Where do you get your story ideas?

I think every author gets asked this question—it’s the thing most readers want to know. I’d like to say I get them from a secret book shared only by published authors. Or that God whispers in my ear. Or something equally clever and off the wall, but I can’t. I don’t know about Stephen King or Nora Roberts, but I get my ideas from everywhere, and they probably do, too. (Although I don’t think I’d be comfortable on the receiving end of the ideas that occur to Stephen King.)
Sometimes when I’m writing, a secondary character is so compelling I feel I just have to tell his or her story. That happened with Cody Walker’s Woman. Cody was a secondary character in Reilly’s Return, but he was such a strong character my editor told me Cody deserved his own book, and I agreed. So who better to write about when I started writing fiction again? I had a hook I’d come up with years ago to get me started—an unusual way for my hero and heroine to meet that was also a catalyst in their lives—and I had Cody’s character more or less fleshed out from the previous book. I knew him.
But I didn’t have a heroine or a story arc. That took a little time and some intense thought. But the more I began to think like Cody, to put myself in his shoes, the more I realized he needed a larger than life story and a heroine to match—it would take someone very special to replace the woman he loved and lost in Reilly’s Return. So I wrote Keira Jones for him, a woman who is a protector—just as he is. A woman without tears. A woman whose mantra is respect, doing a job most people couldn’t do.
And I created the agency, where both Cody and Keira work. I gave it extraordinary latitude—the agency can legally do things the “alphabet soup” federal agencies—CIA, FBI, NSA, DEA, ATF and DHS—can’t. A little bit of wishful thinking on my part, but it was a lot of fun to write. Just creating the agency gave me ideas for the new plot, especially since I could incorporate unfinished “leftovers” from Reilly’s Return as well as a few of my favorite characters from that book.
Other times I’ll be watching TV, or hear a song on the radio or YouTube, or read something in the news that piques my interest and sparks an idea. That happened with Alec’s Royal Assignment. I read where two U.S. embassy officers in Yemen were involved in a firefight when they were confronted by armed individuals in an attempted kidnapping in a barbershop. The bad guys were shot and killed. Their deaths were justifiable, yet the two embassy officers were whisked out of the country with the blessing of the Yemeni government.
When I read that I knew it was the perfect hook for a story for a secondary character in the “sequel” to Cody Walker’s Woman, titled McKinnon’s Royal Mission. Alec Jones was already a Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) special agent in McKinnon’s Royal Mission, and lo and behold, when I did a little research I found out every U.S. diplomatic mission in the world operates under a security program designed and maintained by Diplomatic Security. Bingo!
From there it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to make Alec the Regional Security Officer (RSO) at the U.S. embassy in a Middle Eastern country as Alec’s Royal Assignment opens (the RSO is the principal security attaché and advisor to the U.S. ambassador). Force Alec to defend against an attempted kidnapping and kill the would-be kidnappers, just as in real life. Then have Alec spirited out of the country to protect both the embassy and himself from reprisals. And as I wrote that scene, I asked myself, “If that were me, how would that incident affect my career?”
Next stop on Alec’s career path—RSO at the U.S. embassy in Zakhar, a fictional Middle-European country I created in McKinnon’s Royal Mission. That book also has a “sequel,” King’s Ransom, which is set in Zakhar. Small bits and pieces from King’s Ransom and McKinnon’s Royal Mission dovetail nicely with the story arc for Alec’s Royal Assignment, which involves (among other things) an attempted assassination of the infant Crown Prince of Zakhar. Where did that idea come from? Haven’t you read about Prince George lately, third in line to inherit the English throne after Prince Charles and Prince William? And when you saw the pictures of Prince George, so sweet, so innocent, didn’t you ever think to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if…?”
We live in a violent world. Tragedies happen every day. So in the case of Alec’s Royal Assignment, it wasn’t just one idea, but several, sparked by real life incidents and “what if” scenarios. And they all had to come together to form the story.
Other times a book idea arises from another book (or two other books). That happened with Liam’s Witness Protection. Liam Jones was another secondary character in McKinnon’s Royal Mission, along with his brother, Alec, of Alec’s Royal Assignment. There were unresolved elements in Alec’s Royal Assignment that I finally resolved in Liam’s Witness Protection. Both books can be read as standalones because the resolution of the romance occurs in each book, but they’re still inextricably tied together.
Sometimes when ideas occur to me I can’t use them right away. They’re not appropriate for what I’m working on right then. But if it’s a good idea I don’t want it to get lost, so I “bank” it—I make a copy of the news article that triggered the idea, or jot the idea down—I don’t trust my memory. Then, when I’m looking for a new project I’ll revisit those “banked” ideas. I’ve got one right now that’s right up my fictitious agency’s alley—something I read in the news recently—and I can hardly wait to pursue it!
Of course, a story is more than just an idea or ideas. It’s more than just a hook, well-written characters the reader comes to care about, or a believable plot. You have to have everything in sync for the story to work.

That raises another question. What do you mean by a hook?

