The one question professional writers get asked most often and the question we most dread answering is the proverbial “Where do you get your ideas?” Someone asked me this question recently and I, smartass that I am, answered “Alchemy.” But once I wrote the word “alchemy” I realized I’d accidentally told him the truth. One definition of alchemy is “any seemingly magical process of transmuting ordinary materials into something of true merit.” I can think of no better definition of inspiration than turning ordinary stuff into art.
Don’t believe in alchemy? I’ll use my most recent projectto show how “ordinary materials” can become gold (i.e. art, i.e. stuff you can sell for money). On Sunday October 6, 2013, I emailed a 30,000-word contemporary romance novella called Shenanigans to my agent. On September 6, 2013, Shenanigans didn’t exist. I hadn’t written one word of it. One month later it’s finished and turned it. How did that happen?
In a word—alchemy. Want to know the formula? Keep reading!
Ingredient #1 – Necessity
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. It’s also often the mother of inspiration. Earlier this year I sold a 30,000-word novella to Harlequin called Misbehavior. They liked it enough that they asked if I would write a second novella. Sounds good to me. Until now the only stories I’ve gotten published are kinky erotic women’s fiction. Contemporary romance stories will help me reach an entirely new audience. At this point I have no ideas at all for a new contemporary romance novella. I have nothing, zero, zip, zilch.
So I tell them, “Sure. I’ll get that to you ASAP.”
Ingredient #2 – Influences
All writers have their influences—myths, fables, Twilight (wtf?). I stick to the classics, and there’s nothing more classic than Shakespeare and the Bible. My Original Sinners books are 25% Shakespeare, 25% the Bible, and 50% my twisted little brain. My first novella for Harlequin was an erotic retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Since I retold a comedy, maybe I could do a tragedy? What tragedies do I know well? King Lear is fun, but it has no romance plot. Ah, but Romeo & Juliet has a romance plot. That could work. I’ll do a Romeo & Juliet retelling minus all the death. Now we have the tiniest kernel of an idea. A modern re-imagining of Romeo & Juliet. One sentence and one sentence only—but it’s a start.
Ingredient #3 – Knowledge (ie Write What You Know)
Everyone knows the story of Romeo & Juliet—the star-crossed lovers who become victims of a family feud. I’ll need two families that would have a legitimate reason for feuding. Many romances these days are set in Fortune 500-type companies. The heroes are billionaires. The heroines are secretaries, interns, college girls, etc. I suppose my Romeo could work for one company and my Juliet could work for a rival company. I mull this idea over, but it doesn’t speak to me. I hit a mental block. I don’t know enough about corporate finance to write a book with rival companies. Stuck for inspiration, I get on my bike and go for a ride in the Kentucky countryside. One mile from my house you can get on a 12-mile bike trail that takes you from downtown Lexington to The Kentucky Horse Park. It’s a beautiful area right outside a bustling big city—a mix of rural and urban right next to each other and the entire economy of Lexington revolves around horses.
While riding a line hits me right between the eyes. In Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet the curse the dying Mercutio cries out is “A plague on both your houses.” This curse will be fulfilled by end of the story.
I stop peddling and look around the Kentucky countryside. I see barns, fields, pastures, farms. Out loud I say to no one in particular…
“A plague on both your horses.”
Horses. Not houses. HORSES! That’s it!
And now I know how to write the story! My story will be set around a horse track between rival horseracing families. Forget a business rivalry. This is a sports rivalry between wealthy Thoroughbred horseracing families. I know about horseracing. I’ve even written about it for my erotica novel The Prince. This book will be about horseracing.
Now I have an idea. A good one. One that gets my blood pumping and my mind running. And I have a story to write!
Ingredient #4 – Personal Preferences, Personality, Pet Peeves
A writer’s personality and personal preferences inform nearly every word he or she sets on paper. I like playful stories so in my story, no one will die. It’ll be as funny as I can make it. My Mercutio character will steal every scene he’s in and that’s okay. I love scene-stealers. Shakespeare supposedly said he had to kill Mercutio lest Mercutio kill Romeo & Juliet. I decide to let my Mercutio live. I’m tough. I’ll keep my Mercutio, renamed Merrick, under control.
One of my biggest pet peeves in romance fiction are weak female characters. When I look around the real world, I see women in charge, going to grad school in greater numbers than men, and making more money than their boyfriends and husbands. My mother runs a real estate office and her assistant is male. In my Romeo & Juliet re-imagining my Romeo will become Remi, a 26-year-old woman who manages a horse farm. My Juliet will be Julien, a 21-year-old young man who is the youngest son of a rival horseracing family. Mercutio becomes Merrick—personal assistant to Remi. He’s ten years older than she is, but calls her Boss.
Remi is wise and worldly. Julien is younger and innocent. And Merrick makes all the dirty jokes just like Mercutio did. In Romeo & Juliet, Juliet’s nurse plays a large role. I turn the nurse character into a beautiful young doctor who lives with Julien since he’s survived a near fatal illness. I’d just read a first-person account of being a female Indian doctor in America. I make my doctor Indian-American. The lack of ethnic diversity in romance is another pet peeve.
The other main character in Romeo & Juliet is Paris, Juliet’s betrothed. The maximum word count on my story is 30,000. I can’t fit in any more characters in such a short story, so Paris the person becomes Paris the city in France where Julien is living while hiding from his parents.
I now have a plot that combines the family feud/forbidden love premise of Romeo & Juliet with my knowledge of Thoroughbred racing. I have characters that playfully subvert the original story of the star-crossed lovers. And I have a fun surprise ending that will give readers of contemporary romance the happy ending they desire. And I have four sizzling hot sex scenes, because why not? I write 3000 words a day for ten days. My four beta readers love the story (especially the Merrick parts), and once it’s edited within an inch of its life, I send it to my agent.
Alchemy—any seemingly magical process of transmuting ordinary materials into something of true merit.
Write us another story, Tiffany + Shakespeare + Living in the Horse Capital of the World + Strong Female Characters + Lots of Dirty Jokes = SHENANIGANS!
Jump at any good opportunity to write for publication and mine your influences and favorite stories for inspiration. Incorporate your own passions, pet peeves, and personality into your story then write write write! And that, Writer Friends, is the alchemy of inspiration.
“A plague on both your horses!” Merrick shouted.--from Shenanigans by Tiffany Reisz
Remi turned around and glared at him.
“Sorry,” he said. “I always wanted to say that.”
Tiffany Reisz is the award-winning and internationally bestselling author of the Original Sinners series. When she’s not writing erotica, she’s tooling around Lexington, Kentucky on her three-speed bicycle trying to find inspiration. Find her on Twitter @tiffanyreisz and remember, please share the road. If you hit a bicyclist, you might kill a romance novel.