As part of my Writing Life, I often ponder the following question: how do I know which project to write about? I am usually bombarded with snippets of ideas or “what if’s” or unusual situations that could blossom into a wonderful range of possible projects. It’s not always easy for me to recognize from that mess of tidbits what is the right idea. How do I know if an idea is worthy of the amount of time I’m going to spend writing about it?
When I ask these questions of more established writers, I usually get some variation of the following advice:
- Go with the idea that you are most passionate about. This is the idea that won’t leave you alone. You find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about it, getting up to jot down a few notes.
- Put away all your ideas, walk away from them for a week or two, and then pull them out again. Often times, your ideas will weed themselves out when you puzzle over why you ever thought it was a good idea in the first place.
- Throw away the first three ideas, because they’re the obvious ones, and go with the fourth idea.
That’s what I did when I chose to write about Nell Letterly, my martial artist amateur sleuth. My fourth idea turned into Nell, a menopausal single mom of a teenager.
Years ago, one of my critique partners–Dolores Johnson, author of the Mandy Dyer dry cleaner’s series–kept suggesting that I write about a martial artist amateur sleuth. Dolores had been a journalist specializing in the dry cleaning trade, and she turned her insider information into her wonderful, humorous series. At the time, I was training in the martial arts while writing adventure science fiction. Dolores advised–as many writers do–to write what you know about. Well, I have never journeyed on a spaceship (although I would dearly love to!) but I did rack up many hours in the dojo.
I decided to give it a try. I wanted my sleuth to be an instructor. Most of the instructors I knew were young hotshots, late teens, early twenties, with energy to burn. So I started writing about a young twenty-something woman martial artist. After a chapter or two, I ran out of what to write about her. I just couldn’t get into that character’s head. She was nothing like me, and I couldn’t understand where she was coming from. When I came up with a middle-aged mom who was more like me–dedicated and hard working, but not exactly gifted athletically–her character leapt off the page.
Now, Nell won’t let me alone. She makes me write about her. I think she’s become a more original character because she also has something of me in her. You can’t go wrong with a project that chooses you!