On September 23, 2016, Grace (The Girl Upstairs) wrote, How do you develop your writing ideas? When you first get an idea, what do you do first? I really struggle with what to do when I first get an idea.

It’s uncanny how often the next-up blog question touches on what’s going on in my work at the moment.

The manuscript for Ogre Enchanted is in my editor’s hands. She emailed me about a week ago that she was reading it and enjoying it. But I don’t know if she’d read three pages or fifty and I haven’t heard since. My fingernails are very short, and my fingers themselves are in danger.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking about what to do next, often the hardest part for me. So here is my process as I’m now living it.

The book that comes out in May, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, resolves its main problem but leaves a kingdom in disarray. In my next effort I’d like to deal with that, with reconciliation. Since I’m bad at making up plots out of nothing, I looked for historical models.

On a personal level, we reconcile all the time. The people we love most are often the ones who push our buttons hardest, but we find a way to work it out. For most of us, life isn’t littered with failed relationships.

But on a macro level, which is what I want, I’m coming up empty with examples of reconciliations between groups. I looked at the aftermath of our Civil War, but we’re still dealing with the ramifications of that struggle. I read about Scotland, where, if I have it right, the Lowlands became reconciled to England for economic reasons, but the Highlands were brought in only by military defeat. I read about South Africa, and there it seems that outside pressure brought about change, which I don’t want to use. Ancient Rome grew by conquest, though its practice of readily granting citizenship is interesting and possibly useful for my purposes. To decide whether or not I can use these, I write notes.

If any of you can cite a historical example of reconciliation, please weigh in.

When I’m hunting ideas I don’t always look to history, but I do look around for outside sources of assistance. And my usual go-to’s are myths and fairy tales. I read Lang’s Red Fairy Book, which I never had delved into before. (Lang’s color-titled fairy tale collections are great, because they’re in the public domain, so we can use them without worry. And there are so many books! A feast!)

I didn’t find anything there for this purpose, although a couple of stories jumped out as marvelous. I recommend “The Nettle Spinner,” which doesn’t repeat the formula of any other fairy tale I know. And there was a terribly sad one called “The Voice of Death” about a doomed search for eternal life.

Though not in the Red Fairy Book, I found myself thinking again about both the fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which seem to me to be in essence the same story, but I don’t know if I can mold either of them into the shape of a tale of reconciliation. Maybe I can. I’ve written lots of notes.

Another myth keeps coming to mind is the tragic “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which I may be able to use, minus the tragedy. In case you don’t know it, here are the bare bones of the story: Orpheus is a master musician. On their wedding day, his wife Eurydice is bitten by a viper and dies. Orpheus, grief-struck, goes to the underworld to play for Hades and persuade him to restore Eurydice. Hades, moved by the music, agrees that Orpheus can lead her up to the land of life so long as he doesn’t look back at her until they’re both fully out. However, he can’t resist a glance right at the end and loses her forever. The reconciliation that I’m writing notes about here is between the underworld and the world above, which can be any two opposing camps.

What I like about this story is its simplicity, the most important quality I look for when I pick a fairy tale to embroider around. My writing impulse is always to pile on complications. If I start with something straightforward, I have a chance of not losing my way.

(I’ve already used the myth of Orpheus in a poem, in a way that’s entirely different from the approach I’d use in a novel. For the poem, I researched the effects of a viper bite, which are horrifying. I imagined that Eurydice doesn’t want to return to life only to have to die again eventually, possibly by another viper, but Orpheus won’t listen to her, so she sets him up to look back.)

Let’s assume that I pick “Orpheus and Eurydice” to become a book. My next step is more notes. I’ll ask myself whether I’ll write in first person or third, and, if in first, who my POV character will be. If third, omniscient or close focus? I’ll wonder who my MC’s will be, what the events of the story will be.

I’ve been evolving from a pure pantser to a vague outliner, so I’ll start listing plot points and, most important for me, how the story might end. I won’t start writing until I have an end point in mind, though I may not know exactly what the outcome will be–whether it will be happy or sad.

My notes, even at this early point, will be scattered with lists–they are already, about how I might use this fairy tale or that myth, about the state of my world at the beginning of my story.

