Ever wonder how to come up with story ideas? Ask any writer and invariably they will tell you “life.”
A writer's greatest source of ideas comes from their real-life experiences. From going to the grocery store to careening down a snowy mountain, real life is every writer's inspiration. You just need to look and you'll find a story.
Inspiration is Everywhere
Our interviewee this month uses real life as inspiration for her romance stories. No, it's not just romantic events that make it into her stories. Sometimes it's the simple things, like buying a necklace at a department store.
Even if something like that doesn't spawn an entire story, you can surely use the experience in a story.
Merry Goodman sat down with us this month to give us some tips on using real life in writing.
Meet Merry Goodman
Merry loves to write contemporary and inspirational romance short stories and novellas, thirty-minute to two-hour reads, sweet romances with some sizzle in them. They warm your heart and give flight to your imagination. For someone who hated English in High School and University, she sometimes wonders how she got here.
She had animals on four acres for a while: horses; dogs; cats, one named Max, who emitted horrific gas if hugged; chickens; and some hilarious ducks, Indian Runners, which ran rather than waddled. Now, in the city, she has only four houseplants and a ginormous sugar maple tree outside for squirrels and birds.
She has published two series:
Love at First Sight is a series of short stories that are all clean and sweet. They're forty-five-minute reads of an encounter, then love and connection.
You Found Me and Loved Me is a series of longer tales. They're sweet stories that are almost clean, with just a little sizzle for the imagination.
Get to Know Merry's Work
Welcome, Merry! I have to say you’re probably the most prolific writer we’ve ever had in our community. Can you give me an overview of the type of books you write and how many you’ve published in the past several months?
I experienced a continental divide in my writing by joining Write to Publish in the July 2019 class. Prior to that, I wrote romance stories, thirty of them, but did nothing with them, actually telling no one about them, my secret. They ranged from fifty to one hundred fifty pages, and looking back at them, I like the stories, but they desperately need editing.
Of those stories, I worked eight of them into a series, two families meshing, where the brothers of one met the sisters of the other as they got married over time. Those I am publishing in my series: You Found me and Loved Me.
When I joined W2P, I realized that I needed to write something shorter, and in the first three weeks of the class, I wrote my first publishable short story—thirty pages. I put it on the W2P site in three pieces and also sent it to my beta readers and copy editor as time marched on.
In those eight weeks, though, I was actually writing five stories (the ones in the box set), working on them simultaneously, each one a bit ahead of the others. It was a round-robin, work on one, then switch, keeping the characters separate via outlines. I kept my beta readers busy, one story after another submitted to them.
I needed a “Schedule to Publish” file which kept track of where each story was in the process. I was able to publish story #1 (Recipe for Love) right on time for W2P – September 19, quickly followed by the other four and then the box set of the five.
As I was doing that, I was writing more, and refining my other eight stories written before W2P, and getting ideas for new stories to follow the box of five.
I like Romance, as I have been a watcher of Hallmark and other love-story TV channels forever. I LOVE the Hollywood model—encounter, build-up, disaster driving them apart, then reunion and a wedding—LOVE conquers. That is what I write, following the model, though in the very beginning, I did not, and had to edit in a disaster.
Currently, I have ten books out there on Amazon, with one more ready to be published in the next few days and another going to my proofreader today.
I have four more in the stable of You Found Me and Loved Me. They need final editing and proofreading.
All this happened from September 19th, from the pushing of Joe and Sarah. Bless them for showing me how to make it happen.
The Source of Each Story
And you just bundled several together, correct? Can you tell me a little about those books?
They represent the five stories I wrote during the W2P class, five independent ideas, three of which came directly from life experiences, and two from my imagination.
Originally I thought of producing paperbacks from them, but they were so short, who would pay $10 for a 30-page paper book? As I got the five finished, I realized that they would make a good series and be big enough to make a real paperback. Unfortunately, the paperback idea came well after the ebook set was published, so they are not connected very well, having slightly different titles.
Now that I have that process down, I will plan on a paperback when the series ebook is published, and they will be together.
