Creating Stories and Characters

I often get asked how I create my storylines and characters for the novels I write and publish. Here is my technique for creating my novels.

The Inspiration
First, I get an inspiration from somewhere. Inspiration is all around us. It's good to carry a notebook or smartphone with you, and to keep a journal by your bed, to write down all the thoughts that hit you. You never know which one will be the basis of a great novel.

Seeking the Truth begins with a tavern drinking contest which was inspired by my talk with Karen Allen, the actress from Indiana Jones. I adore the scene in the movie where she beats a guy in a drinking contest. I interviewed Karen Allen for the literary magazine I run, Mused. She was so delightful that I wanted to write a story based on her character. So that got me the first scene.

Knowing Yourself came about because, while having dinner with a friend, she kept talking about The Bachelorette. She was hooked on the show. I found the idea of men competing for a woman's hand intriguing, which gave me my initial scene and setup.

A Sense of Duty began because I was obsessed with Persuasion by Jane Austen for a while. I adore the characters and storyline - the idea that a woman could give up the love of her life because of family pressure and regret it over time.

Badge of Honor was the first novel I ever wrote, and came about because I kept re-reading Lord of the Rings. Those who have read the novel know that Arwen is not mentioned at all during the main story. So Aragorn is female-companion-less. I therefore invented me as a female ranger who could loyally stay by his side. That then became the basis of the Badge of Honor story.

A novel I'm working on right now began as a dream. I dreamed that I was on an airplane and it was being taken over by hijackers. I was against the curtain between coach and first class and heard it happening, and I looked back and a marine was there, and he came over to my side to help out. We went in together to take down the hijackers. When I woke I loved the feeling of it, but of course they don't have planes in the middle ages - so I put them on a ship instead.

So inspirations come from a variety of places. A movie scene. A book scene. A dream. A real life scene while you're sitting at a sidewalk cafe. The key is to watch the world around you and see what intrigues you, and to make a note of it.

The Storyline

OK, so you have a seed of a starting point. You have a scene or a character or a situation. How do you then flesh that out into a longer story?

I am extremely character driven. That is, to me the characters are alive. They have motivations and fears and dreams and issues. So I start them in their starting spot. And then I think "what would they do next?" So let's take the Knowing Yourself story. A young woman, Kay, is heading out to try to choose between these five guys. Her sister is coming along to keep her company. So there they are, riding in a carriage, with the five guys along with them. What would happen next? Well, Kay is feisty and curious. She'd want to see these guys for herself. She'd hop out of the carriage to go interact with them. What then? Well, being feisty, undoubtedly she'd get riled by something. How about when they reach her dream home? She'd be very proud of it - and very curious what the men would think about it. She would be drawn to or pushed away from the men based on what they said and did.

The story all flowed naturally by itself as each situation presented itself. I didn't map out a plot or an end game, besides the knowledge of course that she'd end up with one of them ;). I also knew that they'd have to be rejected one by one, so I kept looking for who was the "worst match" of who was left and why they would fail. I gave them all their personalities and had them move along and saw what they would do.

Now, once the first pass is done, then I go back and read through it again. At this point I know more about how their personalities develop, what motivates them, and so on. I can make scenes even more clear, and add in skill sets so an important skill doesn't "pop out of the ether" in scene 12. If she falls from a height and doesn't mind in scene X, I have to show why she can do that beforehand. So for any important talent she shows, I can build in the lead-up to it. Also, for emotional reactions, I can show how they built up to certain feelings.

And then I do a third pass, and fourth, and keep going and going. I read through these books probably 100 times or more. Yes, it takes time. But each pass adds in more layers, makes the writing more clear, and tweaks particular words to make them more powerful. She didn't just "walk" across the room. She "marched" across the room. She wasn't just served "dinner". She was served "roast duck with warm plum sauce". The reader can't see the scene. They can only rely on my words, so I need to make those words as meaningful as possible.

Let me know if you have any questions about my technique!

Also read: Lisa's Process of Writing Medieval Novels

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