Carolyn Haines/R.B. Chesterton get-attachment (2)

Last week I talked about the story as a gift. This week, I’d like to talk a little about the seed of a story and how, for me, the way the story arrives often tells me what kind of story it will be.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with wonderful writers about where story ideas come from. There’s no single way that is best. For me, some “delivery” methods tell me that I have hold of a thematic element and I’m going to have to search for the story. This is the hardest way for me to access story.

When story arrives as a strip of movie or a few images, fully detailed, but without a hint of story, this really puts me through my paces. My second novel, TOUCHED, came to me with the image of a tall, slender woman striding down a dirt road in a 1920s dress. She was pulling a wagon, and in the wagon was a rocking chair. In the chair was a badly burned child, and riding on the back of the chair was a rooster. That was it. I knew my time period because of the clothes they wore. I knew they were mother and daughter, and that the story centered around their love for each other. What I had to figure out was that Duncan, the child, had been struck by lightning while dancing in a small, repressive Mississippi town in 1926. Her mother, Johanna, was an independent woman at a time when women were little more than cattle. Once I knew these elements, I let my imagination and subconscious go to work to tell me the story of these two character. TOUCHED was the result.

Over 15 years ago, when I’d finished TOUCHED and was trying to decide what to write next, I was staring out my office window and watching my horses graze. I hard two voices, both Southern and both female, bickering. One was just giving the other the dickens, bossing and sassing and being a pill. I couldn’t see them—I could only hear them. But I sat down and began to write, following along as fast as I could. The more I wrote the clearer they became. And I came to know them as Sarah Booth Delaney, amateur detective, and Jitty the ghost, who haunts Sarah Booth’s ancestral home in Zinnia, Mississippi.

To be honest, I didn’t realize I was writing a mystery.  I never thought I could plot well enough to write a mystery, though I loved reading them. I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and spent every penny of my allowance buying those books. What a shocker that I had actually written one, THEM BONES, that sold at auction. And thus my career as a mystery writer began.

Books come to me via character, sometimes plot (not often enough!), thematically, and sometimes from a setting, such as THE SEEKER, (by R.B. Chesterton, my “dark” pseudonym), which is set at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, far, far from my normal stomping ground of the South.

The trick here is to relax into the story and listen. That’s hard for a driven writer.  Sometimes it takes a while for a story to reveal itself. I had an idea for a trilogy, which I want to just jump into. But the story isn’t set. It isn’t ready for work yet. It’s still growing and shaping. So wait I must. And listen closely, and trust in the story.

CarolynHainespic  Carolyn Haines is the author of 65 books in a number of genres and under several pseudonyms. She was awarded the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer Award in 2010 and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence in 2009. She teaches fiction writing at a Mobile university and runs Good Fortune Farm Refuge, an animal rescue. You can learn more about her at or her writing conference at 



5 comments to THE SEED OF THE STORY

  • Oh, fantastic post! I often get these snippets of ideas that aren’t ready to be stories yet. When I try to write them, they balk. They know they aren’t ready. I have always called that listening time, percolating (like those old fashion coffee-pots I grew up with). A scene will burble to the little glass bulb on top, or a character, or another piece of plot – but until it quits burbling, the story/coffee isn’t ready to write/drink!

  • “Relax and listen to the story” is great advice–I’ll try to take it. Characters are usually what come to me first–similar to you hearing the voices of the characters in Them Bones. Getting those characters into a plot that works is hard work, something I continue to struggle with.

  • The hardest way a book comes is thematically. Like FEVER MOON–I had an idea to write a book about the power that belief systems have to control us for good or bad. So it’s a story about a woman who BELIEVES she is the loupe garou (Cajun werewolf/shape shifter) and believes she murdered a man. The mystery/crime is in the deputy proving that she didn’t do it. That’s the hardest for me. I love it when characters appear and come for a visit, because sometimes I can ask them questions. Sometimes not. I realize that anyone who isn’t a writer and who is reading this will completely think I’m nuts. Well, i likely m!

  • quillet

    “Relax into the story and listen.” I simply love that advice, it makes so much sense to me, and it sounds so freeing. I’m going to go and try that right now. Got a scene that’s been giving me trouble, so I’ll just hang out with my characters and listen, just listen…

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hello again, and thank you for this glimpse into your ideas and for making me feel not so alone when it comes to finding the plot part of things really hard! I definitely know what it’s like to have cool image that I have to work to fit the pieces together to turn into a coherent story, though I don’t know that I can claim anything as cool as your image for TOUCHED. And image I have that I’m not sure will ever make itself ready is of a man in saffron monk’s robes falling from a mountaintop and changing into a flock of crows. It would be really cool if I could figure out how to build the story for that…

    And ‘relax and listen’ does seem to be the theme for me lately, too. I’ve had two difficult scenes I’ve been trying to piece together lately for different projects and in both cases it’s been a stop and listen/daydream that has pulled things back together. 😀