Monday, June 20, 2011

The Writer's Menu by Marilyn Brant

Where do writers get their story ideas?

I'd love to give some kind of witty response to that question -- and would, if only I could think of one. When asked at author talks about where I get the ideas for my books, I worry I'm supposed to grin and say brightly, "Why, at The Dollar Store, of course. They're cheap and easy to find there." And then, when the few polite chuckles die down, launch into some semi-serious and detailed ramble about how my mom and her sisters said something wise to me while making holiday pastries when I was an angsty adolescent and how the memory of that conversation lodged itself deep into my mind and flowered into an original plotline when combined with a handful of less-than-delightful dating experiences years later...

It may well have happened that way.

But, for me, the where of getting a story idea is an almost uncomfortable thing to discuss because...well, I rarely understand its appearance any more than the person asking me about it. Often, the ideas are just out there. I wander out into the world and they exist. Like stepping onto a patio in summer and being surrounded by sunshine, oxygen and the occasional swarm of mosquitoes. How could I explain the existence of story ideas any more than the presence of air molecules or insects? They're a familiar part of my world, ever present, undeniable, frequently mystifying.

But I think there's another question, lurking right behind it, that has proven marginally easier to analyze and, perhaps, something else aspiring writers and thoughtful readers might wonder about as well: How do writers manage these story ideas once they're here?

In my (admittedly, heavily food-obsessed) mental world, I think of the ideas as sitting in wait for me, like an infinite variety of ingredients listed inside the cookbooks next to my stove. The ingredients on their own don't usually make a meal, but when combined in appropriate amounts, they might result in a pretty good recipe.

My real-life cookbook collection contains recipes with an ethnic flavor, vegetarian meals, lite dishes, grilling guides, more dessert creations than one person should be allowed and scrap sheets of paper with special family favorites scribbled on them. All of these clamor for my attention at meal time, and I must choose between them. There are a gazillion possible combinations and, yet, before dinner (or before writing), I have to sift through them and pluck out a few that appeal to me because "that's what I'm in the mood for right now" or "that's what I know I can do reasonable well" or "that's one I'm absolutely fascinated by and just have to try for myself" or even sometimes "that's one that was highly recommended."

For me, selecting menus -- or novel plots -- are strikingly similar tasks. And before choosing either, I've always got my fingers crossed in hopes that it'll turn out.

But, in my experience, it's the next step that requires the trickiest manuevering. There are times, yes, when I'll fix a one-dish meal. A stew in the crockpot, for instance, or a casserole in the oven. But, most of the time, I'm not so focused. Most of the time, I have a few different things on the burners and one thing heating in the microwave and another that needs to be tossed together on the counter.

My story ideas are like that, too. A set of blog posts, essays and/or interviews that I can assemble, like a salad, in between other tasks. A short story I'm revising -- a brief but intense project. A couple of items on the stove top: the proposal I'm working on, for example, which requires constant attention and frequent stirring, along with this other idea, which sits on the back burner and mostly just simmers. I know what it needs most is rice that takes 30+ minutes to soak up the water. You don't want to mess with it too much until it's ready. Once it's ready, though, some fast action is required or you'll end up with a dish that's burnt on one side and mushy on the other.

I'm not an expert in the kitchen by any stretch of the imagination (the truth is that I love looking at the pictures in cookbooks more than doing the actual cooking, LOL), but the multitasking doesn't bother me. I'm well accustomed to this as a writer. And, as a reader, I'm much the same. I have four or five different books that I'm reading now. I'm in different places in each of them, and I switch back and forth often between titles, depending on how I feel and the time available to me.

What about all of you? If you're a writer, do you tend to only work on one project at a time, or do you juggle multiple stories/essays/articles frequently? What about reading -- do you read one book completely before picking up another, or do you have several books in progress at once? I'd love to know!

Marilyn Brant writes women's fiction for Kensington -- her third novel, A Summer in Europe, will be out at the end of November. She also writes light romantic comedies and recently released her first ebook romance, On Any Given Sundae (aka: a literary ode to one of her favorite foods!), about a shy dessert cookbook writer and the talkative ex-high-school football star she once had a crush on. Her website is:


  1. Wonderful essay, Marilyn. Made me hungry. Love that cover on that Sundae book.
    I'm definitely a multi-tasker when it comes to reading, but I only like to physically work on one novel at a time. Mentally I will occasionally skip forward to the next project.

  2. I'm reading this before breakfast and now I'm starving (like Karin!). Also like Karin, I can only work on one novel at a time. I can multi-task with everything else. But when I'm writing a book, I need all that "stewing" and "marinating" time reserved for that particular story. Lovely post, Ms. Marilyn!

  3. Love, love, LOVE this post, Marilyn!! Until I got to the cookbook part... (-; Then I started to think about MY cookbooks: unorganized scraps of handwritten recipes hanging over the edges, stained with God knows what... And I thought, that IS how my writing works! LOL Seriously, really did LOVE this post. Oh, I said that!

