Dolly Parton, Brain Soup, and Astrophysics

Somewhere between last Tuesday and today, winter showed up.

Okay, we don’t have snow on the ground just yet, but there has been a definite shift in the air. The highs are no longer in the 70s, we’ve had a fair amount of rain in the last week, and the wood stove is going pretty consistently now. It seems that most of our travel and busy season is over for the time being, so it’s time to hunker down and knit, read, and get ready for the holidays.


With a little less than one month till the release of Unquickened (brief hyperventilating), I thought I’d give you all a peek into the mind of a writer with answers to some of the questions I get… This way, when you all read my work, you’ll be thinking about Dolly Parton and astrophysics instead of looking for typos.

Where do you get your ideas?


You can interpret that two ways: either I’m saying I don’t know, or I’m saying Dolly Parton is my Muse. I’m fine with either theory.

The truth is… it’s complicated. There’s an element of “I don’t know” for sure. I’ve said before that the initial idea for Ravenmarked came from an image in my head of a woman in white running from a burning building. I needed to find out who she was and why she was running, and it turned into a five-book series. Certainly that’s not unusual among writers and creative people. C. S. Lewis said that the idea for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came from an image of a faun carrying packages. The faun became Mr. Tumnus, who dropped his packages when Lucy came through the wardrobe and ran into him, and the rest is history.

It’s romantic to say there’s a Muse involved. I like to think there is. Elizabeth Gilbert says in this TED Talk that the old idea that the artist had a genius helped to separate the creator from the creation. If your art was a little lame, maybe it’s just that your Genius was a little lame or had a bad day. By conflating the two into one, the artist has to own the creation, and if it sucks, well, maybe we suck, too. It helps me to think the art exists at least a little bit outside of myself.

There’s also just kind of a “brain soup” thing going on. The stew up there in my head is full of complicated things. There are the big ideas–the meat and potatoes–and the smaller pieces, like characters, setting, and plot (carrots, peas, and onions), and then it’s all seasoned with everything else that is me. At any given moment, the soup includes observations about the weird behaviors of my pets, ideas for client work, pieces of dialogue I’ve heard here and there by shamelessly eavesdropping or actually talking to people, news stories I’ve read, Internet memes, and a lifetime full of experiences as a daughter, sister, wife, mom, grandma, scout leader, church girl, employee, contractor, etc. Every now and then I take a spoonful of soup and taste it, and it’s never the same as the previous taste or the future tastes, and in that spoonful are ideas that may or may not turn into full-fledged stories.

I’m afraid that’s as specific as I can get about where I get my ideas. But I still kind of like the Dolly Parton idea best. It’s more appealing than a scoop of brain soup.

I have a book idea for you…


This isn’t a question so much as a comment I often get when people find out that I’m a writer. Without even knowing what I write or whether I’m even any good, they often immediately jump to, “ooh, I have a book idea for you!” And then sometimes they launch into a description of said idea, or they wait for me to ask about their idea. Either way, I usually get to hear those ideas.

Here’s the thing: I remember none of these ideas.

While I am a ghostwriter, most of the time, when people mention they have a book idea for me, it’s a fiction idea. I can’t ghostwrite fiction. I know there are people who can, but I am not one of them. I don’t even like to edit other people’s fiction at any high level. I can line edit and proofread, but I have an aversion to messing with other people’s stories, and that includes writing them. The best word I can use to describe it is “ew.” Ghostwrite non-fiction? Sure, no problem. Ghostwrite fiction? Ew. It’s like using someone else’s toothbrush.

I usually end up telling people that if they have a good idea for a story, they should write it or find someone to help them write it. That person is not me. Sometimes people ask if I know any people who ghostwrite fiction, and I don’t. I usually send them to Google. I suspect that once they find out how much a ghostwriter charges, they either decide to write the story themselves or they abandon their ideas. I feel a little bad about that, but I also have a weird philosophy that if stories are meant to be told, they will find the right midwife to bring them into the world.

Do you base your characters on real people?


The answer is bigger than a simple “yes” or “no.” As with most things related to writing, it’s complicated. There are kind of three ways that characters get created in my head. The most common way is that they start with a big idea or a trope or a type that I need. I would say this is how Connor Mac Niall started. I knew the type of character I needed–big, burly hero-warrior type–and I started writing. There were a few things I knew about him, like that he was half-human and an illegitimate child of nobility, but I didn’t know much about his character. As I started writing, he emerged into someone more fully defined. There are certainly influences on his character from real-life–some of his dialogue is almost verbatim from my husband’s mouth–but I can’t say I based him on anyone specifically. And he has definitely grown into someone I barely recognize from those early days.