Recipe for Love came from my Tomato Bisque recipe. I went to a plant store looking for Basil for my own soup, and much of the encounter was actually me (though not the date). The sailing date also came from my experiences sailing (which I love to do), though the accident did not. That was my imagination, a needed disaster.
The Neighbor came from my imagination of needing an onion for my beef soup and going to the store for it. My imagination invented Estelle doing that, but with a neighbor, Dr. Percy.
Bad Date Redeemed was purely my imagination, though much of the story comes from where I’ve been in the Twin Cities.
Can Ice Cream Bring Me Love came from a visit to Stillwater, MN, to the malt shop in the story, sitting where Simon was, looking down the street, imagining Kara walking with her kids. I related the story idea to my friends as we sat outside the shop waiting for our table. They were amazed. Much of those beginning scenes, I did, seeing the eagle soaring over the river and others.
North to Alaska came from a seven-day cruise I took in August 2019. The story was partly written before I went, then finished on the ship, the Norwegian Jewel. I priced rings (didn’t buy) and did all the stuff they did in the story. Not the wedding, of course, but I did look at the chapel, to see what it was like.
On What's Attractive About the Romance Genre
What attracts you to the romance genre?
Absolutely it is the power of love and the connection it brings between two people. Nothing is more powerful. Huge sacrifices are made in the name of love. I want to write about that, how people become connected, to see the tendrils of love wrap around two hearts.
I have considered other genres, but I can’t get my mind around them, so I stick to Romance. As I walk around in life, I come up with ideas; they slap me in the face.
The most recent one is to write a story of an eighteen-year-old girlfriend who had stories read to her when she was little. She longed to be a character in those stories. I offered to write a story involving her, and she jumped at the chance.
She will help me with how she thinks and acts (she will be twenty-six in the story) and what kind of man she wants. I told her that men need training, and all that she wants will not be there at the encounter. To imagine her finding her life-mate just makes my juices flow.
Next will be about a young woman, newly pregnant, seeking an abortion. She meets a guy who convinces her to keep her baby. She is destitute, and he takes her in. One thing leads to another and of course, to Happy Ever After ultimately.
On Getting Ideas from Real Life
I’m always getting asked this question: “Where do you get your ideas?” I always give some rambling answer, but boiled down, the real answer is life! Do you use a lot of real-life experiences in your writing?
Most of my ideas come from some part of real life. One of my “in the stable” early stories was about a man who moved to Estes, CO, to be in the “Model Rocket Capital” of the world, the home of Estes Industries, a maker of model rockets. He wrote science-fiction novels. I knew those rockets when I was young, a guy who made and flew them, a friend.
My story The Christmas Surprise came from going to the Von Maur department store, looking for a jewelry gift, just as in the story. I talked with the clerk the way the story related, but of course, I added parts to make it a story. The disaster came from me watching too many cop and spy shows on TV.
I gave other examples above. A dear friend once said, when I described some event in my life, “A story will come from that.” I don’t remember the event, but it was not far wrong. Life events generate stories in my mind.
I used an Airbnb that I know for Girls’ Weekend, inventing the characters, but used the house and property as I know it, even having old wood out back where a kitten could be stuck.
Observe what is happening around you, places, events, and people. I use my imagination and spin a story from it.
On Developing a Story
Okay, so you have some experiences under your belt. How do you go from random events to a full story?
I have a spreadsheet of characters, though I think I need to update it for the new books, so I don’t duplicate names. There might be some duplication, but I’m okay with it for now.
For the story itself, I first write an outline with the four major points, encounter, build-up, disaster, and reunion. I then flesh those out some, with things that could happen. Build-up could be a series of dates, where they go and what happens. The disaster points are the major things that cause the breakup and what happens during it.
Then I write the story to fit the outline. It helps me keep track of where I am going not to get lost. I wrote a couple of stories without an outline, but they were short. Longer stories need some guidance and I discipline myself to make an outline for even short stories. It’s an easy place to make notes that I think of while I am working on some other story.