A hook is a device to catch a reader’s interest, to pull her or him into wanting to read more…and buy the book. Exactly like a fisherman baiting a hook and dangling it in the water—hoping a fish will bite.
For example, I’ve always thought Tom Clancy nailed it when he started Patriot Games with the sentence, “Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.” As a reader you go, “Huh? What? What’s that all about?” You can’t help but keep reading to find out what that sentence means.
Another great opening line can be found in Christina Dodd’s medieval romance, Castles in the Air. “She had all her teeth.” You can’t tell me you could stop reading there—I certainly couldn’t.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that you should start your story at the point of change (of course my editors don’t think I’ve learned this quite yet—they keep having to remind me). But the point of change doesn’t have to be immediately obvious with your first sentence. That first sentence, first paragraph, first page should be the hook that reels the reader in. Sometimes it’s the first meeting between the hero and heroine, but it doesn’t have to be.
Here are a few examples from my own work:
Cody Walker’s Woman (hero and heroine meet as the book opens)
Keira Jones pushed the hair out of her eyes with both hands and stared in incomprehension at the man who’d just dragged her kicking and clawing all the way from the other room into this one. His hold had been brutal, crushing her bones as he’d thrown her on to the filthy bed in the corner of this room before moving to shut the door behind them and lock it.
And then nothing. Nothing except that one word uttered in a harsh undertone—scream.
“What?” she gasped.
McKinnon’s Royal Mission
“Why me? Why the hell does it have to be me?” Trace McKinnon stared down at his boss with a touch of belligerence.
“Because they specifically asked for you,” Cody Walker said reasonably with a faint smile. “And in the spirit of interagency cooperation….”
Trace scowled. “That’s BS and you know it.”
“Yeah.” Walker’s smile turned sympathetic. “You know it and I know it. But we have to at least pretend to play nice with the State Department and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.”
King’s Ransom
Absolutely not!” Juliana Richardson told her lawyer agent with fierce determination.
Marty Devens stared at her in surprise. “But Juliana, you’re already under contract—” he began before she cut him off.
“Break it.” Her voice was implacable.
Liam’s Witness Protection (hero sees the heroine as the book opens)
She didn’t look like a prostitute. That was the first thing that came to Liam Jones’s mind when he saw her standing next to a bench outside the courtroom. He didn’t know what he’d expected—not exactly—but it wasn’t a fresh-faced woman in her midtwenties wearing a summery dress in pastel swirls of pink and green, bare legs and sandals. Her blond hair was shoulder length, clean and shining, and held away from her face by cloisonné combs in a way that made her look heartbreakingly young.
See what I mean? Don’t you want to keep reading to find out what the heck is going on? If I’ve done my job right as an author, I’ve hooked you.

Do you ever use real people in your books?

Not unless I want to get sued.
Well, that’s not quite true. I can refer to famous people so long as I’m very, very careful about what I say. For instance, I reference Aretha Franklin in Cody Walker’s Woman, but only to say the heroine can hear Aretha singing a song that was famous before the heroine was born. That kind of usage is okay. Aretha (the Queen of Soul) is a famous singer—one of the greatest of all time. She did sing the song I’m referring to, the one-word song title that is Keira’s mantra. These are historical facts. And I mentioned Garth Brooks and Vince Gill in Reilly’s Return, as well as several famous authors. But only in passing (Garth singing on the radio, reading the latest books by those authors, etc.)
Other than that I can’t put real people in my books…unless I want to get sued.
That said, I can assign a personality trait or physical characteristic of people I know to my fictional characters. Think about it—how many hair colors are there really? Blonde, brunette, redhead. Anything else would have to be fake (and sometimes being blonde, brunette, or redhead is fake, too). So if I have a friend who’s blonde and a heroine who’s blonde, that doesn’t mean I based the heroine on her. The same goes for being rich or poor, happy or sad, sings like an angel or can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Traits and characteristics are part of the human experience, and aren’t unique to one person (no matter how unique we think we are).
I wrote a story with a heroine whose admirable frugality is based on my husband’s frugality. That doesn’t mean the heroine is based on my husband, just that one trait. And I have a hero who wears a close-cropped beard that bears a remarkable resemblance to my husband’s gorgeous, silky-soft beard. But there are millions of men who wear beards, and other than that one physical similarity my hero and my husband are nothing alike.
So that kind of thing is okay, too. But a work of fiction should be a work of fiction. And frankly, most of the people I know are…well…not interesting enough to write about. I wouldn’t write about me, either, or my life. As I explain to my mother in our weekly phone calls when she complains I don’t have much to tell her, there’s a reason for that—I lead a boring life. And that’s just fine by me. My characters have enough excitement in their lives, and I live vicariously through them. I don’t want to be shot at, terrorized, kidnapped, threatened, or beaten to a pulp—thanks anyway.

Do you always know the entire story, including the ending, when you start?