The second way I create characters is by starting with the function they need to play in the story. This is where the vast majority of my minor characters start. Sometimes I need someone for the bigger characters to interact with for a variety of reasons. Some good examples of this type of character are the other dukes in Taura or the other minor leaders that Mairead has to deal with in the lion tribe. I might need these people to provide conflict, introduce more information, or help a major character with something. Most of the time, these characters don’t grow into much more than just cast members, but every now and then, they insist on becoming a bigger part of the story. Their dialogue is so good or their presence on the page so vivid that I need to keep them around to keep helping drive the action. Often these people are influenced by just general observations about people and rarely have any direct influences.

The final way is directly basing a character on a real-life person. To this point in my writing life, I have only directly based one character on someone I know: Rhiannon, the semi-crazy cat lady midwife who helped Connor in the woods in Ravenmarked. Rhiannon is directly based on my best friend, the Ethel to my Lucy. While Rhiannon was absent in Bloodbonded, she makes a brief return in Unquickened, drops a couple of cryptic clues, and then leaves the scene. She’ll be back in Soultainted and Wisdomkept to serve as a conscience and guide for Connor and Mairead (and a few others here and there). This is very much one of the things my bestie does for me, and I feel like everyone needs a conscience and guide.

The bestie is also sort of a crazy cat lady, so there’s that. I don’t think she’ll mind me saying that.

What’s your criteria for determining when you’re “done”?

Figuring out whether something is done is hard. Like calculus and astrophysics hard.

I can’t do calculus or astrophysics.


In my client work, I can figure out when things are done by asking my clients. I get assignments and deadlines, I produce work and turn it in, and they either ask for changes or they don’t. If there are changes, I make them, and at some point, the project is finished. The client decides when the work is finished to satisfaction.

With fiction, it’s a lot more complicated. And since I’m an independent author, it’s even more complicated in that I don’t have an editor or publishing house or agent demanding things by a certain deadline. I’m the one who sets deadlines, and the deadlines I set for myself are the hardest ones to meet. Deadlines from other people are remarkably clarifying in determining when something is “done,” but deadlines from my own head can be easily moved.

It’s also tough to decide when something is “done” because for the artist, the work is never really DONE, and deciding when to release the work gets tied up in a lot of issues with imposter syndrome and self-worth. Re-reading my past work is so hard, because I see things that I’d like to change or things I’d do differently. But I can also get into an endless spiral of editing where I just keep changing and reworking and moving things around because it’s not perfect, and that’s not good for anyone.

So… I have to try to find some slightly more objective measures to help me decide when something is done.

First, there’s my own editing “process” (a term I use very loosely). I try to start at the highest level of the story. Are the characters internally consistent? Does the plot move forward logically, and is the pacing good (not too fast, not too slow)? Then I move down to more granular levels of story gradually until I reach a point where I’m tweaking dialogue and fixing typos. If I can get to the point where I can read through the story from beginning to end without cringing too much, it’s probably ready for other eyes.

Second, there are the other eyes–the beta readers. I’m fortunate to have a couple of good ones who will call me out on my nonsense, point out inconsistencies or where I’m expecting too much of the reader, and remind me to tie up loose ends. Every writer needs someone else to look at the work before it’s released into the wider world, so beta readers and editors are absolute essentials. Their comments and feedback should help improve the story, and if I’ve done my job in my own editing, I shouldn’t have to make too many changes at this point.

Finally, there’s kind of self-check I have to put on myself. When I get to the point that the story is 95% or more done and I’m just tweaking sentences or agonizing over how I’ve written something, I have to ask myself–“Are you making the story any better?” If the answer is “no” or “I don’t know,” then the second question is, “if you released it now, could you live with criticism over this part or mistakes you find later?” Hopefully the answer to that one is “yes.”

I have also come to believe a sort of philosophical thing about “finishing” a story. In some sense, I can’t finish the story. The story is “finished” by the reader. It’s like a good meal at a fine restaurant–the chef can prepare it beautifully, but until someone tastes it and finishes it, it’s not really complete because the circle is not complete. I think this is partially captured in this quote from John Cheever:

I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.

For me, recognizing that the reader will bring a unique perspective and philosophy to the consumption of my work helps me to let it go, because I can be okay with it not being 100% done. I can rest in letting the reader “finish” the work for me. It’s kind of a weirdly metaphysical point, but since it helps me release my work into the world, I find some satisfaction in it.

So this was a long one, but I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into how my brain works. I’ll be back next week with a new excerpt from Unquickened. In the meantime, you can pre-order it on Amazon. And remember to go subscribe to my Substack newsletter for the latest news on upcoming offers and events.

Okay, time for me to go put on heavier socks… Stay warm out there, people!


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