Thursday, October 26, 2006

Thursday Talk-time with Jessica Hart

This Thursday we have Romance author Jessica Hart, winner of this years RNA Romance Prize, who is going to talk to us about...
The Vagaries of Inspiration

‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ is a question much derided by some writers.

(‘What do they expect us to say?’ sneered one famous author in an interview I read once. ‘That we pop down to the shop on the corner and pick up a few ideas when we need them?’) I think it’s actually a very interesting question, although it’s often hard to remember once you’ve finished a book where the original idea came from.

I quite like it when my editor gives me something to start with. For instance, she suggested at the beginning of the year that I write a duet set in outback Australia and London, which wasn’t a lot to go on, but better than nothing. I spent several months with my mind absolutely blank about what to do with the settings I’d been given, and I was getting perilously close to panic when I had the germ of an idea …

I can remember the precise moment of germination, too. I was in my bathroom, listening to Dido (‘how sad and weird’, my 15 year-old goddaughter would doubtless say). There’s a song on Life for Rent about the developing relationship between the singer and Mary’s boyfriend, Danny, who she’s keeping an eye on while her friend is away in India. It’s about shifting loyalties, and the image of the two of them consoling themselves for Mary’s absence was my starting point, although in the end it had nothing much to do with the final plot.

Other ideas come from my own experiences, or those of my friends. Contracted: Corporate Wife was me giving my best friend a fantasy ending to her own problems as a single mother living in a tiny flat with two sulky adolescents and very little room to manoeuvre financially. As for Business Arrangement Bride, where my heroine, Mary, tries to teach Tyler what a woman wants from a modern relationship, let me just say that my partner, John, will be getting a copy with long sections heavily underlined!

Once the idea has germinated, I can move into plotting mode. Contrary to my usual slap-happy approach to writing, I do, in fact, have a tried and tested technique when it comes to plotting, and I’m here to share it exclusively with members of the Pink Heart Society … Here’s what you do. Firstly, ignore people who insist that writing is always a solitary activity. Then get together a couple of friends (I find women friends work best; in my experience men don’t have a clue about how a romance works), and take them down to your favourite bar and buy them a bottle of wine. Train your friends carefully, though. They must learn to keep coming up with ideas that you pooh-pooh, and not mind while you sneer that their clever idea would never work, and then decide that if you just twisted it slightly, it just might, so that you can claim all the credit yourself.

I’ll always start with something subtle along the lines of ‘Oh God, what am I going to do, I’ve got to start writing tomorrow and I haven’t got a plot!’ accompanied by much hand-wringing and hair-tearing. I’ll then give them what I’ve got, which at this stage is perilously little. So, for instance, when it came to the duet I’m writing now, I told them that there had to be two stories, one set in the outback and one in London. What if, I said, there were two sisters, and one went to Australia, leaving behind a distraught boyfriend? And what if the other sister fell in love with him while she was comforting him? So why would the first one go to Australia, answer me that? And why does the second sister fall in love with the boyfriend when he’s being such a drip?

The ideas my friends came up with were really interesting, especially as they both have sisters and I don’t, so it’s rather a mysterious relationship to me. (I don’t have children either, and I find them really helpful when it comes to heroines who are single mothers and what they would/would not be prepared to do for their children.) Naturally, I didn’t tell them this though. I just sat there pouring the wine and saying , ‘No, no, that wouldn’t work’/’Nope, I’ve done that before’/‘No self-respecting woman would ever do that’/‘Heroes don’t do that kind of thing’ until they got quite cross with me. This is always the point when I tell them loftily to write their own books if that’s the story they want.

Having wrung them dry, I went home and – take note, because this is the critical point in the whole plotting process - I had a bath. Not just any bath, of course. A plotting bath requires closed curtains, candles, music, a drink and a resolution not to think at all as I sink back into the bubbles with a sigh. At the recent RNA conference I attended a session on overcoming writer’s block, and someone suggested that fragrances could help the creative process. I suspect it’s more the ritual of it all that works for me, but amazingly it does work.

Somehow all the wild ideas that have been whirling around my head thanks to my plotting team’s input settle down. It’s as if the debris sinks to the bottom and I’m left with a few nuggets that suddenly take shape and make sense. Of course sister two has always been in love with the boyfriend, that’s why sister one rushes off to Australia … and then it all starts to fall into place. I can’t tell you what a relief it is when that happens! I have always believed I should be able to claim the cost of my bathroom – a thing of beauty, as you can see - against tax, but my accountant insists that I can’t, which just goes to show how much he knows about writing.

So where do you go to find your inspiration? Any funny tales of overheard conversations or epiphanies in strange places? Tell us!

Jessica is a winner of the pretigious RITA award for Best Traditional Romance.

Her latest Harlequin Romance novel, BUSINESS ARRANGEMENT BRIDE is out now in North America and the UK!!!

Find out more at her website.


  1. LOL I also have team. We meet over coffee, usually in Fiona's kitchen (as it's the only one that's tidy) - and Sharon jabs her pencil on her notepad going 'that won't work. Why would she do that?' (She got a 1st in her English degree, you understand ...)

  2. Jessica gave a wonderful talk at last summer's RNA conference about her A toZ of romance writing. Some of this figured heavily...

    I do think the question of where do ideas come from is v interesting. For me they are least likely to be ideas I have written down in the past and most likely to be something that grabs me now. I find editors are lovely at providing a spark of inspiration. Words like I love pirate heros when you have just written a pirate villian can spark the imagination, or the words have you thought about Vikings or what ever...

  3. I'm very glad the inspiration struck, regardless of where it came from. I really enjoyed both Business Arrangement Bride and Contracted: Corporate Wife. In fact, reading Business Arrangement Bride gave me a flash of inspiration of my own. Whether that will turn into anything is another matter, of course (and it won't be fiction, because I don't have any talent at all for writing fiction), but I'm hopeful.

  4. As a reader, I find it interesting to learn about how a book came to be. What sparked it off, the H&h inspirations. I also enjoy looking at pics of where the story is set.

    Aha, I just looked at my spreadsheet and realized I have Contracted: Corporate Wife on my TBR. It just got bumped up :)

  5. Jopee - you have your TBR on a SPREADSHEET? That's bloody brilliant! (If you're organized, and that's something I'm a big fan of.)

    Jessica I agree sometimes you just need to separate the wheat from the chaff and see what's left. When I get stuck my favorite thing is brainstorming and playing the what if game with my cp(s). With my last, Michelle threw out a single suggestion and it changed EVERYTHING in my ending. You just never know when it will hit you!

  6. Jessica, love your technique...the brainstorming sounds like fun! Thanks for sharing.


  7. LOL Donna! My memory is like a sieve so I have a spreadsheet called books with TBR and read pages otherwise, I'd forget that I have read a certain book or it is in my TBR and pick it up again. Mind you, its the only part of my life that I have organized :D

  8. Jessica I looooove this idea. All the gals I know who are good for this don't live in the same city -so we do MSN every now and then but a glass of wine on the desk isn't quite the same ;).

    My hubby tries to help but when he starts I have to put two fingers in my ears and yell so he doesn't unravel all my good work. I tend to let him name the pets in my books just so he doesn't feel left out.

    But I am sooooo with you on the "water" thing. At the beach, in the shower, during a rainstorm. Ideas simply flow. Truly. It's like magic.