The Write Thing - Creative Minds
This month Carolyn Hector, Christy Kate McKenzie, Heidi Rice, Barbara Han, Reese Ryan, and Liam Livings share things they do to spark their creativity!
Carolyn Hector Hall—Plot Bunnies
I’m a writer by nature. I can’t help it. I can’t look at an everyday situation and not see how I could turn it into a romance. But when I’m not plotting and giving my mind a break, I love to binge watch Netlflix. In between books I like to catch up on what everyone else in the world already talked about. I do like getting off my butt and doing something productive and creative. Oh creativity how do I love thee, let me count the ways…. Pinterest, Ancestry.com, and Reality TV. But at the end of the day, all roads lead to plot bunnies.
So let’s talk Pinterest. Pinterest is a godsend. It’s like a good place to store my future ideas for stories so I can get a picture in my head. I love old clothes or period clothing. So I’ll save a few there or just some pics of men in suits because well… they’re men in suits, that’s why.
I also hit up Pinterest for some baking ideas and project ideas. I have a motto, if I can’t lose weight, everyone around me is gonna gain weight. We’ll all be big up in here.
But seriously, baking is one of my many outlets. It is the way I show love for the people around me. I may see something on Pinterest and think that’s a great idea for a Father’s Day present or do something quirky for Teacher Appreciation Week, birthdays, as well as office events. Baking is my way of zoning out. I know some authors who crochet really cool stuff, some get into photography, and some just take a break in-between novels and catch up on their TBR pile. I bake. I’ve had a lot of people ask me when I’m going to open my own bakery but I’m a horrible business person. If you mention to me that you like something, I’m going to try and make it for you on your birthday.
I guess you can say I’m very right-brained. I show my love creatively. That doesn’t mean someone like my hubby who is very left-brain can’t show his way of love. Trust me. When he comes home with a pack of Klondike bars that are on sale for two-for-five dollars, that breaks down to something per day… My mind went blank… I’ve said it a thousand times. I am not a math-magician. Bottom line, when he picks up something at the store for me, regardless of price, I know it is one of the things he does out of love.
I also love zone out on Ancestry.com. I have a colorful history. Being from the McCoy family, I get tons of notifications every day about the ancestors. If my calculations are right, Great-great-great-great grandfather Asa McCoy had over twelve kids as did his father and his father before that. With no social media however, I guess there’s really only one thing to do—that and feud with the Hatfields. Ancestry gets me in the mood to write historical. It just does. All roads lead back to plot bunnies for me.
And now we’re going to talk about my reality shows. I get 85 percent of my random careers from watching Reality TV. My son loves animals. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be a veterinarian one day. We started watching Animal Cop shows. How cool would it be to write a semi-suspenseful romantic story about an animal cop who loves, well of course, animals. Lately I have been addicted to Dr. Pol and Dr. K both on like Nat Geo Wild. They’re vets who take care of bizarre animals. Well, let’s just call them different.
I started a whole series by stringing together a couple of shows. Kim Gravel (as seen on QVC) had a reality show called Kim of Queens, King of the Crown and of course episodes of Toddlers and Tiaras. Hilarious. I also love the ID Network, or as my husband calls it, the Murder Channel. I can binge on Hometown Homicide and solve crimes with Tamron Hall. Another favorite channel is Crime & Investigations, aka CI Network. I like to combine shows from there along with shows like “Buying the____” whether it’s a bayou or a beach, a cabin or an RV, I’ll start thinking of a mash up between the shows. Like I said, all roads lead to plot bunnies for me.
I love putting my collective plot bunnies to work. I will combine my heroine’s career with one on a beloved random show and give her a hero from another. Did you hear the one about the animal cop who is house hunting with retired hypo allergenic PI turned real estate agent who get stuck together at a beach house and fall in love? Eh, needs some work. But since I’m between books now, maybe there’s time!
Barb Han—Q & A
Is writing your only creative output?
I love writing and it’s definitely my main creative outlet, but creativity is about self-expression. So, I find all kinds of ways to express myself in as many formats as possible. My house has a small but lovely garden. I love to spend time working there and have plenty of opportunities year-round since I live in Texas. Sunshine is plentiful here, which allows for loads of outdoor time. There’s something about getting my hands in the dirt that grounds me and refills my creative well. I love the beauty of a garden (many of the pieces in mine came with the house so I’ve tried to add my own touches and take special care of what was already there). I try to do something in the garden every day even if it’s only refill the water in the bird bath and tidy up the grounds. I also love to do craft projects. Here’s one example of a craft project we did for the garden. The roses are made of paper and twisted to look like buds. We used cherry spray-paint to freshen up the color for spring since it was fading.
