Monday, August 10, 2015

Where Do Your Ideas Come From?

Where do you get your ideas? This is something writers hear a lot, and for reasons I'll never understand, a surprising number of authors find it an annoying question. I don't.

Most of my ideas come while doing research for another book. The core idea for Why Mermaids Sing came to me when I was researching shipwrecks for Beyond Sunrise, my last romantic adventure. The mystery surrounding the death of the Dauphin, the core idea for Why Kings Confess, has fascinated me since I was a doctoral student in the 80s. Even songs can be inspiring: the idea for When Maidens Mourn came from years of doing my morning yoga to Loreena McKennitt's lovely version of The Lady of Shalott. But other sources are less easy to pinpoint. The idea of having Paul Gibson buy the body of a man who had been murdered--the inspiration for Where Shadows Dance--came out of the blue one night while I was taking a bath. And some ideas are such accretions that it's impossible to say where they came from.

Because I have a lousy memory, over time I tend to forget the details of the process. Which is why I was excited when, in the midst of a mammoth cleanup of old emails over the weekend, I came upon a letter I'd written to my daughter in the autumn of 2004. She was attending university in Egypt at the time, and I was working on the proposal for When Gods Die. Because it talks about where the idea for both Gods and a certain necklace came from, I thought those of you who've read the book (if you haven't, there are spoilers) might find it interesting. Here is the relevant section:

I have finished the draft of my proposal--synopsis and the first 4 chapters. I will sit on it for a week, then polish it some more and send it off. For some reason adding the bit about the necklace really fired me up. It's so funny that I didn't think of it before. The whole backstory behind the murder is a conspiracy to put the Stuart heir (for my purposes, a Savoy prince) on the throne. The murder victim (who was not a part of the conspiracy but was in love with one of the conspirators) has always been fascinated by the Stuarts because she's a descendent of James II and his Welsh mistress. Sebastian agrees to look into all of this because she is found wearing a necklace that his mother was wearing the day she was supposidly lost at sea. When I first came up with the idea, I was going to have it just be a necklace. Then when I was writing the scene, I was wracking my brain, trying to figure out how to make it believable that the Machievellian Lord Jarvis would have recognized a simple necklace in order to be able to convince Sebastian to help. I got as far as having Sebastian kneeling beside the body and reaching for the necklace, and I'm still thinking, What does this necklace look like? Then this lightbulb goes off in my head, and suddenly I'm describing Polly's necklace and the legend about it growing warm and choosing its next guardian. I put in Druid priestesses and links to James II, and it added this wonderful whole new dimention to the book that wasn't there before and that gives it a fantastic lift. Now, instead of just being a necklace, it's this very special, mysterious necklace that is going to weave its way into future books, too. It's so bizarre I never thought of it before, since Goditha Price was the inspiration for the Welsh mistress. Only problem is, I can't remember what the design was called. Tri-what?

I should probably explain that the "Polly" I'm referring to was a distant, 103 year-old-cousin. She had in her possession a necklace given to one of our common ancestors by his mother, Mary, an illegitimate daughter of the prince who eventually became James II and a lady-in-waiting to the Queen named Goditha Price. When Mary's son Edward was exiled from Scotland after a Jacobite uprising, she gave him the necklace along with a heartrending letter that Polly still preserved (She also still had his sword! How neat is that?). The legend of the necklace growing warm and choosing its next owner, as well as its supposed ability to bring long life, was explained in Mary's letter to her son. She says it's why she gave it to him--to protect him. The funny part of this snippet from my email to my daughter is that it shows just how much of a spur-of-the-moment afterthought weaving this tale into the series was. And I had totally forgotten that.

Incidentally, although history records that Goditha was James II's mistress (Samuel Pepys rather nastily refers to her as "fat Price"), the birth of her son is not officially recorded, and I've received some ugly "you made that up" pushback on-line for telling this story. However, in addition to the sword, necklace, and letter, Polly also had in her possession ancient pages cut from a beautiful, gold-leafed, illuminated bible that had Edward's genealogy going back on both sides. I've also been involved in genetic research for porphyria, and my version of that nasty blood disorder is extraordinarily rare and traces back to the Stuarts. It's all enough to convince me the story of Mary's parentage is true and I frankly don't care if anyone else believes it. I've told the tale only because it felt wrong to let people think I was clever enough to make up the necklace legend when all I did was borrow it. Apart from which, if I wanted to invent grand genetic ties, I'd pick people I admired more than a woman who has gone down in history as "fat Price," a guy who got his head cut off, and another guy who lost his throne! What a heritage.


