There is no Tree of Inspiration. Let’s get that out of the way right at the top. But everything in the world can be turned into a story. When I was driving home (coincidentally!) from my local chapter meeting a few years ago, I heard a story on NPR about a real town in North Carolina that keeps a journal in a mailbox on the edge of a lake. Town residents pour their hearts and their secrets into that journal, anonymously, and people respond with advice? Sounds crazy, right? Well, it apparently works for them. I scribbled it down and filed it under story ideas, even though it seemed impossible to make believable.
Two years went by. I decided to set a trilogy in the Finger Lakes, jumped in the car and went on a research road trip . I tend to get lots of story ideas when I travel. But then I’m in the middle of enjoying my vacation, so I just scribble them down and go back to lazing about. Once I decide to hunker down and craft the story, I need more. And if it is at all possible, I urge you to take a research road trip…BECAUSE THAT IS WHERE IDEAS COME FROM.
With the plethora of information available on the Internet these days, a writer doesn’t have to leave the couch to glean plenty of information about a setting. The idea for my first book, Carolina Heat, sprang from a two day trip to Charleston. Did I go back there once I started writing? Heck, no. I used travel guides and maps and brochures. And almost every review I received mentioned how well I portrayed the setting. So I’m wholly aware that I don’t have to go anywhere to write a good book. My very good friend who writes books about Cleopatra’s daughter doesn’t have the luxury of traveling to Mauretania. And yet, her Song of the Nile absolutely transports you to that ancient court.
You’re probably wondering – was it worth it? Or was it merely an indulgent, wine-tasting long weekend with my hubby? I’ll admit to a couple of stops at wineries. Of course, one of my heroines owns a winery. I can finish up that research at a local winery here in Maryland once I get to her book. Her hero, however, singlehandedly runs a distillery. Which, I found out, is exactly how Finger Lakes Distilling got its start. Did I sample delicious rum and cassis liquer? Yup. But did I also spend a solid half hour peppering the poor server with questions about the business. Oh, yeah. She gave me soooo much great background material.
My hubby spent the day golfing, so he was happy. I spent it touring Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Traipsed through a cemetary where the heroine’s parents in Up To Me are buried. Decided that she’ll walk there for a visit every week, and take the hero there for a kleenex-worthy moment of sharing. I never would’ve come up with that twist if I hadn’t driven by the cemetary. Had an in-depth talk at the State Park that completely changed a character in book 2. The character who I, completely incorrectly, had decided would be a forest ranger. Except….Watkins Glen State Park doesn’t have forest rangers. They have patrollers. Little details like that make a book glisten and pop with accuracy.
Then I finished the day with one of the best massages EVER. The talented Mollie VanBuskirk patiently answered every question I threw at her, no matter how weird or personal. She’s a wonderful masseuse and a very sweet person. Thanks to her, the heroine of Up To Me was so much more well rounded and, well, authentic!
I wrote on the front porch of my inn, staring out over Seneca Lake and the beautiful fall colors. I listened to the innkeeper tell me the story of how she and her husband started it on a whim. We ate at two restaurants that were so fantastic they are absolutely featured in the books. I breathed in the essence of the community, and hopefully that will be reflected in my series. So yes, if you are able to visit your setting, I encourage it. It will definitely fall more on the side of work than fun. My brain ran in overdrive for three days straight, capturing images and people and flitting through a million ideas. And my books will be all the richer for it.
But it wasn’t enough. I had no common thread to tie these books together. Until I remembered that NPR story about a mailbox on a lake. The 36 mile long Seneca lake was already going to feature heavily in this trilogy, so why not make it even more of a focal point? Which is exactly what I did. Technically, to recap, I was inspired because I drove home on a freeway listening to the radio. Because I sat at a stoplight opposite a cemetery. Because I fell in love with the local vodka made from grapes. In other words – INSPIRATION IS EVERYWHERE!!!!!!