What other things do you do to spark creativity and allow your mind a short vacation from writing or provide the time it needs to spark a new idea for your next book?
Generally being outside or working with my hands inspires me. I started making my own outdoor holiday decorations a few years ago. Pinterest is one of my favorite hangouts when I’m looking for an idea that I can put my own stamp on. Decorating spurs creative thinking for me. I had fun with food this past Valentine’s Day. I also love creating in the kitchen. This dish is steamed mussels in white wine with ginger and spinach that I made as an appetizer for my middle son’s twentieth birthday. I like to find new recipes, play around with ingredients and find ways to give a fresh take on dishes I’ve been cooking for a while.
What sparks new ideas?
When it comes to my writing, new ideas literally come from everywhere for me and have usually been percolating in the back of my mind for months (sometimes years) before I get the chance to focus on one of them. Writing helps quiet my busy mind and I’d probably end up a little crazy if kept them locked inside. LOL Idea threads can literally come from anywhere. Like in my current series, Don’t Mess with Texas Cowboys. The idea came to me when my mother told me what she was giving me for Christmas—a DNA test. Which, of course, immediately made me curious of what she was trying to tell me. I mean, come on, shouldn’t my own mother know where (and who) I came from? If you’ve done one of those tests you already know that’s not really what you’re after. But that got my mind spinning…
What if I my mom really was telling me she wasn’t my birth mother? What if we really did have some big family secret? Or some big news to reveal. The idea kept taking shape in my mind and pretty soon I wanted to explore it in a series. Since I write Texas ranching families, I wondered what it would be like if a self-made billionaire and patriarch of a cattle ranching family decided to gather his seven sons together to make an announcement…reveal a secret. The rancher, T.J. Quinn, in this series doesn’t have close relationships with his sons and so they question his motive—because he always has one. A couple even decide not to come, figuring this is one more manipulation attempt from a father they’re not close to and so the others have to find a way to convince them as speculation starts percolating about the big reveal.
Christy Kate McKenzie—Blending Business & Creativity
Hello, my name is Christy, and I am a craft-addict...
When it comes to creative outlets, I can easily find something to give my brain a break from writing when I need to. I sew, crochet, knit, spin wool, make hair bows, bind books by hand, make jewelry… the list goes on and on (and on… and on…) The problem is, these extra projects can also get in the way of my writing.
I could probably blame this addiction on my ADHD, since I get bored of new things quickly, but the truth is, I love trying any and every creative outlet I can get my hands on. While the folks at Hobbycraft love me, I’m pretty sure this behaviour hasn’t been good for my bank balance or the state of my garage (seriously, Marie Kondo would probably have a heart attack).
I doubt that I am alone in this. In fact, I’d be willing to guess that most ‘creative types’ dabble in more than one craft or medium. I’m also willing to bet that a large number of those who can only create part-time and have a different career or job to pay the bills use their crafts as an escape from what they may feel is an otherwise boring life. I know I do.
I started my journey into the ‘real world’ with the intention of going to medical school. Honestly, I wanted to be a writer, but my dad was very much against it. He told me I wouldn’t make any money as a writer, so I needed to go into a ‘real field’. He added that since I was good at science I should go into medicine, and so I entered university as a pre-med biology major.
Many years later—I could never afford to stay in university long so I got my degree by taking classes as and when I could afford them—I was sick of biology. One fateful New Year’s Eve, I had a bit too much to drink and decided to throw away 20 years employment in the medical field and 3 years of classes in biology and change my major to English. Not once did I regret it— especially not when I finally got my BA Hons in English Literature and Language.
Not long after I finished my English degree, I got a great job— in medical research (go figure) and I stayed in that field until I accidentally fell into my current role in business development. Honestly, I don’t even know how I ended up where I am, but it will certainly make for a great story line someday.
So, what does all of this have to do with creativity? More than you would think.
There has been a shift in the business world in recent years. The new, hot buzzword is ‘Innovation’. Everyone who is anyone in business is talking about innovation—in ideas, in techniques, in everything. And what is innovation—not the dictionary definition, the real-world meaning; innovation is creativity. You cannot be innovative without being creative. Innovation in its simplest definition is transformation or change, but in order to lead transformation or change, you need a model to transform into. That’s where creativity comes to play.
