Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?



For the Budweiser commercial made to commemorate 9/11, please click here.
Even after eighteen years, it brought tears to my eyes.

Perth, Scotland - photo by author, Regan Walker


I've touched on this briefly in the past, but this week when I was asked that question for thousandth time, it occurred to me that, instead of groaning, perhaps a longer look might be a worthwhile blog topic.

My stock, public answer to that question is a vague wave of my hand, a shrug, and the response:  "Everywhere." But really, speaking to other authors, where do we get our ideas?

So I thought back to The Sometime Bride, Tarleton's Wife, Shadowed Paradise, and was scribbling notes when I recalled those really weren't my first books, just the first books that were published. I wrote two previous novels, both with strong Russian elements. One actually landed an agent and made the rounds in New York. I still have the manuscripts of both books in a box in the garage. There are no computer copies—they were hacked out on an IBM Selectric! The very first book?* Well, that's the one read by my mother, the highly successful author of close to fifty children's books, who gently suggested that perhaps writing wasn't for me. (Happily, she changed her mind some years later.)

*Perhaps not at total loss. I sent it to an agency in New York for a "paid" critique. It was returned with very little said. But two or three years later a movie came out, with very nearly the same plot. Hmmm?

So why on earth, Russia?
But, wait, how did it come about that those first two books had Russian themes? The very solid answer: they were the direct result of an interest in Russia and Russian history that began for no known reason while I was in college. I suppose there was a dichotomy in my mind. I'd grown up during World War II when the Russians were allies, when our merchant seamen were risking their all to deliver supplies to Russia via the Siberian port of Murmansk. Years later, I was fascinated by Russia's colorful history, its monarchy ending with a hemophiliac heir, the empress's bizarre fascination with Rasputin, and a firing squad in an obscure shed. And finally, after WWII, the rise of Communism and the spectre of the Cold War. 

I had to see this place, so much greater in size than even US & Canada together. This place we feared, as they feared us, each possessed of enough nukes to wipe us all off the face of the earth. So my husband asked around at Yale and found me a tutor, the female of a couple who had somehow managed to leave Russia at a time when travel was forbidden. (One did not ask how anyone got out.) I studied hard, learning to read and write Cyrillic, as well as speak the language enough to get by. And in August 1972, smack in the middle of the Cold War, I was one of the first group of tourists (along with 9 other adults & 2 children) to tour the Soviet Union. We traveled 10,000 miles—from Moscow to Novosibirsk andTashken;, Samarkand to Irkutsk, Siberia, Lake Baikal, and north to the Bratsk Dam before returning to St. Petersburg.

So how could I write about anything else? It was one of the great experiences of my life. To this day, I think my second book was worthy of publication, but I suspect the Cold War atmosphere simply wasn't right for a book with sympathetic Russian characters. Which is truly sad, as we were treated so well over there. (One of our twelve travelers had been a sailor on the Murmansk run. All he had to do was say, "Murmansk," and he was a hero. The Russians loved him. And this a quarter century after the war.) I came away with the conviction that it was a shame our governments were so at odds, because I really liked the people.

So there you have the first place an author garners ideas:  personal experience.

But what about my first three published books? Where did those ideas come from?
Looking back on The Sometime Bride, I have to say:  "I have no idea." It came out of nowhere, the original beginning, a fourteen-year-old English girl looking out a second-story window in Lisbon, Portugal, and watching a carter go by, singing a bawdy son. The saga moves from Portugal to Spain to England to France, spans eight years, and takes a 140,000+ words to tell. And I simply do not know where it all came from. Though I later visited all the sites, including La Coruña by special plea to our tour director, I wrote the whole thing sight unseen (except London) in a time before Google Earth. And yet it works. And will always be my special favorite. 

But how could I write about war? Yes, I was brought up in the solemn atmosphere of WWII, but I have never actually known war, never lost a close member of the family. I do not consider myself intrepid or adventurous. But I was most certainly a scholar, a determined research buff (though not an "academic"). I had read about war and romance and all the nuances in between—which most certainly helped. Seen all those WWII movies on Saturday afternoons. And I was married, with children of my own—a state that almost guarantees a wide knowledge of just about every emotion there is. The rest came straight out of my imagination, and I never expect to achieve that height again. Books like The Sometime Bride are a one-time event.

My second published book, Tarleton's Wife*, could almost be called a spin-off from Bride. I was so caught up in my research into the Peninsular War that I absolutely had to put the British march to Corunna (La Coruña) and the battle that followed into a book. (In January 1809 the entire British army was forced into retreat by the French, slogging through freezing mountain passes in the dead of winter, then forced to stand and fight when the ships sent to evacuate them had not yet arrived.) Who could resist drama like that?

*Although Tarleton's Wife was published first (in December 1999), The Sometime Bride (August 2000) was written first.

Next up was Shadowed Paradise, my first Romantic Suspense. Now here it really gets personal. And real. An amazing amount of actual events went into this book, plus my own cultural shock as a New Englander transplanted to Florida's Gulf Coast. The resort/retirement community, the rustic restaurant on a jungle river, the land stretching from the beach to cattle ranches, an almost deserted town that looks like a city on plat maps - including roads to nowhere. A washed-out bridge, an airplane diving into the sea, a series of murders (some, real estate agents). The grandmother, a famous author, borrowed from my own mother.

Paradise Burning, a sequel to Shadowed Paradise, also borrowed from actual events, if not so heavily. Alas, human trafficking is all too common in Florida, as is wildfire. About three years after I wrote the sweeping fire in Paradise Burning, the actual area suffered a burn even more catastrophic. And once again, research helped. I was greatly aided by several books on contemporary Bangkok, Thailand.

Since I still have an entire page of notes on my yellow pad, I'll continue this topic next week.

~ * ~

For a link to Blair's website, click here.
Blair's Regency Warrior series (in order)
The Sometime Bride
Tarleton's Wife
O'Rourke's Heiress
Rogue's Destiny
The Lady Takes a Risk
The Abominable Major

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