Barbara Butler McCoy said...

Love that mysterious photo at the opening of the post. It is very kind and generous of you to share so much about your process - I've been thinking a lot about Sebastian and Hero and Paul so I'll very probably be re-reading some in the near future. Take Care.

Suzanne said...

Wow, what an amazing story. Yes, it does sound stranger than fiction but often true stories do. Some of the stories I hear about on the current affairs programs are so amazing that I often think if anybody were to write that in a book it would be unbelievable, yet it is true. So don't take any notice of other people's nastiness. They didn't hear the stories from relatives or read the letter, so what would they know?

Lynne said...

My dad had a favorite saying, Candy - "Everyone's a critic" - in other words, there are always some people who think they know more than you and ignoring that crap is the only way to go. I love the necklace tale and sometimes what seems to challenge belief is what is perfectly true. I remember when it first showed up in the stories I could hardly wait to see where it would go. Thanks for sharing!

Susan J. said...

It was very interesting to read about the sources of your ideas. You must have to keep a notebook handy to jot things down as they come to you. I particularly liked your account of Goditha's story. I can't imagine why people would take the bother to accuse you of making it up, why would you? There are some strange people out there. I wish I had interesting people in my family history like that! Is it from the Stuarts that the present British royal family get porphyria from? I'm not sure of how the Hanoverians are linked, I know they had to go through about fifty people in line to the throne before they found somebody who was not Catholic. The historian Lucy Worsley argued in her series on the Georges, that it did our democracy a good turn, as the first two Georges were not that interested in this country, so it allowed Walpole to virtually sneak the modern Cabinet minister style Government in through the back door.

Anonymous said...

Candy that is an amazing story and I believe every word of it! People are just jealous. And its great you found those notes and the letter to your daughter. There are always things that people will scoff at. In my family its ghosts. I'm not kidding. A fair number claim to have seen dead relatives at one time or another. I'm not about to call them liars. When I was 26 I went to see a woman who gave readings. She would hold your hand and then just tell you something about yourself - all she said to me was - You are a very old soul. When my mom asked how old - she said Cleopatra old. That was enough for me. Your history is your own. I'm hoping one day to see my great grandmother - there's a bunch of stuff I never got to ask her. Best, Ali

cs harris said...

Barbara, I'm always fascinated by the process of writing. Even for the person who does it, a lot of it is so mysterious.

Suzanne, it's true, life can be far weirder than fiction. My writer friends and I are always saying, "I could never get away with putting that in a book!" I must admit that nasty post shocked me. I don't think I've been called a liar since I was on the playground at school.

Lynne, it is a really fascinating story. And the funny thing is how we met Polly: my daughter was dating a guy at LSU and they got to talking about their genealogy and totally freaked when they realized they were 4th cousins on their Tennessee sides. His great-grandmother (Polly) was my great-grandfather's niece. Then when we met her, we realized she was also related to us in two other ways (the necklace was actually through a different family line we shared). That was the end of the romance!

Susan, it is through the Stuarts that porphyria entered the British royal family. The Hanovers were descended from a daughter of James I (Mary Queen of Scott's son) rather than his son Charles I (father of Charles II and James II). Goditha and her royal lover are the only interesting people in my family tree; I'd much rather have someone who was interesting for their talents and intelligence--like Leonardo, or Wagner, or Newton.

Ali, I've never seen a ghost, but some people I really respect say they have, so I have to leave my door of belief open. And yes, ask your great-grandmother as soon as you can. I so wish I had paid more attention to all the family stories my grandmother used to tell me as a child. I just wasn't interested then.

Susan J. said...

Yes we should all ask our older relatives the family stories before they are lost. My favourite question to my grandmother when I was a child, she was born in 1885, was "Tell me about when you were young Nanny". (She was aged forty when she gave birth to my father). She was almost run down by a hansom cab at the age of five, the cabby managed to get the horse to rear up in time. She remembered going on to the streets to watch Queen Victoria's funeral procession. She also saw Marie Lloyd performing at the music hall.

Charles Gramlich said...

I kinda wish I had a few ties to some interesting history of some sort.

Suzanne said...

I was in Primary school when my mother began tracing the family tree. I was not particularly interested in who begat whom but I loved to sit and listen to the old people we met talk. Back in the 70s the people in their 80s and 90s had the most fantastic stories. They could remember the 19th century as if it were yesterday.

cs harris said...

Susan, I wish I had done that! If I could go back in time....

Charles, I have no doubt that you do!