I won’t go so far as to say that you must be creative to be successful in business, but I do believe my knack for thinking outside of the box and dreaming up new ways of solving old problems has certainly helped me to get where I am in my career. I even won a Women in Business Award in 2017 for ‘Commitment to Excellence In Innovation’.
In a market where every other business is selling the same product as you, it is important to be creative when developing proposals, brand stories, marketing. That’s not much different than putting a fresh new spin on a tried and true trope.
In addition, creative thinking has helped me go from one specialty to another more easily—I left medical research and brought a fresh approach to life science business as someone who knew the challenges first-hand. Without the ability to think about a problem from different angles, like I do when writing the same scene from different points of view, I would have struggled to settle into my new role.
There’s a lot more fiction in the world of business planning and financial forecasting than you would think!
The original brief for this piece asked the question ‘Is it better to have a mind that is both equally creatively and business oriented in order to have a successful career?’ I don’t know if I like the assertion that it is ‘better’, but I would definitely say it is beneficial. It goes both ways, too.
Over the last year or so, I have been consulted by a number of writers for advice developing their writing careers. I have also found that when I am stuck or overwhelmed with writing, it helps to take a step back and look at my writing as a business proposal. And if that fails, I can always go crochet another jumper for Daisy.
Reese Ryan—Keeping It Fresh with a Mash-up of Romance Tropes
One of the disparaging remarks every romance writer has heard is that the genre is formulaic because, by its very definition, romance requires a satisfying end to the story’s central romantic relationship.
First, that’s complete nonsense. We never hear those same accusations lodged against mystery or adventures stories, which also have expected outcomes. The killer is discovered and caught by the end of most murder mysteries. The hero saves the day, likely despite his initial unwillingness to take on such a noble task by the end of every adventure story or action film. But there are a thousand different scenarios that can get the protagonist from Point A to Point B.
Romance is no different.
Fifty romance writers can write a friends-to-lovers story. Yet, each writer will come up with a unique story line that bears little resemblance to the others. However, the genre’s reliance on familiar tropes can sometimes make a reader feel that they’ve read that story before.
For that reason, as authors, we’re always looking for ways to make our writing feel fresh, so it stands out from other stories. One way that I’ve been able to do this is by having fun with mash-ups of tropes.
Friends-to-lovers, enemies-to-lovers, and fake fiancé are all popular tropes in romance. I enjoy reading every one of them. And yet, the idea of writing a story that could cohesively embody all three of those tropes seemed like so much more fun to me than writing any one of them individually.
Maybe you’re thinking that sounds ludicrous. Like dumping both white and color clothing into a washing machine and adding chlorine bleach. I had a similar reaction when I was initially introduced to the idea of using multiple tropes at once. But then I read a few books that employed multiple tropes. They were fun and felt fresh, despite dealing with familiar situations.
The stacking of tropes provides an added benefit for both the author and reader. Rather than just having one main element of conflict, there might now be two or three from which to pull. This raises the stakes for the love interests and deepens the conflict in the story.
At this point, I’ve become so accustomed to writing this way that I hardly think about the tropes when I’m initially formulating the story idea. The combination of tropes comes naturally.
My novella, His Holiday Gift is at its root a secret baby story. However, the aunt now raising the child is the hero’s former best friend. She hates the hero because she was made to believe that he rejected the child’s mother when she turned up pregnant. He now loathes her because he feels she should’ve known he would never do such a thing, given his own issues caused by his father’s abandonment of their family. As he gets to know his daughter, he slowly renews his friendship with his old friend, who always had a crush on him. And they fall in love. In the end it’s a former best friends turned enemies to lovers second chance romance with a childhood crush.
That’s a mouthful, I know. But it all happens organically as the story develops.
My April 2019 release, Engaging the Enemy, is also based on two former best friends turned enemies—but for a very different reason. When they were in middle school, the hero humiliated the heroine in front of the entire school when he betrayed a confidence. She also has a more deep-seated resentment against the hero’s family because of a business transaction that occurred between their families while she was away at college. Her resentment has seethed for decades, mostly below the surface. Feeling he hadn’t technically done anything wrong; he’s been too proud and self-righteous to apologize. But another business transaction pits the two protagonists against one another.
