Getting ‘Great Ideas’ For Novels, by Carolyn Meyer
Just to set the record straight: I did not plan any of this. My first published book, Miss Patch’s Learn-to-Sew Book, was a how-to book for little girls. When I was a student, history bored me silly – too many battles, too many treaties, too many old guys in uniforms. Who cared? Not me. I certainly didn’t expect to go on to write more than twenty young adult novels about historic characters, ranging from the Tudor queens to Cleopatra and introducing Mozart’s sister and Degas’ model.
But somehow along the way, as I struggled to find myself as a writer, I discovered that I really liked doing research. It was interesting, even fun, and a lot easier than actually writing. Then one day in a fast-food restaurant in Texas I picked up a pamphlet describing the story of a young white girl captured by Indians and kept for 25 years before being “rescued” against her will by the Texas Rangers. What a story! What a great idea!
An editor thought so, too, and Where the Broken Heart Still Beats was published in 1992. (It was reissued in 2012 with a new cover.)
But it hasn’t always worked out so neatly. In addition to the published novels, I’ve come up with other “great ideas” unlikely ever to see print. I once visited the little historical museum in my hometown and noticed a handwritten document, an agreement between a girl’s family and a man who wanted to take her on as an indentured servant; after seven years she’d get a bed, a table, and a few other items to set up a household. I thought I had a terrific germ of a novel for teens, but no editor was convinced. Or maybe I simply failed to present the idea compellingly.
The point is that you never know when or where a Great Idea might show up. I didn’t expect to find one in a Dairy Queen in Texas, but there it was.
Sometimes the historical period and the setting kindle the Great Idea (Texas in the 1800s) and sometimes it’s the character (Cynthia Ann Parker is a Texas legend; schoolchildren learn about her in state history class). If I’d pursued the indentured servant idea, I would have had to create the character from scratch.
Google didn’t exist in 1992, nor did online booksellers. Now when a Great Idea is sparked, I check to see if another writer has had a similar inspiration. If the story has already been written, I look up how recently the book was published, and then I decide if my idea is better – or if I can approach it differently.
In order for a Great Idea to fly, you must have a clear notion of your audience. The more accurately you can define your potential teen readers, the more focused your writing will be, and the more likely you are to persuade an editor that this is a Great Idea that will sell.
Victoria Rebels (January 2013) wasn’t even my own Great Idea. I emailed my teen fans for suggestions, they responded enthusiastically, and Queen Victoria got the most votes.
Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com
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