When I have a very basic outline, maybe a page, and I’m satisfied with it, I’ll think about an opening scene that will introduce my MC and may set up the events that will follow. When the scene takes shape I will be unable to resist writing. And I’m off.

You? How do you get started?

Depending on how you count, here are five prompts:

∙ Try my method. Read or reread ten fairy, folk, or tall tales. Jot down a few notes on the three that interest you most. List ways the stories might go, considering gaps in logic or failures in understanding about the way real people feel and behave–these cracks are spots you can exploit to make a fresh story. Write notes about the characters that are given to you by the story and how you might flesh them out. In your notes, consider who your MC’s may be, because they may not be obvious. For example, you may decide that the hunter in “Snow White” interests you most. Another factor that I haven’t mentioned is time period. Do you want this to be fairy-tale time or an actual historical period or contemporary or future. Explore the possibilities in notes. Write more notes about which point of view to use, first person or third (or even second), what tense. List possible plot developments. Create a short outline. Write notes about where to begin. Finally, write the first scene.

∙ There are several distinct chapters in the myth of Atalanta. These prompts are based on her story. Try out my idea-development method on one or more.

∙ Atalanta’s father wants a son. When he’s presented with a daughter, he dumps her on a mountainside to die of exposure, but she’s adopted and raised by a she-bear until hunters take her in.

∙ There are depictions on ancient Greek vases of Atalanta overcoming Peleus (Achilles’ father and a hero in his own right) in a wrestling match. That’s all there is, as far as I know, so this is a challenge, to build a story out of that image.

∙ This part of her story is the best known, I think. Atalanta’s father finally accepts her and wants her to get married. She’s not interested, so she says she’ll marry only the man who can outrun her in a footrace. She’s victorious time after time until a suitor, Hippomenes, asks Aphrodite for help, and the goddess gives him three golden apples to throw in front of Atalanta, one at a time, to slow her down. He wins; they marry.

∙ Use Atalanta’s story or any other myth or a fairy tale as the basis of a poem–there is a long tradition of doing this. For those of you who are at least high-school age, you might check out some of Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Have you considered Bible stories? Because Joseph in Egypt is a reconciliation story.
    Or what’s the myth about the two friends, where one is accused to die and the other takes his place while he gets his affairs in order… I looked it up: Damon and Pythias.

      • Daughter Of Merlin says:

        I recommend The Lions of Little Rock, which is an amazing story. It take place after the civil war, when segragation was still a thing in Arkansas. A negro named Liz impersonates a white person so she can go to the white middle school. It was a very dangerous thing to do back then, it could result in bombings and other crimes towerds you and your family. She befriends unappreciated white math genius Marlee and together they work to desegregate the town. You should definetly read this book, as I am rubbish at summerizing and it may be exactly what you are looking for. I also had the chance to meet the author, Kristen Levine, after winning a writing contest and the story was actualy based on her mom’s life! It is an exciting, inspirational, and heartwarming book that I recommend for ages 9-99. If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

        -Daughter of Merlin

    • Even in literature, there doesn’t seem to be many stories on forgiveness. I think you’ve found a hole that needs filled!

      The Prodigal Son
      I’ve heard one version of Cinderella (One Eye, Two Eyes, Three Eyes) where the MC forgives her two sisters and gives them food and clothing and good marriages..
      The Seven Swans, perhaps? I’ve heard some versions (usually The Seven Werewolves or The Seven Ravens) where the seven brothers are thrown out when their sister is born and she makes the vow of silence and stitches the shirts to atone for her mother’s cruelty and her own birth.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I hadn’t been thinking of forgiveness as part of reconciliation, but of course it has to be. Thank you!

        • Chrissa Pedersen says:

          I’d suggest looking into the Truth Commission that was established in Guatemala after the genocide that was perpetrated on indigenous peoples. It is an example of healing through exposure of the truth. The indigenous peoples were included in the negotiations for the eventual peace accords and led to recognition of indigenous rights.
          The other conflict that comes to mind is Northern Ireland. I agree with Christie, forgiveness is a key component in order to move forward to any true reconciliation. I wonder if reconciliation on the macro level only exists in fairy tales and myths, real life seems far messier.
          But for your story, maybe two of your MC’s from either side of the conflict find themselves in a dangerous situation and have to work together to get out alive. In the process they learn to trust and forgive one another. They would have to recognize that each had valid reasons for their side in the overarching conflict. I think I’ve seen this done in Star Trek episodes 😉
          And thanks for the recommendation of the RED FAIRY BOOK!