Many authors do. I don’t. At least I haven’t up ‘til now, and I have to confess that’s probably the way it will always be to some extent. My characters drive the story, and sometimes they surprise me by taking the story in a completely different direction than I had expected. Partly that’s because although I create my characters, they soon become like real people to me, with real personality traits, real goals and motivations—good and bad. As every parent knows, you can guide your children in the right direction, but you can’t make them follow that path. They have to find their own way in life. My characters are the same—I can guide them, but I can’t force them.
This approach of letting your characters take you where they want to go might work well if you write the entire book before you try to pitch the story idea to an editor (although there are pitfalls with doing that, which—to my regret—I have experienced). But if you try to sell a manuscript on a synopsis and three chapters, or just on an idea alone (something experienced authors can do since their publishers have confidence they can deliver), you have to have a fairly good idea of where you’re going to end up before you start. I’m just learning how to do that.

How long does it take you to write a book?

Back in the nineties? Or now? Two category romances in two years won’t make a career. You need to have three or four category romance books out every year, or one mainstream novel a year, either of which is an achievable goal even if you only write part time. I can complete a 50k word manuscript in about a month, and a 75k word manuscript in about six to eight weeks. I attribute this to a job I held for several years that required extensive non-fiction writing…done under a deadline. When you have a deadline you can’t spend a week crafting one perfect page—you have to learn to accept something less than perfection. Do your best and move on.
That’s just the initial writing, of course. That’s not all the other stuff that makes up the finished product, like contract revisions, page edits, deflagging, suggestions for the back cover copy, dedications, Dear Reader page, and my least favorite—the Art Fact Sheets. Oh yes, you have to describe what your characters look like, suggest a few scenes that might work for the cover, and supply detailed personality traits of the major characters.
Even then the cover might be totally different than you thought it would be. I was dismayed when I saw the cover for Reilly’s Return. “Where’s his mustache?” I asked blankly. I had made a point of mentioning it in the Art Fact Sheet when I described Reilly, but it wasn’t there on the cover. I had other issues with that cover, but it’s over and done with and I won’t belabor them here. At least they got the hair color right, something they got wrong on other covers…but I digress.

Speaking of covers, how much control does an author have over them?

You’ve got me. I have no idea. Other than completing the Art Fact Sheet, which I do conscientiously, I tell people I have no control over the cover. Zip. Zilch. My work is what’s between the covers (no pun intended).
I’m sure more established authors have more control—that makes sense to me. And if you self-publish, you control just about every aspect of your book, including the cover. But since I haven’t experienced it, I’d just be guessing.
I shouldn’t complain about covers. At least I never had a three-armed woman on a book cover, which happened to Christina Dodd with her book, Castles in the Air, which I already mentioned. Of course, Christina says she has embraced that three-armed woman (oh, the pun!) and it has actually helped her career. Nevertheless, given a choice, I’d pass on the career help.
I will say I adore the cover for Cody Walker’s Woman. Is it perfect? No, not quite. But I love how the emphasis is on the heroine. And since Cody describes Keira as having a “mop of red-gold curls no comb could tame,” I don’t see how they could have done a better job of matching that description. All in all, I think it’s a great cover.
I also love the cover for Liam’s Witness Protection. Okay, the hero is more handsome than I describe Liam in the book, but the expression on the heroine’s face on the cover is Cate. They nailed it.
And the cover for Killer Countdown is to die for. Yes, the hero and heroine are younger on the cover than they are in the book, but it’s a gorgeous cover and the eye-catching colors are perfect for that scene, which takes place in Phoenix, AZ.

What’s the best way for an aspiring writer to get started?

This is probably the second most asked question of any writer. And the bottom line is—write, write, write. Sure, you should also study the craft, take classes, attend Romance Writers of America® (RWA) conferences, read other authors and try to figure out what’s good (and bad) in their writing. But nothing takes the place of actually writing. Even more important is finishing what you start. Don’t keep polishing the same synopsis and three chapters over and over. Write until the story reaches its natural end. Submit what you wrote, then start on a new story. And when you finish that one and submit it, start another. Keep writing. Rejections will come. Learn from them and keep writing.
There’s a little vignette that might illustrate what I mean.
There are a million people out there with a story to tell. Of those, there are a hundred thousand people with a good story to tell. Of those, there are ten thousand people who will sit down and begin writing that story. Of those, there are a thousand people who will finish writing that story. Of those, there are a hundred people who will submit that finished story for publication. Of those, there are ten people who will revise that finished story when it’s initially rejected and resubmit it for publication. Of those, only one will sell that story and have it published.
For years my father told me he had a wonderful story to tell, the true story of a man he knew growing up. He even had an intriguing hook—born by the knife (C-section), died by the knife (stabbed to death on the streets of New Orleans).
My father was a great raconteur. He had a wonderful grasp of the English language and a vibrant wit. So was it a great story? We’ll never know, because he never sat down and wrote the story he said he had in him. He died at 81 without ever putting pen to paper, fingers to typewriter, or fingers to computer keyboard.
So if you want to be a writer, write. Write no matter what. Don’t write because you think you’ll make a fortune when your book becomes a bestseller. Write because you have stories to tell, stories that are aching to be released from the bondage of your mind, stories you need to write—for you.