First, you need the idea.
These can come from anywhere, and below are just a few places ideas for my books have come from:
- A popular trope, or mix of them (I wanted to write a friends-to-lovers romance where the characters were total opposites and also include a surprise baby left on the Hero’s doorstep ➜ ONLY YOU)
- A poem (“OCD Love Story by Neil Hilborn inspired SOME SORT OF HAPPY)
- A character idea (I wanted to write a K-9 cop Hero ➜ INSATIABLE)
- A book you love (my favorite romance of all-time, YEARS by Lavyrle Spencer, inspired AFTER WE FALL)
- Real life (my neighbor is a former MLB athlete who struggled with the “yips” ➜ UNFORGETTABLE)
- A place (Black Star Farms inspired the setting for Cloverleigh Farms)
Many writers (and maybe you are like this) have so many ideas, they have a folder FULL of them.
I only have one idea at a time. But if you have an ice cream truck full of ideas, choose one and get planning. Below is my process for taking an idea and wringing a story from it.
Please remember this is just my process and I am only one writer. Other authors do things differently!
Before I start writing, I need to have three things in place:
- The Tropes
- The Hero and heroine (and their Emotional Wounds… more on that soon)
- The Conflict (the reasons why they can’t be together… there will be an external reason and an internal reason)
Without those things, I do not have a story. I only have an idea.
I usually take days or even weeks (if I’m plotting a series) to get these things in place. I look at a list of tropes. I consider what I’ve written recently. I consider which of my books readers seem to love best. I might look at the Top 100 in contemporary romance or romantic comedy (these are my categories) and see what readers are into these days.
Also, I listen to music. I watch good shows. I read good books. I talk to people. I let my subconscious do some work.
These are what sell a book. Trust me on this.
For me, the tropes are the most important thing. I have learned to embrace them because they make it easier to write AND market the book. By fully embracing the tropes, you are, baking the marketing plan right into the cake of your story.
If you’re a first-time or newer author, the tropes are what’s going to get readers clicking. They might not know the name Jane Author yet, but they know they love fake relationship books more than life, and when they see she’s written one, they might take a chance on her.
So I choose the tropes first.
With MAKE ME YOURS, for example, I knew my tropes from the start: Small Town, Single Dad, Brother’s Best Friend. I’d chosen them as the book 2 tropes in the Bellamy Creek Series before I even wrote book 1 (DRIVE ME WILD) so that I could add those “cookie crumbs” to book 1 that would make my readers eager for book 2.
Now for the characters.
2. THE HERO AND HEROINE / THEIR EMOTIONAL WOUNDS
Both my Hero and heroine require three things before I can start writing: a WANT, a NEED, and a WOUND. The WANT is the external thing they’re after and the NEED is love (but the H especially will not say this out loud). The WOUND is what Gwen Hayes refers to as a “hole” in their heart, the thing preventing them from being happy and whole. Generally, this is something that happened to the character (often as a child, but not always) that leads to psychological pain and fear. I’ll write more about Wounds soon!
For my Hero (Cole), I decided he was a single dad of a young daughter, and his wife had died from a blood clot during childbirth. He’d moved into his childhood home with his mother and baby girl and had lived there ever since. He’s “stuck” because he’s never really moved on. What he thinks will get him unstuck is moving out of his mom’s house and getting his own. So what he WANTS is a new house for him and his daughter. (Of course, what he NEEDS is to let himself fall in love again, but whenever his mom or anyone else tells him he should date, he gets aggravated. He’s focused on being a good dad and his job as a policeman.)
Cole’s WOUND? Losing his wife so tragically and suddenly. He associates love with loss. (Note: he does not admit this.) He’s never really dealt with the pain of that loss, so he has a constant fear of it happening again. He knows bad things can happen to good people. By refusing to open his heart to Cheyenne, he thinks he’s protecting himself.
For my heroine (Cheyenne), I decided she was the girl next door who’d grown up with a massive crush on her older brother Griffin’s best friend Cole. She has loved him as long as she can remember. But, of course, he only ever saw her as Griffin’s kid sister. She’s living at home with her mom again too, trying to save money. I decided she’d be a kindergarten teacher. Her mom, like Cole’s mom, is meddlesome and pushy, always pushing her to get married and have kids. And Cheyenne WANTS this–a husband and family–but she keeps holding out for someone like Cole. She never got over her crush on him and has had terrible romantic luck. What she NEEDS is to get brave enough to admit her feelings to him.
Cheyenne’s WOUND? It’s not tragic like Cole’s, but Cheyenne believes “love is a numbers game.” She thinks some people are just unlucky and she’s one of them. But in reality, she has always chosen unavailable people or jerks–this is because she fears rejection. She needs to develop the courage to go after the man she really loves, and then the inner strength to walk away when he refuses to fully open his heart to her and deal with his emotional baggage.
3. THE CONFLICT
For me, this is always the hardest thing to settle on. Because I write contemporary romance with “ordinary” characters in everyday settings, the stakes are not usually death–I don’t have things like kidnappings, criminal warlords, or natural disasters driving up the tension. My conflicts have to be more relatable (that’s my brand, more on that soon), and there just aren’t that many reasons why two unbelievably hot, single, grown-ass adults can’t be together.
The tropes can help here. In a friends to lovers book, often the reason is that they don’t want to ruin their friendship. In a single parent book, often the reason is that the H or h must put their kids first. In an office romance, often the reason is that one character is the other’s boss.
MAKE ME YOURS technically uses the Brother’s Best Friend trope, but I REALLLLLLLY did not want her brother to be the reason they can’t be together. In modern times, with two people in their 30s, that just doesn’t seem believable to me.
I decided to focus instead on Cole’s belief that his daughter would be against their relationship (based on something she’d said as a 5-year-old) and his need to protect her. It was total bullshit, of course, because the daughter LOVES Cheyenne. So once that external “conflict” was out of the way, Cole was forced to confront the internal one: his WOUND–his underlying belief that love always leads to loss, that he cannot protect those he loves, that you can’t allow yourself to be happy because that’s just when a piano will be dropped on your head.
Once I have those three things in place, I make what I call a “scribble sheet” where I jot down some things I think characters might say in the story or think in their heads. Sometimes it’s a quote from somewhere else (I love doing research!), sometimes it’s something I make up. But the goal is to get them to start talking to me. Here’s one I did for MAKE ME YOURS.
I might also make an inspiration board on Pinterest. Here’s one I made for DRIVE ME WILD. Obviously it has things I added later after the book was complete, but I love Pinterest for inspiration!
And that’s it! From there, I crack open ROMANCING THE BEAT and start thinking about structure and beats and scenes. More on that soon!
Hope this helps!