  2. “The problem with querying is…that supply exceeds demand. There are more good writers out there than there are reader eyeballs.”
    I came across this statement by an agent recently and wondered what you thought about it.

    I asked my husband, and he mentioned a study of song popularity. There is a threshold of skill, he said, but once this is surpassed, which song “makes it” and which don’t is completely random.
    This was not comforting.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      It is very hard, and luck often plays a part. I have lots to say on this, so I’ve added it to my list.

  3. Marie Cecilia says:

    I’ve been thinking of starting a blog about being homeschooled and a gymnast and was wondering what the best way to start is, should I introduce myself? or would it be better to jump right in?

    • You’d probably want to do some kind of introduction post, but if that sounds boring, feel free to skip it. There’s probably a spot somewhere where you can sum up your mission in a sentence or two of biography (“Marie is a homeschooled gymnast…”)

  4. Jenalyn Barton says:

    When you mentioned reconciliation in history, two came to mind: relations between the US and Britain, and between the US and Japan. After the Revolutionary War, the US and Britain became long-time allies. With the US and Japan, not only have we become trading partners and such since WWII, but the youth of both countries have had growing fascination with and influence on the culture of the other.

    As for what I do after I get an idea, like Gail, I too have gradually gone from pure pantser to vague outliner. Once I have an idea, I usually start by figuring out who my MC is, what their background is, etc. NaNoWriMo has a great 40-question character profiler that I like to use to help me round out my characters. I also do my world-building and/or setting research. I figure out what the main conflict is going to be, and determine what my ending will need to be like in order to resolve that conflict. Basically I get all of my building blocks molded and ready for me to start building my story (everything but an actual outline, anyway).

    BTW, I only just realized that Camp NaNo is coming up next month. It’ll be interesting to see how much writing I can get done now that I have both a toddler and a newborn (who will be 1 month then) to take care of…

  5. StorytellerLizzie says:

    Any recommendations for for flashbacks in stories? I’m playing with an idea of an MC who had her memories blocked for her protection; but in the main plot she needs to restore them to defeat the antagonist. I was thinking of doing it in a series of circumstances, similar to her erased memories, that overpower the memory block and everything comes rushing back; but if anyone has better suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Lois Metzger’s young adult sci fi novel, CHANGE PLACES WITH ME, deals with blocked memories. I liked it a lot, and you may find some ideas there.

      • I keep planning on using full-sized flashbacks, but they always turn out as what I call a mini-flashback: only one or two paragraphs, centering around one image or idea. If it gives you ideas, this is my latest one (with transitions):

        Keita couldn’t take more than three running strides before her friend fell behind and she had to wait. Too slow. Just like last time. Always, too slow.

        Except for the last two weeks, Keita had not been back to Spritelands since her own failed run. She and the youngest Pensier boys had discovered the Stygians about to attack. They could warn their brothers, scattered among the kingdoms, but her link with her siblings was bound by distance. While the brothers organized escapes for the other kingdoms from the safety of the summit, she was running, running until every step was a clap of thunder shaking her body. One hundred and fifty miles was a meaningless number, time was meaningless, nothing existed but the fact that her home was in danger and she must reach it.

        She was too late. Long before she arrived, she saw the column of black smoke like poison against the pale winter sky. Still she ran, until she was among the smoke that stung her lungs and threaded through trees still frosted with snow. She’d past Glen in horse form, streaked with sweat, trying to carry Zuri and their sister Avie to safety. Her father was crammed among rocks, trying to hide, face blistered, barely conscious. She’d only glimpsed Felix, solid black against the swirling smoke, framed by flames that consumed the innocent trees. All that running, all that pain, and she was too late. Too slow.

        “Can you… sense again?” Zuri panted. Keita rolled her eyes. Zuri had to be asking so that she could rest

  6. MisplacedPoetry says:

    Are there any good stories on reconciliation with self? As in the character has to learn to forgive themselves while the plot progresses? Cause that’s a thing some of my characters have to deal with.

