Good morning, Legendary readers! I’m so psyched to have this guest blogger today. Janice Hardy may cause me to fangirl just a little. I’m in love with her Shifter series, but you’ll have to wait for next week to hear my review of it. (You can already tell I completely hated it, right? LOL) Well, I’m going to step to the side and let her take over. Enjoy!
Chasing Down the “What If?”
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Hello everyone! I’m delighted to be here today to talk about turning sparks of inspiration into a story. “Where do you get your ideas?” is one of the more common questions I get as an author. Every idea has come from a different place, but what connects them is the need to answer a question.
- What if a society could buy and sell pain? (which turned into my novel, The Shifter)
- What if (a certain creature) created the vampire myth? (which turned into my newest novel, Blood Ties)
- What if someone spent most of their life as an undercover spy? (which is the novel I’m currently working on)
Sometimes my ideas follow the “how would?” question, but it’s the same principal. Something sparks my imagination and a question about it appears. I start thinking about that question and it leads to possible problems and story conflicts, and then my characters start appearing. Sometimes the characters come first, and that leads me into their worlds and their problems. From there, I build the story.
For The Shifter, the world came first, since I needed to explore how a society would buy and sell pain. I needed to work out the economy and practical aspects before I could figure out who might be trapped in that situation and have a terrible problem to solve (the protagonist). I decided that the magic users (the healers) of this world could heal by drawing pain and injury out of a person and putting it into an enchanted metal, and then the metal was sold and used for things, such as weapons and defensive items. I knew immediately that my protagonist was someone whose power worked differently, and that was the source of her problems–and the key to her success over those problems.
And thus, Nya was born. She’s unique in her world–a pain shifter who can heal, but she can’t sense the enchanted metal, so she can’t get rid of that pain unless she shifts it into another person. In order to help someone, she must hurt someone else. Her dream is to be a “real” healer, so this is a terrible power to have. Even worse, her city is under enemy occupation, and if she’s captured by the enemy, she’ll be used as a weapon against her own people.
All I needed then was a reason for Nya to risk herself in this world. So I had her little sister (also a healer) disappear for sinister reasons (no spoilers!) and Nya had to find and save her. Once I had this basic answer to my “what if?” question I could brainstorm where the story might go and plot my novel. The “how would?” questions really came into play here, as I wondered:
- How would Nya use her ability when threatened?
- How would Nya feel about hurting some people to help others?
- How far would Nya go to save her sister?
It was a lot of fun for me as a writer to turn Nya loose and discover the answers to those questions.
Blood Ties followed a similar process, but the focus was a bit more on my protagonist Grace from the start. I knew that “vampires” were after her for a particular reason, but I had to figure out why. The vampire angle went so well with blood I had to use it, but I wanted it to be about more than food source. I chased the original “what if?” idea down and created what I hope is a fun twist that blends two myths in an unexpected way.
My current project has gone in the opposite direction. It’s heavily character-driven, so all my “what if?” and “how would?” questions are delving deep into the personality and behavior of the character, such as:
- How would an undercover spy reconcile lying to people she calls friends?
- How would she feel about her people versus the people she’s been living with?
- Where would she draw the line between her loyalty to her friends and her people?
Unlike my first novel, this world is developing around the character to help explore and show the conflicts and consequences a long-term undercover spy would face.
What I enjoy most about developing a novel through “what if?” questions, is that they always give me somewhere to go. They allow for endless possibilities for plots and situations, because different characters will behave differently even in the same situations. Change one aspect of a character’s personality and I can change the whole story.
It also frees me to brainstorm an idea without restrictions. It’s easy for writers to get scope-locked on a plot unfolding a particular way, and that can make us miss less obvious (and usually more interesting) solutions to our character’s problems. But chasing a “what if?” question can go anywhere, and lead to surprising twists and outcomes that are just as much fun to write as they are to read.
Thanks for reading, and if you’re a writer, I hope this sparked some interesting questions about your own stories as well.
What draws you to a story? Do you enjoy exploring “what if?” questions as a reader? What about those of you who are also writers?
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she’s not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.