Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

I looked the quote up. Turns out it’s a proverb, not a quote from a poem as I had first thought. Somehow, I had expected to find the line came from a poem by Robert Frost or Henry David Thoreau. Instead, the phrase is the perfect metaphor for the writing life.

There’s an oak tree in my side yard the arborist tells me is 500 years old. I find the concept hard to wrap my head around. But who am I to argue with and arborist? If he is right, then this tree was a sapling when the Calusa Indians settled this area in 1500. A great oak from a little acorn.

Writing stories is similar. It’s the tiny seed, the first event, that gives birth to 100,000 words. Rarely does the idea for a book or story spring full-blown into the writer’s mind, or this writer’s mind at least. Often, the idea is triggered by a tidbit of conversation overheard in a restaurant, or a leading edge of a news story, or headline half read from a newspaper. Nothing concrete, nothing complete, merely a wisp of something that sparks the imagination. A plastic bag floating out of the window of the submerged wreck was the seed that gave rise to the scenario that grew into Death by Blue Water. The plastic bag became a hand, the hand was attached to a murder victim. The story was born.

As with any seed, the gardener’s job is to plant and nurture it. Leaves and branches of new ideas sprout from the main stalk filling out the story. The author, like the gardener, initially lets the story and the characters decide their own avenues of growth. Branches sprout and seem vigorous for a while, then die out, or a strong branch may grow from an unexpected limb and cross the main trunk. The author, plotter or pantser, follows the story and keeps an eye on these offshoots not yet trying to reign it in. In the end the author returns to the story picture and looking at the whole, prunes away excess words, dead branches, and unimportant (although sometimes much loved) storylines, to leave only the vibrant, living, story behind. From the small germ of an idea a solid and strong story tree has grown.

Writers, are you surprised by the route your ideas have taken?

Readers, are you surprised to learn the seeds that have sparked your favorite books?


Author: kaitcarson

I write mysteries set in South Florida. The Hayden Kent series is set in the Florida Keys. Hayden is a SCUBA diving paralegal who keeps finding bodies. Underwater, no one can hear you scream! Catherine Swope is a Miami Realtor with a penchant for finding bodies in the darndest places. I live in an airpark in Fort Denaud, FL with my husband, five cats, and a flock of conures. And oh yes, a Piper Cherokee 6 in the hangar!

14 thoughts on “Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow”

  1. Wow, 500 years? That makes me wonder how old some of the trees around my house are. And I’m constantly surprised not only by where stories take me, but where my writing journey has gone. Not really what I had planned.


  2. Surprised? Yes, indeed! In my last book, all I had was the title, because it couldn’t be ignored. My research took me to different places than where the book ended up. Not sure how that happens.


  3. What a beautiful, perfect post! Thanks, Kait!

    I write for the surprises that often ‘feel’ as if they aren’t created by me, and the satisfaction of turning them into ideas that to me, are special.


  4. This is the perfect post to kick off our new theme, Kait! So cool your tree is 500 years old, and how amazing that something so grandiose came from something so tiny. I never really know whodunit in my mysteries until I start approaching the end, so that’s always a fun surprise! 🙂


  5. I want to hear more about this tree. It does amaze me that living things can survive that long.

    I’m always amazed at the little sparks that ignite an idea. From a creepy house to a song to meeting an interesting person.


  6. Not a “book” comment, but a tree comment. I love trees with “history.” I grew up on a farm in Ohio with many, many old trees. My most favorite possessions are things my dad made and still makes from trees from our farm. He makes tables (not very many, and mostly smaller ones), cutting boards, tool totes, jewelry boxes, and the best little storage boxes with drawers. He doesn’t always use trees from the farm, but when he does, he writes a little note with that information somewhere on the bottom or on the back . Everyone in our extended family gets boxes that he has made for every special occasion.

    So, when a tree can no longer be a tree, it can be a box full of secret things — OK — there is the story idea, years from now someone opens the box and finds not only the note that it was hand-made, but also an “object” with a note saying this belonged to “someone” and was the key to — and the rest of the answer is torn off.

    OK historical mystery writere — go to it. If you come up with a great story, I can get you a box from my dad. Let me know!!!


  7. 3 no 7, I’ve been noodling with a non-mystery for years called BOXES. It’s one of those evil vs. good fantasy stories.

    My mom crocheted afghans. Hundreds of them. They have become the family’s treasures. I know you love those wonderful boxes from your dad. xoxo


  8. Hi everybody, so sorry for the late comments! I have been in Miami for work since last week, ended up having to stay through the weekend and just got home! So, although I could post my blog, I couldn’t respond until just now.

    @Liz, so true. me too. And how the journey and the plan have changed over the years.
    @Sue, are you happy with it? Did it ultimately take you where you wanted to go and where you needed to be? Starting with a title. What wonderful yeast! Share that, please.
    @Peg, my pleasure! I know exactly what you mean. Do you have the experience of reading your draft first, second or final and finding nuggets that suddenly take on new meaning? Sometimes I wonder just who slipped those little gems in there.
    @Kate. Thanks! I’ve framed someone in every one of my books. I never get the right bad guy until the third draft. Sad, but true. It’s never who I plot, and it’s never who I think did it when I write that first paragraph.
    @Kimberly, I keep meaning to get a second opinion on that tree. I have my doubts, but it’s an oak and they are long lived. The trunk has been filled in with bricks in places, the thing is huge. It’s been trimmed by every family who lived in this house over the years, had to be, and every year, it sheds its tiny acorns. It shows up on maps from the 1700s so I know it’s been around at least that long. I guess a few hundred more years are possible. I tried to get a picture, but somehow modern iPhones don’t do it justice. Spooky houses. Totally my thing. Old ruins in the woods. Oh, yes! abandoned chimneys, or steps that go nowhere. I can’t resist.
    @3 no 7 YES – perfect. I love the idea and the concept. Your Dad must be a wonderful person, and what a great lesson in recycling. Have you read Pane and Suffering by Cheryl Hollon? Something in your description reminded me of part of her storyline.
    @Sue, dibs on beta reading
    @Becky, Thank you!
    @Peg, go for it!


  9. Kait, I’m happy enough with the outcome (it’s Murder for a Cash Crop). If it weren’t already published, I would probably keep fiddling with it, trying to make the plot go where my initial research aimed. Published is the only way something is really done, right? As for the beta read, thanks for the offer! Will keep you posted.


  10. OK, Sue and Peg, I am visiting my dad in Ohio in June for his 95th birthday, so I’ll pick up boxes for you, and when you finish your “box books” I’ll send you a box. He is an avid reader, so he will appreciate that you all took “inspiration” from his boxes.

    Anyone else up for the challenge? He has lots of boxes, and I can get one for any or all of you.

    Peg, my mom made afghans as well, big, little, and every size in between. When she died a couple of years ago, I helped clean out her “sewing” room and there were multiple dozens of afghans. My brother and I made a list of every child we could think of — children of children, children of cousins, etc — and each of them got an afghan the next year for Christmas from Aunt Florence along with a decorative canister (she collected those as well) filled with her costume jewelry, handkerchiefs, and assorted knick-knacks. I still hear from the adults how much the kids love playing with afghans and Aunt Florence’s stuff.


  11. That’s a nice story, 3 no 7. When we cleaned out my dad’s house, I found an unfinished baby sweater my mom had started to crochet before Alzheimer’s took her. I finished it and gave it to my newest grandbaby. They were so pleased!

    It will be fun to do the box story.


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