Now, if I hadn’t told you what was my baseline, you’d never know it.
I’m interested in knowing how you find inspiration. Are you like me, a devout television addict, or do you read to refill your creative juices? Do you go for a walk? Keep compulsive lists? Whatever it is, I’d like to hear it.