He desperately needs to buy a building she owns. She’d just about rather set it afire than sell it to his family. But she uses the opportunity to get some justice for the past wrong against her family while also making the hero as uncomfortable as he once made her. They strike an agreement which forces his family to pay a premium for the building and requires him to pose as her fiancé during the destination wedding of her ex’s little sister. It’s another former best friends turned enemies scenario. But this one has a fake fiancé, an island getaway, and opposites attract integrated into the plot in a way that gives us fireworks between this couple from page one. And yet, they have the familiarity and history that I enjoy when reading or writing a friends-to-lovers romance.
It’s my favorite book that I’ve written thus far.
Playing with the various tropes keeps the story line fresh and exciting for me. Hopefully, for the readers, too. The reader knows that this couple will get their HEA. After all, it’s the promise inherent in romance as a genre. However, it was fun watching this particular couple make their way to the finish line, kicking and scratching most of the way. The stacked tropes and added layers of conflict made for a fun ride. From the advance reader feedback, it also provided them with a fun read, despite the expectation that the couple would eventually end up together.
As a reader, do you enjoy reading stories that incorporate multiple tropes or does it feel overwhelming to you? Writers, do you weave more than one trope into your stories? Or do you prefer focusing on one trope at a time?
Heidi Rice—Using My Wanderlust
Wanderlust! That is the key to my inspiration and my writing process I’ve discovered over the years… My husband likes to call it my holiday addiction. But I find my passion for going to new places, seeing new things, or simply getting away from the sometimes claustrophobic drudgery of writing, it serves several purposes at once:
Firstly, there’s the obvious joy of being untethered from your daily life, no cooking, no cleaning, no admin, no endless juggling of chores to be done in between the time it takes to sit down and write. No word count goals, no struggling with revisions, or keeping up with your social media marketing (of which I do very little I will admit). Your mind is free to enjoy, experience, participate, indulge—what better way to feed your creative process? To refill the well? Another, perhaps more obvious advantage of going on lots and lots of trips is collecting specific inspiration for settings, characters…
Two years ago I went with my husband to visit some friends in Nice for five days. They lived in an absolutely gorgeous apartment—part of a palace built by a Portuguese Prince—overlooking the bay. In the evenings we would sit watching the sun descend, drinking cocktails, spying people walking down the cliff steps from the road to the small inlet below them for a swim. And during the day, my DH and I would set off along the cliff path in the sunshine to VilleFranche and beyond—for café lunches and reading and swimming (me, not him!) on the beach, or a longer walk to the Rothschild mansion or into the hills overlooking Nice.
Seriously, could I find a better place to come up with a new Harlequin Presents story or two…?
So it’s no surprise that the first of the story ideas I came up with on that trip—of an Italian casino owner with a dark past and the smart young woman who tries to beat him at his own game at his own poker table—has just released and I am currently writing a second linked book about a tortured motor racing owner and the mother of his secret child. All I have to do is flick through the photos on my phone of that trip and I’m back there in that imaginary world my mind spun while I was picking my way through the flowers and trees and undergrowth and gazing out across the crystal blue water.
But the trips don’t have to be glamorous or even that specific—research-wise—to free my mind and enrich my imagination. This year I’ve already been on a writing retreat in the wilds of Wexford, Ireland—which came complete with lots of writerly talks about character and plots, walks along windswept beaches in the watery sunlight, a night out in the local pub, and an obligatory watching of Last of the Mohicans to fire my soul. And lined up I have a two-week campervan adventure in the Heart of Wales with my best friend, a ten-day trip to New York for the Romance Writers of America conference with my best writing mate which includes stays in a boutique hotel in SoHo and in a beach house in Long Island that are bound to end up in a book; a weekend at a Vegan music festival with my sister (when my mum’s campervan will come in handy again!); and hopefully a return trip to Nice with my husband—because I’m sure that location has lots more Presents goodness to offer.
But even without those more lavish holiday plans, I often spend my weekends escaping from my desk to my favourite haunts around London, my hometown, from lazy brunches in Victoria Park after a cycle along the canal to walks across Hampstead Heath and hopefully—if we get another good summer—more wild swims in the Ponds, to film nights on the South Bank or pizza dinners in Stoke Newington…
Anywhere and everywhere you can escape, alone or together with friends, family, a lover, for an hour or a day or a week, frees the brain and feeds the soul…
And really what better way is there to nourish yourself and your creativity?
It’s one of my favourite benefits of being a writer… Knowing that while I’m relaxing and exploring, observing and enjoying, I’m also inventing and imagining, spinning new stories and meeting new characters in my head.
Liam Livings—Q & A
Is writing your only creative output?
