Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Mad Sort of Brainstorming

I was sitting in my dentist's waiting room, flipping through a magazine when I saw one of those "number" articles. You know the kind, Five Signs Your Child Is Being Bullied or 10 Tips for Planning the Perfect Vacation. This article was Five Things To Do Before You Tell Him You Want A Divorce.
I curled the front cover of the magazine into a roll to get a better grip and settled in for a detailed read.

I wasn't about to announce to my darling husband that I wanted a divorce--nothing so dramatic.

I was plotting a novel.

Thinking through the possible twists and turns of the story usually sends me in some pretty strange directions. The title of the article combined with my continual "what if..." questioning intruigued me.

What if a woman went through all the steps listed in the article: opened her own bank account, squirreled money away in said bank account, established credit in her own name, consulted a divorce attorney, and made copies of all important records, like bank statements and investment reports...what if a woman did all those things, then gave her marriage one more shot and it worked out?

What if she'd prepared for divorce, but then didn't need one? Then, what if that woman's husband was murdered? That woman would look like a pretty good prime suspect. In fact, to investigators it would look like she was considering a divorce, but then decided murder would be more expedient.

In Mint Juleps, Mayhem, and Murder, that's the situation one character finds herself in. Afraid she'll look guilty to the police, she turns to her friend Ellie, a military spouse whose professional organizing skills extend beyond decluttering closets. Ellie has a knack for sorting out truth from lies.

Some of my "what if" questions have more to do with character than with constructing the mystery. What if super-organized Ellie agreed to host the annual family reunion for her quirky Southern in-laws? Tension! And, unlike real life, tension is good in fiction. Efficient, list-making Ellie doesn't like the unforseeable variables of party-hosting and she's not ever quite sure what will happen when her eccentric relatives are around.

What if the murderer threatens Ellie's husband, Mitch? What if he realizes he's in danger and gets in on the investigation? Can he and Ellie work together? Ellie's always asked questions and pushed to find the truth while Mitch took a more laid-back approach to life. Can she handle the change? More tension!

By the time I finish a book I often can't remember all of the original "what if" questions.

Writing and plotting is a mad sort of brainstorming that involves multipule "what if" questions considered, discarded, and then, often, reconsidered. In the end, the questions link together as I writer and I get something totally different than what I thought I would--sort of a textual crazy quilt of "what if" ideas.

I love the "what if" questions. It's so much fun to play with ideas and try to come up with something unexpected. I'm always filing away ideas from news stories or bits of overheard conversations.

Just a few weeks ago, I heard about a man who was carjacked, locked in his trunk, and only discovered because the thief got in a fender bender and ran from the scene. What if....


My fifth book, a mystery with a Southern flare, MINT JULEPS, MAYHEM, AND MURDER, came out in mass market paperback this week. It's also on Kindle and nook for under five dollars. Visit for more info about me and my books, or connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. I love a Southern book Sara....Love bargain Kindle books almost as much!!
    It's so interesting to learn how a plot comes together, and how it all finishes out.

  2. Good to hear, Anita! Hope you like the books.

  3. Great post, Sara. Playing "what if" really is a lot of fun!

  4. Thanks, Elizabeth! Good to hear from you.

  5. Are you as organized as Ellie? I always wondered that. Fun post and I love the cover. Perfect for the upcoming warm months.

  6. I wish! I can get organized, but I can't *stay* organized--I think that's the mark of a truly organized person. I've done a lot of research for the tips and it's been fun. I've learned a lot.

  7. I love "What if?" - which, if you're lucky, leads to "And then what happened?"..."And then what happened?"..."And then what happened?"...

  8. Sometimes when I do the "what if" aloud when I'm in the car with my husband, he looks a little frightened. But how could we write if we didn't? It amazes me that the whole world doesn't wonder the way that writers wonder. Fun post, Sara! :-)

  9. Terrific post, Sara! I'm always glad other people aren't looking over my shoulder to see what reference books and articles I'm read at the library or online... Love your 'what-if' questions and the sound of this story ;).

  10. Hey Susan and Marilyn--one of my attempts at a joke fell very flat when I once said that if anyone annoys me, I just kill them off in a book. Joking!
    They didn't get it.

  11. A southern "what if" book and at a bargain price? Great! I'm heading over to BN so I can download on my NOOKcolor today.

  12. Good reminder to keep pushing for more what ifs. One what if isn't really enough to drive a plot. Thanks!