Where In The World Do You Get Your Ideas?

Donna Andrews was born in Yorktown, Virginia and now lives in Reston, Virginia. The Real Macaw (July 2011, Minotaur) is the thirteenth book in her Agatha and Anthony winning Meg Langslow series. She has also written four books in the Turing Hopper series from Berkley Prime Crime. For more information: http://donnaandrews.com

Readers often ask writers “Where do you get your ideas?” A lot of writers find this question annoying–perhaps because we know how easy it is to come up with ideas, and how hard to summon the skill, creativity, and just plain stubborn determination to turn an idea into a book. It’s rather like looking at a lush, verdant garden and saying to the proud gardener, “This is great!  Where do you get your seeds?”

But since I’ve figured out that readers like knowing where the ideas come from, these days I try to notice when I’m having a book-worthy idea.  It doesn’t happen that often–in fact, it only needs to happen a couple of times a year, or I won’t have time to write them all.  So keeping track of when I have an idea isn’t that hard.

Except that sometimes an idea sneaks in and you have no idea where it came from.  When I started to think about my next book after Stork Raving Mad, an image popped into my mind of Meg doing a midnight feeding of one of her twins and hearing a noise.  She goes downstairs, turns on the light in her living room, and finds that it’s filled with animals. Cats, dogs, puppies, kittens, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, and one very foul-mouthed macaw.

I liked the image.  It had the right feel for the opening of a Meg book.  But I had no idea why those animals were in her living room.  (And for the reader who asks where that image came from, I protest that it would take years of psychoanalysis to find out.)

So I started doing the less dramatic but equally important work of turning an idea into a plot.  Why WOULD there be animals in her living room?

Because Caerphilly, the county where she lives, is going through financial hard times.  (I don’t need to tell anyone where that idea came from.)  And to help balance the budget, the county manager has changed the shelter from a no-kill to a kill shelter.  And Meg’s father and grandfather and some of their friends, devout animal lovers all, object to this.  So as a gesture of protest–and to ensure that no animals are harmed before they get the policy changed–they burgle the shelter and steal all the animals.  And there’s this guy who has a big truck and has volunteered to drive the animals to their new foster homes or forever homes, and he’s supposed to meet them–at midnight, in a deserted graveyard, because Meg’s dad likes drama.  But he doesn’t show up–mystery readers can probably guess why–and after several tense hours of waiting, Meg’s father and grandfather decide to stow the animals at Meg’s house until they can figure out what else to do with them.

Voila!  I had my book idea.

But as I began working with it, I realized that the puzzle was missing a piece.  My victim, this animal lover with a truck–why was he killed? I postulated that he was something of a playboy.  And that provided some possible motivations.  But the idea of Meg spending the whole book delving into his tangled love life . . . hmmm.

I owe the final piece of the puzzle to my iPhone and the town of Buena Vista, Virginia.  I was at Mayhem in the Midlands, and during a conversation with some friends, pulled out my iPhone to settle a debate by looking up some information online.  But as so often happens with those tiny little links on iPhone, I fumblefingered–and found myself reading an article about the town of Buena Vista, Virginia, which mortgaged its city hall and its jail to build a civic golf course, and was having trouble making the loan payments. http://tinyurl.com/3pu5f5u

Apologies to the town of Buena Vista, which probably made its decision after a careful financial analysis, and would arguably be in fine shape if not for the recession–but the whole idea of mortgaging the courthouse and the jail sounded . . . well, like something that would happen in the rather eccentric world of my books.

So I ran with it.  Of course, Caerphilly’s situation isn’t precisely like Buena Vista’s.  What Caerphilly did–

But wait.  That’s my plot.  You have to read the book to find out more.  It comes out July 19, and will be available at fine bookstores everywhere.