First Step: The Concept

I begin a fiction project with a short statement of several sentences laying out the general premise of the book I plan to write. I call this my concept. If I cannot describe the essence of my book in a few sentences, my ideas are not sufficiently focused to start work.

Okay, so how does one arrive at this nugget? In other words, where do book ideas come from? I talk about this in general terms in my article, “Motives, Ideas and Creativity.” Now it’s time to turn to the specific. It has been said that book ideas arise out of a single question: what if? What if I came home one evening to find my house occupied by a gang of criminals? What if the person I married turned out to be someone totally different from who I thought he or she was? What if I received a threatening e-mail intended for someone else? The possibilities are endless.

The idea for my book Wilt Thou Be Mine came to me in just this way. I had been widowed for several months when I learned that a man in the next block had also lost his wife. I did not know either him or his wife, but something about the concurrence of these two tragic situations stirred my creative juices. I thought, “What if a man became obsessed with his best friend’s widow and arranged for his own wife’s demise so he could have her?” I decided to develop this idea several years later. My concept became: a widow struggling with her own grief and that of her teenaged daughter becomes the stalking object of her late husband’s best friend. When the stalker’s wife dies in a tragic accident, she suspects foul play and embarks on a mission to uncover the truth.

Another book was born when I went on an afternoon’s tour of Underground Railroad sites in central Illinois. I had always found this subject interesting, but my interest grew to fascination thanks to a well-informed, charismatic guide. I mulled over what I had learned for the next few days and came up with this question: What if a nineteenth century white woman married a planter and moved to the south where she developed an unlikely friendship with her personal slave? The more I thought about the roles of women in the nineteenth century and, in particular, the fate of slave women, the more my excitement grew. Within days I had a concept for my novel Last Stop Freedom: Two strong women, one white, the other black, are trapped by their culture and circumstances in situations of bondage. The Underground Railroad offers both an escape to freedom.

You will probably create and discard a number of ideas before you settle on the one that kindles the fire in your belly. This last point is essential. Writing a book is a grueling process requiring determination and persistence. Only those who are truly passionate about their ideas will make it to those final words:The End.

That said, let those “what if’s” fly!

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