    • It seems like a lot of fairytales are more superficial, more about what goes on on the outside instead of the inside. You could probably adapt other plotlines to include that issue easily enough, but it might be hard to find one with that already includes it.
      Some ideas…
      The Ugly Duckling
      Oedipus (I believe there’s a second half, or a sequel, where he ‘repents’ and changes)
      Christmas Carol
      The Tempest
      ‘As You Like It’ has a couple of characters who change and forgive themselves, but they are minor characters so the change seems super fast and not very convincing. You could research other Shakespeare plays that might have the same issue.

  7. For learning how to take an idea and shape it into a novel, I found the book “2k to 10k” by Rachel Aaron helpful. I don’t outline quite as detailed as she does, but once I learned the “rules” I could “break” them/tweak the process to suit me. The point of the book is to learn to write faster, but I used it to learn how to be more organized in my novel writing.

  8. This is a great topic! I love a good outline, but am a pantser by nature because I feel like I don’t really know my characters or my world until I’m writing them. So once I settle on an idea, I also start with a list of what I’d like to accomplish in the story, and expand the list as I go. This eventually evolves into an outline in the truer sense of the word as the story falls into place. I hope to grow as a writer to the point where I can start right off with a decent outline.
    In revisions, on the other hand, I thrive on organization. I make multiple checklists of what I hope to achieve in each draft. I love watching my progress grow in that way.

  9. Greetings! I’m having trouble with a secondary character named Bellatrice, who appears in my fairy story (which has the temporary title; The Bravest One Of All)…She’s too much of a Dorothy-Ann/Hermione Granger personality. I can’t figure out how to make her different, yet still be able to stand out from my other secondary characters. My current choices are…
    1: keep trying and find a way to make Bella different from what I originally thought she would be
    2: get rid of Bella’s character, but put her name on a different character
    3: get rid of her entirely
    4: kill her off early in the story (which, on hand, gives my MC more motivation to become “the bravest one of all”, but on the other hand, I want my story to be light-hearted and I’m not sure I can get away with killing a character)
    What do you think? As always, thanks in advance for all advice! : )

    • If the character has no real use in the story, or her acts of importance could be accomplished by anyone else in the story, I would just take her out. The fewer characters in the cast, the easier the cast is to remember. That’s my experience. I’ve had problems with too large of casts.

  10. I need a little help naming a monster. What would you call something that looked like this? I need a name that describes it, while sounding really scary. Possibly a shorter name, but really, if you think of any really cool names looking at the picture, just say them. I can’t think of much of anything cool myself, and any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

    • The picture doesn’t show up. You’ll have to describe it.

      For creating new creatures, I like to take words that already exist and mash them together. I decided that my grasslands needed a bison-like creature, but ‘bison’ or ‘buffalo’ seemed too tied to reality. I found the word ‘wisent’, which is another name for the European bison, and added ‘bovine’ (cow-like), and ended up with a bosent.

    • Cross of leopard and peacock:
      Saw it was supposed to be jaguar/peacock:
      Proudpaw (might sound more like an individual creature’s name)
      Based on looks:
      Greenback (might sound like American money at first…)

      Is it winged? Could you incorporate the name “cat”? Do the inhabitants of your world have either great cats or peacocks? That would influence whether their name for it is a take-off, or a new word.
      Several of the names I listed would not have immediately obvious pronunciations – a disadvantage I’d say. They perhaps could be spelled differently to give a clearer sound.

        • Also, the culture I am working with is based off of the mesoamerican cultures (you know, incans, olmecs, aztecs, and mayans), and a lot of the names have rougher sounds. I think their culture probably has both jaguars and peacocks, so they would probably recognize them at a glance like we do.

  11. What about songs? You talked about how you can work off of myths and stories, ect. Have you ever tried taking song lyrics and twisting them up to make a story or poem? I recently wrote a poem from the song “Only Our Rivers” by the band Planxty. — actually, I was inspired by you section on Poetry in Writer to Writer, Gail. Thank you! I even made a display/picture art out of the words!

    I’m very bad at this, and though I am getting better at applying restraints to my ideas…I must ask. Don’t you get to many ideas when you do your research, Gail? As I said, I am very bad at it. (:

    Thank you for this post! It fits right in with what I am working on! (Your posts usually do!) I will definitely think on this!

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