Suzanne, how lucky you were. And how wise of your mother to look into it when they were still alive. Polly had the most wonderful stories about my great-grandfather (although she really did not like his wife!). I had no idea what he was like since he died in 1924.

Susan J. said...

I was wondering where you got the idea of using 'Golden Square' in 'Why King's Confess'? (Where Alexandrie Sauvage lived.) I had never heard of it before but since reading your book it keeps cropping up. The Diderot Affect strikes again! I was reading Eileen Hathaway's excellently edited version of the memoirs of Rifleman Harris and she descovered that he later moved the shoe mending business he took to after leaving the army, from Soho to Golden Square. Then I was watching our DVD of the stage version of 'Nicholas Nickleby' and it kept being mentioned as where Ralph Nickleby's business was situated.
'Why Kings Confess' is my favourite of your books to date.

Susan J. said...

Why I put an apostrophe in Kings, goodness knows!

cs harris said...

Susan, that's funny. It isn't a place you hear of often, for some reason. if I remember correctly, I was simply looking for a square that had once been grand but was sliding down hill. I have this fat, six-volume "London Recollected" set, written in Victorian times, and spend a lot of time just browsing through it, looking for interesting places and tidbits.

hwueste said...

Candy, I'm stunned that someone would call you a liar. Afterall, this is a work of fiction. Your knowledge and research so wonderfully ties and depicts each story to the the history of the time. Vocabulary has been a fascination all of my life,, but I have to admit that, since I usually read either on my phone or tablet, I am continually looking for definitions of words through the really sorry dictionary furnished by kindle, words that so beautifully describe fashions, trades, households, modes of conveyance, words of the time that are no longer in tune with our modern lives. Your knowledge and use of words and expressions is such fun. I have a love for these words from my earliest teenage years reading romance novels by Georgette Heyer and others. For me, they are lucious and so fun to wrap my imagination around. As I told you recently of my plan to do a series reread; I have done just that, having just finished "Who Buries the Dead", last page, paragraph and sentence on Sunday but now having a gaping wound in my life. It always takes me time to get over the lives I have recently been sharing thru your characters. Joy, joy, joy. By reading the whole series at once, there is a perspective not apparent when only one book at a time is read. I am an architecture enthusiast and avid reader and researcher of royal residences. My latest study, thanks to you, has been Carlton House and though torn down long ago, it was an amazing place, thanks to George IV. And, thanks to you for hitting all the loves and hobbies in my life with this series. May God bless you and those you love. Surrey this is so long. Holly Wueste, PS, I am avidly waiting to find out about the necklace. Hurry, hurry, hurry.

Susan J. said...

I just realised I put Diderot Affect, I meant Effect! I was having an off day when I wrote that comment!
Yes, it is strange the way these things appear once you become aware of them. Golden Square is described as having seen better days in the Nicholas Nickleby play. Eileen Hathaway, however, described it as a bit of a step up for Rifleman Harris to move there from Soho. Sadly he eventually died in the workhouse with what was probably dementia but at least not until he was quite old.
These attentions to period detail are what make your books so good.

cs harris said...

Holly, thanks so much for your kind words about my books! I must admit, I was stung, seeing what that reader wrote. There is a troubling, growing perception that if something isn't on the internet, then it doesn't exist/didn't happen.

Susan, I am always writing one thing when I mean another. It's only when it slips past my many rereads, my editor, and my copyeditor that the world knows it. There were a few howlers I found to my horror when I reread the series.

JustWingingIt said...

Ooh, I love that first picture! I'd be wary of squeezing through it myself but it's very atmospheric.

I can't believe some reader/poster called you a liar. What part of "historical fiction" did they not comprehend, I wonder.

I love the story about how the necklace became more than you originally expected. I hope to see more of it in future books, as well as what it means that it "chose" Hero, now that Sebastian knows.


cs harris said...

Veronica, we learn a lot more about the necklace in WHEN FALCONS FALL, coming March 1, 2016.

Susan J. said...

I'm looking forward to finding out more about the necklace in 'When Falcons Fall'. It's interesting that you made it 'chose' Hero, as Veronica says. I like the character of Hero, some books with so called 'strong' women annoy me, as if in the attempt to create a 'strong' female character, they seem to end up with a spoilt, selfish creature. Not so with Hero, she is actually strong for other people and she cares about people who are weaker than herself and vulnerable, which is my idea of what is is to be strong, to fight for other people less privilaged that oneself.

cs harris said...

Susan, so true; I've read a lot of books with "spunky" heroines that make me want to smack them.

Susan J. said...

My sentiments entirely!

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