  4. Unlike Husband (who is an amazing multi-tasker) I am quite unable to effectively multi-task. The only way I ever finish anything is to focus completely. It's a disadvantage and, I believe, one of the reasons I'm such a slow my real life, finding great big chunks of unfractured time in which to focus completely on one task has reached mythological proportions (as in: it existed once, but hasn't been seen for years)

    Judy, South Africa

  5. Once again you're made me want to raid my kitchen. I'm about to write a novella, and I've told people I'm letting it "simmer" in my mind. Like adding ingredients to a recipe, I got new ideas yesterday. I'll look at it again this morning (while eating breakfast) and see if it's ready to start cooking, er, writing.

    As a reader, it depends. lol I read On Any Given Sundae in one long gulp and thoroughly enjoyed every delicious page.

  6. I believe what we write about is always connected to our psyche, just like recurrent themes. Great post, Marilyn!

    As for working on mulitiple projects at the same time... I'm doing that now, although it's not how I work best!

  7. Love it, Marilyn! Now I'm hungry, too!!

  8. Karin, thank you! I'm glad you liked the Sundae cover, too ;). I always wished I could focus on just one thing at a time but, as the years go on, I find myself multitasking more, not less...

    Susan, I'm envious of that deep immersion when it comes to writing! I'm so used to having my day segmented and interrupted (you've heard me whine!) that I'm not sure what I'd do with myself if I finally was able to do nothing but concentrate on one project...I'd love to find out :).

    Laura, thanks so much!! Well, I'm sorry about the cookbook part ;). But, no matter HOW disorganized you think your recipe collection may be, mine is probably worse, LOL. I don't know what the allure is with those little scraps of paper, but I can never seem to write a recipe (or a plot point) down on a normal 3x5 notecard. It's always some torn 1/2 sheet of scratch paper or the back of a grocery receipt. I'm sure there's a psychological reason for this (it's less scary that way??), but it's a process I can't seem to change.

  9. Judy, ha! I have been in search of this mythological "large chunk of writing time" creature myself for over a decade!! I think, like Atlantis, it may have been visible to everyone once but, now, it's something only a select few can find :).

    Edie, thank you!! You know how thrilled I am that you liked Sundae, xo. And you've been so productive over the past year with multiple projects written -- novels, short stories, novellas -- I'm impressed and inspired by it. I know this new story will be wonderful!

    Maria, I agree! I think we're drawn to certain themes and, looking at our projects collectively, we create the kinds of stories that define us as authors. Certain patterns emerge. It's interesting -- I'm sure the way we go about working on our projects adds something very characteristic to the texture of the story as well.

    Brenda, thanks!! Every time I see that pastry photo, I get a powerful craving for an eclair ;).

  10. I imagine as a writer only handling one task or project at a time, but then again, during the writing of a novel, how many times are your writng a blog post, or a blurb for an author friend for their new book, or an article in a magazine/online publication? I imagine it would be daunting.
    As a reader, I am able to read a novel and a non-fiction at the same time. On the cookbook/cooking topic...thanks hungry now!! My mom has an empty book, looks like a yearbook, she worked for a book binding company that made those out of HS and she got one, and hand wrote all her favorite family recipes in there. My sisters and I have battled over it, sadly I lost out, so I won't be inheriting it, but maybe with a scanner I can keep some.
    Thanks Marilyn for making me think....always good!

  11. First of all I loved the character description "talkative ex-football star" -- count me in!

    But to answer your question, I learned the hard way to work on one project at a time and then finish the draft before starting the next project. After this next project, however, I'm going to have to double up on a non-fiction book and a rewrite. I'm hoping that I've become a disciplined enough writer to split my focus like that. We'll see...

  12. LOL, Laura! Some mysterious object I spotted once at Office Max...

    Anita, thank you! And, yes, the amount of juggling I've had to do while working on a book surprised me, too. Slowly, more writing of different types (like blogs) got added, but very few were taken away. It's funny to think when I first started writing fiction seriously -- back in 2000 -- I didn't even have email! And I loved hearing about your mom's recipe book -- the sister who won it should definitely scan copies for all of you :).

    Ernessa, I'm so glad you like my hero's description!! He's Italian, like my husband's side of the family, so he's one who'll just talk and talk... ;) And good luck on your two simultaneous projects coming up! I don't think it's ever easy to divide our focus, but I suspect it helps when the projects are very different like that. Got my fingers crossed that it'll go smoothly for you!

  13. I love the idea of connecting the writing to food. Maybe because I love food so much. I think I'm always thinking about my next meal, even when I am eating something. I guess now that I think about it, no matter what I am working on, there are always several other things starting to simmer.
    Nice pix.

  14. Ariella, ohhh, yes! I love food, too. Far too much, I know... And writing is a kind of buffet, isn't it? So many different things to taste, not nearly enough time ;).

  15. I read, and write, sometimes more than one book at a time. And now I want a sundae.

  16. Lauren, wishing you a BIG sundae on this hot Wednesday ;).

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