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Getting Ideas for Romances

by
Tracy Cooper-Posey

Once you've written a few romance novel, you may find your ideas for really good romances starting to dry up, or else you keep coming up with ideas that have been done to death. Or, perhaps you have a wonderful idea in your mind, but it resembles cold spaghetti on the page. You need a way to capture the guts of that wonderful idea and translate it to words in a manuscript.

Following is a sure-fire technique for drawing out a solid story idea from just about any and every source you might come across, and after that, a list of sources for you to consider. I refer to this technique as "finding the touchstone".

Finding the touchstone

Just as your list of favourite movies and books all have in common an intense emotional experience of some sort, so do ideas and inspirations for new stories to write. You just have to find out what that emotional touchstone is.

For instance, many people like the movie or the book Gone with the Wind. But they may all like it for far different reasons. Some may love Scarlettís relentless battle against the odds to save Tara. Others may simply adore her wardrobe (which was gorgeous, to say the least). Others -- me included -- are more interested in Rhett Butlerís character, and the shining moments when he was there for her, but would die rather than admit he was helping her.

This is still too general -- you need to establish exactly what it is that gives you the emotional reaction.

For me, it isnít the story itself, but Rhett, who is the most interesting. And there is one moment (from the book) that stands out in my mind: When Scarlett visits Rhett in prison, wearing the dress made from her motherís drapes and finally admits she wants only to save Tara, and he carefully hides from her his despair and his fury at his own helplessness, for at that moment he cannot help her or save her.

That moment, for me, contains a touchstone. What is yours? There could be a number of moments or elements that touch you in some way in a single book or movie or whatever it may be -- each one will be different, and touch you in a different way.

The trick, now, is to use that emotional touchstone and create another story, or another character around it: put the character into a situation that would provoke the same emotional response in you and the reader.

For instance: Rhett. The touchstone for me was this big, dashing hero who has always been there for Scarlett, and has gone out of his way to make sure he was there for her, is in a position where he cannot help her and she is at her most desperate. The keys are: Powerful hero, in a situation of complete helplessness, and a heroine in deep need.

There are a dozen ways you could cast and set a story that would work around this premise: Make it a futuristic romance, and he is not in jail, but stranded on another planet.... Make it a contemporary, and he is an undercover cop posing as a drug dealer, and cannot help the heroine escape the bad guysí clutches, or his cover and 18 months of work will be blown, not to mention they would both end up with a bullet in the back of the head.....

Or if one of your preferences for Gone with the Wind is the costumes, and the historical setting that gives such wonderful opportunities for heroes to be really heroic, then make it an historical, but set it in, say, Britain, during the War of the Roses period when civil war and unrest, suspicion and execution of the nobility was part of the fabric of every day life. Sheís a Yorkist, and heís posing as a Lancastrian earl, and cannot help her escape the Tower of London because his true loyalties will be revealed....

You see? Once you have that touchstone, and the germ of an idea, you can then start building a new, fresh story, with new, intriguing characters.

You can do this with absolutely any story, film, song, tune, TV show, or episode that moves you in any way. When you find yourself touched emotionally by something, analyse what the touchstone is. Record these seeds of ideas, along with the source that originally provoked the reaction (for easy reference later) in a central place: A file, a computer file, a journal or note book.

Then, next time you are searching for an idea for your next story, you will already have some starting points to play around with.

Too, if you have a favourite touchstone you can use it again, and again, and again, as a futuristic, a contemporary, an historical, a short category -- just recast the premise, give it fresh settings and characters, and different plot situations, and you have another story -- one that is personally relevant to you, and has an emotional core that will touch other readers.

Idea sources

Ideas are everywhere! When you next have to dream up a new story, and if you donít already have a supply of story starters and premises, then consider this list of kick-starters to get your mind ticking over.

  • List your top five favourite movies, and figure out their touchstones
  • List your top five favourite books, and figure out the touchstone in each
  • What is your favourite TV show? Jot down the best episodes, or the best moments, and why they worked so well.
  • Have you ever travelled or visited exotic or romantic settings? Or have you visited a place that had a distinct, appealing atmosphere? Can you recall what it felt like there? Why did that place, that setting, appeal to you? What sort of drama would work well there?
  • Dreams are a prime source of story seeds, for they are 100% emotional outpourings of your subconscious (which really knows how to push your buttons!). Full story ideas and characters donít come along every night, but when they do, thank the muse that guides you, and scribble down copious notes. On other nights, though, when you have intense dreams that linger after waking, write down as much of the dream as you remember, as soon as you can upon waking. What was the most intense moment in that dream? Why was it so intense? How could you recreate that tension in a fictional moment?
  • Observation from real life. The people you love, the people you hate, the people who irritate the bejezzus out of you -- they are all provoking an emotional reaction in you. Figure out why, and you have the start of a good fictional character in the making. However, a word of caution: Real people are so complex and contradictory that picking up a real person without first extracting a touchstone will ruin your fiction. We will be looking at fictional characters in the weeks ahead, when you will see that compared to real people, fictional people are simplified and focused, and never contradict themselves. For now, restrict yourself to picking up one single trait or behaviour from real people and using that as your seed to build a new character around.
  • Pictures, paintings, photos. Sometimes you will see a picture that just grabs you, and holds you still for a while. For me, often, it is pictures of places, scenes, landscapes, buildings, interiors. For other writers itís faces, profiles. For some it is abstract lines, curves. If you can get a copy of the picture somehow, do it. It will be good to refer back to it when youíre building a story around the feelings it provokes.
  • Conflict taken from life/movies. I just gave you an example of this process with my favourite scene from the book of Gone with the Wind. Movies are treated just the same way, as are situations and conflicts you run across in real life.
  • Free Association: Jumble together famous characters, and see what you come up with. Imagine Scarlett OíHara meeting Sherlock Holmes. When you find an intriguing match, boil the characters down to their key traits, and build up a new story. You can do the same thing with well known characters, matching them with unexpected settings (Scarlett on the USS Enterprise, facing down Kirk.....)
  • Actors. Always a rich source of inspiration -- especially, for me, the male actors. <sigh> It could be faces, voices, or the character they play. Find the key touchstone, and away you go.

(c) Tracy Cooper-Posey, 2000
First published in The Painted Rock magazine

 

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