Where do writers get ideas for books?

Writers are often asked—Where do you get your ideas and how do you get a whole novel from them?

I can’t really explain where the ideas generally come from, except my imagination. But I can tell you where the ideas for The Drawing Lesson came from, or how the story came to be.

The Drawing Lesson took a very long time to write. In fact, I began it in Venice in 2002. Another writer-friend, who was somewhat of a mentor, challenged me to write something other than a mystery story.

I should mention that at that time, I was working on the three novels in The Osgoode Trilogy, Conduct in Question, Final Paradox and A Trial of One, all of which were in the suspense genre. Those novels grew out of my many years of law practice in Toronto.

And so, I really did want to try something different. Why not a romance? For thirty pages, I had a man and woman (Richard and Daphne) meet on a train bound for Venice. They were, of course, attracted to each other, and so I had them meeting in the dining car, the bar car and heading for the sleeping car. But so what? I was getting supremely bored, and if the writer is bored, the writing is dead.

That kind of story has been told thousands of times over. What could I possibly add to make it new? Nothing. I was tempted to turn it into a murder mystery because, after all, it was set on the Orient Express. But no, I wanted to find excitement and a really good story line somewhere other than in the murder mystery. Which had already been done by Agatha Christie.

Back home, I could see that the story line was going nowhere. Suddenly, I had an idea, which was more like a vision. Into my den walked my idea of a very interesting character. He looked rather like the actor Donald Sutherland. At once, I knew he was an artist—a very complex individual who I wanted to get to know. His name came to me at once out of nowhere—Alexander Wainwright, Britain’s finest landscape painter.  Immediately, I knew he was the one to move the story along and give it depth and resonance.

At this point in time, I was thinking of writing three novellas about Alexander. And it was not until much later that I got the idea of three novels with this one character, Alexander, as the protagonist throughout. A much bigger and more interesting project.  Actually it took many drafts to really get on a first-name basis with Alexander. But my meeting with this new protagonist resulted in a short novella entitled Fleeting Moments.

A good five years prior to writing Fleeting Moments, I wrote a short story entitled The Thief.

In that short story was born a fascinating character named Celia. Years after her first appearance in the short story, I felt compelled to include her as a major character in The Drawing Lesson. In my next blog, I’ll tell you more about how the novel came into existence. And by the way, Richard, that character in the romance, must have fallen off the train because he disappeared entirely from the story line.


About Mary E. Martin

Mary E. Martin grew up in Toronto, Canada. After earning an Honors Degree in History at the University of Toronto, she graduated with her law degree from Queens University, Kingston, Ontario. In 1973, she was called to the Bar of Ontario and began the general practice of law in Toronto, with emphasis on real estate, wills and estates and elder-care law. This law practice of more than 30 years was a great inspiration for The Osgoode Trilogy ("Conduct in Question," "Final Paradox" and "A Trial of One.") Her fourth novel, “The Drawing Lesson,” will be the first in the next trilogy, provisionally entitled “The Trilogy of Rmembrance.” She is also a photographer particularly with respect to her travels. She has had two commercial photography shows. Married in 1973, she and her husband live in Toronto. They have three adult children.
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