I can’t paint or draw and haven’t played the piano in years. My other creative outlet is baking. I love to make a cake or pudding. I love turning ingredients into something beautiful to see and delicious to eat. My most ambitious was a Black Forest Gateau which was wonderful fun. I gave up on the fat-less sponge because it didn’t rise, and instead settled on a Jane Asher slight cheat version of a chocolate sponge cake, with layers (two syllables for that word contrary to what Mary Berry says) of cream and cherries.
What sparks new ideas?
Anything and everything. Honestly. Inspirations for my stories include: a guy I follow on Instagram; a newspaper article I read about re-wilding a farm; a scene in A Place To Call Home; the film The Holiday; lyrics from ‘I Love It’ by Icona Pop; an editor telling me I had to give a secondary character his own story; attending a dear friend’s funeral who’d died at 33; my experiences growing up and coming out; accidentally walking into a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in a village hall rather than a local writing group I’d asked to join; really getting into trance music on Youtube and discovering forums about raves and orbital parties in the nineties; a holiday in Ibiza; working in a hospital; my litany of dreadful experiences with men when I was young, naive and overtly ambitions; a friend’s birthday in a hacienda over a long weekend; watching the film, The Proposal for the seventy-third time and thinking I wonder what if?; a weekend away with friends and noticing group dynamics; watching a video of a Kylie concert and noticing a particularly handsome backing dancer and wondering what his backstory was.
What other things do you do to spark creativity and allow your mind a short vacation from writing or to provide the time it needs to spark a new idea for your next book?
Sometimes I find I can overthink a plot point. I used to sit with paper and pen and try to think the way through it. Almost without exception, this doesn’t work. So now I bake a cake, go for a walk, have a bath, read a book. Something where I’m not thinking actively about the problem. And inevitably the answer appears, as clear as day, over the horizon cantering forwards on the back of a pink pony.
Do you think all creative people express it in numerous ways?
I can’t speak for others, but personally my main creative outlet is writing. It’s different types of writing, but always writing. I’ve written a diary since I was eleven years old. I started creative writing at secondary school at 13. When I travelled around Australia in my first GAP year (I had a second unintentional one afterwards) I wrote pen portraits about people I met, wrote poems. I’ve used writing in a therapeutic way too. After my dear friend Nick passed away, I came home and free-wrote about the day, my feelings, how I’d met him and we’d become friends. I had no idea where or if I’d use that writing, but it felt like something I had to do. To help process the feelings.
I’ve worked in jobs requiring corporate writing—marketing and corporate communications, press releases, writing in plain English, summarising complex technical concepts into easy to understand text. It’s always been, for me, writing. Since learning to touch type (honestly one of the most useful life skills I’ve acquired as an adult) it is almost as if typing genuinely taps into my unconscious. Sometimes I can sit and it’s almost as if I’m writing without really thinking what I’m writing. (I’m sure my editors would agree with that!) When I write first drafts of my fiction, and if I’m ‘in the flow’ it’s as if I’m seeing a film of my characters and what they’re doing and I’m just sitting there describing it in words. No other creative expression comes to me as easily as writing. I’m often asked to help friends with CVs, job applications, letter writing etc.
Is it better to have a mind that is both equally creatively and business orientated in order to have a successful career?
I think the ultimate Venn diagram is where what you want to write is what is selling in your genre at that time. I know some authors who are lucky enough to be in that position. I have a business oriented mind in terms of promotion and applying some marketing principals to my writing. But I don’t think I would be able to write something my heart wasn’t in just because it was popular. I write stories I would want to read. Stories about what I have experienced in terms of living as a gay man. With an optimistic ending, because so often in life things don’t end that way. I tend to use humour without thinking about it, because that’s how I am when I speak too. Self deprecating humour mostly. I tend to write stories I’d like to read. I was lucky enough to be in wonderful company as a finalist in the RONAs Romantic Comedy Novel Award 2019 with Adventures in Dating … In Heels. If you’d like to meet Kev and enter into his world of trying to date in heels, here’s the blurb:
Kev Harrison is a teenager, looking for a boyfriend and friends who will accept his cross-dressing. Only thing is, he lives in a small village near Salisbury, England, and it’s the nineties.
Tony Collins is Kev’s best friend, a Goth with a passion for fashion and anything to do with the Human League. He stands as the voice of reason while Kev muddles his way through coming out, career choices, and dating…in heels.
What are your block breakers and plotting saviours? If you have any tips for writing success, please share below in the comments or on social media #TheWriteThing. We'd love to know!