If I think of an idea, I try to write it down as quickly as possible, with everything I thought about it. Clearly, that is the beginning, but it is important not to forget what came to you. I’ve had some folder names for months with no work being done on the tale, which will sit in that folder. Sometimes stories get pushed down the line by more interesting ideas.
On Using Real People
Are you ever worried someone will recognize themselves in your story and get upset?
At this point, no, my characters and stories are mostly fiction. Even in the story about my friend, I use her first name, but the rest is imagined. Since her story will be eight years in the future, who knows what will happen to her by then. That is by intent, a fiction tale.
I have disclaimer language in the copyright text saying that the tale is fictional.
On Romance in Real Life
I always like to ask romance authors this: Are you a romantic in real life?
I have license for my characters to be much more romantic than I am. My stories are sweet and clean or almost clean, so no graphic sex, no cussing, none of that.
I am not that way sometimes, given to fits of frustration, which are not pretty. I can leave all that out in a story.
Advice for Writers
What’s the hardest thing about writing for you? How do you overcome that?
For me, writing is pure pleasure. The hard parts are what come after.
The first story that I sent to a Beta Reader came back with a sea of red ink, almost causing me to quit. It took some time to accept what she wrote, took out, changed, vomited on, etc. With their help (I have several Beta Readers), my writing is better (less red ink), and I learned to love their suggestions.
I can write a story in a week (The Christmas Surprise was finished in five days of a seven-day writing challenge, 2K to 17k words in that time), but editing, beta reading, listening to my story (my computer reads it to me—Word can do that rather well), copy editing, proofreading, more editing, blah, blah, blah takes three to six times longer than writing.
I overcome it by pushing myself to do it. That is where W2P really helped, to have a deadline to target.
Love the Hobby of Writing
Any other advice for budding romance authors out there?
Don’t get discouraged. Romance is a tough market. There are millions of books, but also millions of voracious readers too.
To get noticed in a search is the key. In my experience, only ads will give you a chance at visibility, unless you are already in the top 100 in a search. I once made it to #93 in free two-hour reads. It didn’t last long, and giving away books didn’t produce any subsequent sales. That is disappointing to me.
Writing is like gold rush prospecting. Only a few will make money at it. The people who want to help you achieve your dream will make money. Use them to the degree you can, but remember that they will promise your book to be the next bestseller. That’s probably not true (maybe true), mostly just hype to get you to buy what they are selling. Look at them carefully.
For me, W2P was well worth the investment, for the passion in me to write and publish what I wrote. I have bought some others, but mostly they are hype.
But for you, let writing be a passion (it is for me). Treat it as such and let yourself go. Let it be a hobby. Most hobbies cost lots of money. Let your writing be that for you, if you can.
Some writers are “seat of pants” writers, no outline. Others need some framework to keep the story in bounds. Choose one and embrace it, stick to it.
If you get tired of it, take a break. Dream up a different story, make notes, then come back to the one which is killing you (from editing probably).
Use software aids for editing. Your editors will love you for it, and if you are consistent through multiple books, they may reduce the price. I use Grammarly, ProWritingAid, and Autocrit. They work a little differently and are all useful. It would be nice if book sales would pay for those. Right now, I’m spending “hobby dollars” on them.
Use a professional cover designer. The cover is your first chance for a sale. Poor cover = no sale. I found my designer on Fiverr, and I have used her for all my covers.
Observe What's Happening Around You
The truth is, there is no magical place where story ideas come from. Ideas are all around you, all the time. Everything you do, every experience, can be used in a story.
A writer's brain is never not writing. A writer observes all the time. Life is the best writers' research there is.
What's the last thing you observed that you knew you had to put in a story? Let me know in the comments!
For today's practice, I want you to get out of your chair and go do something. It doesn't matter what it is. You could go bull riding or do your laundry, just as long as you do something and pay attention while you're doing it.
When you're finished, get back in that writing chair and set a timer for fifteen minutes and write. Whatever you went to go do must be in your story. It doesn't have to be the story; it just has to appear in the story.
After your fifteen minutes are over, share your writing in the comments. Don’t forget to read and comment on your fellow writers’ work!
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.