Friday, August 17, 2018

Starting Points by Betsy Ashton

As a writer, I'm often asked where do I find my ideas? How do I get started?

I start with two words: What if. I find this works with everything I write, whether it's a short story, a novella, or a novel.

Take my Mad Max series as a starter. In Max 1, Unintended Consequences, the what if question was: what would happen if a mother decided she no longer want to take care of her children? When Max's daughter emerges from a coma after a terrible car accident, she is diagnosed with having a traumatic brain injury. Her entire personality changes, and not for the better. This leads Max to have to decide what role she will play in raising her two grandchildren.

Max 2, Uncharted Territory, raises the bar with what would happen if the family were suddenly thrust into an alien environment? That environment is post-Katrina Mississippi, a food desert, a land washed clean by the tidal surge, a land where locals were suspicious of any outsider. Max has to figure out how to keep a growing, extended family clothed and fed, all the while keeping her eyes open for new perils.

And in Max 3, Unsafe Haven,  the what if question is what would happen if you took your grandson to a hospital to set a broken leg and all hell broke loose? How would Max cope with fears of losing both her grandson and her boyfriend at the same time?

You see where I'm going with this. The right what if question sets the stage for everything to come. So when I began working on my latest, Out Of the Desert, my what if question was personal, very close to home. When I was twelve, my favorite cousin died. He was a year older. I've always wondered what he might have become, as any parent who has lost a child wonders. My cousin wouldn't leave me alone.

He emerged in a short story named "Toad," which I was lucky enough to have accepted in the VWC Centennial Anthology. Toad was a dreamer. My cousin was a dreamer. Therein lay one comparison. I thought the short story would be the end of writing about Toad. Now, 80K words into the second major rewrite, I'm drawing to a close on the story of what might have happened. Toad grows up. He experiences love and loss, success and sorrow. He wonders if Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Could he go home again? And that, dear friends, is the impetus for the novel in stories. What if he did go home again? What would Toad the man find? Would he find Toad the Dreamer alive inside him after four decades?

I'm not one for spoilers. I'll have to see how the ending plays out. But, what if I hadn't listened to my cousin's voice? What if I hadn't cared enough to imagine a life beyond age thirteen?

What are your what if triumphs?


Betsy Ashton is the author of the Mad Max mystery series, Unintended Consequences, Uncharted Territory, and Unsafe Haven. She also wrote a dark psychological suspense novel, Eyes Without A Face, about a female serial killer, who unpacks her life and career in first person.


Leah St. James said...

I think "what if" is the best impetus for a story. (It's what Stephen King recommends, too!) I used it for my ghost story Adrienne's Ghost: What if a body were discovered in the big, creepy storage basement at FBI Headquarters. :-) I think we all ask that question in some form or another when we're plotting out/starting a new story, or even creating the next scene. I'm glad you finished your cousin's story.

Diane Burton said...

"What if" starts every story I've written. My 1st published work started as "what if aliens beamed up an over-weight Earth girl when they wanted Cindy Crawford?" With any story when I want to up the stakes, I'll ask what if... I admire how you've gone from what if to a complex plot. Great that you told your cousin's story.

Jannine Gallant said...

I'm not sure you can have a story without a "what if" moment. But those "what if" ideas come from different places. An idea fluttering in our brains, or maybe something that happened to us like your cousin. I've had random events trigger "what if" ideas. When my dog uncovered a deer leg in the woods and ran up with it, I couldn't help thinking, "What if it was a human bone?"

Margo Hoornstra said...

My first book came about after our first cruise to Alaska, and was based on our activities. While my in laws were in rooms on either side of us, I made it a single father in one and his teenaged daughter and hired guardian/woman of interest (wink, wink) in the other. I think it made for some interesting reading. LOL

Rolynn Anderson said...

I'm enmeshed in a family reunion, so I'll have to be quick. Love the what if's involved in writing...and since I'm a pantser, I 'what if' every morning at the computer. So much fun!

Vonnie Davis said...

Great post, Betsy. "What if..." always works. It can develop some interesting story lines.

Brenda whiteside said...

Fun post. I can admit I haven't used the what if. But talking about your friend sparked a memory for me. My best two friends, guys, in high school and were in my wedding, were killed in a fee accident a month after. What if??

Brenda whiteside said...

Car accident. On my phone with fat fingers.

Alicia Dean said...

Enjoyed the post. I always use 'what if' as well, it's a great way for a story to blossom in your mind. I love your 'what ifs'

remullins said...

Where do you get your ideas? One of the most frequent and hardest question a writer has to answer. Loved the post.