The Birth of a Story Idea

Story ideas are all around us. Joyce Ann Brown, author of the Psycho Cat and the Landlady mystery series, is my guest today. She tells us how she gets ideas for her series. And she has a very special offer for a lucky reader …

Take it away, Joyce!

During my career as a school library media specialist, I heard several authors of realistic fiction books say they got their ideas for themes and plots from newspaper articles and current events, from personal experiences, or from conversations with friends and acquaintances. It impressed me that they were able to create characters and entire novels from individual events.

Now, as an author, I find myself using the same sources for ideas. For instance, last week I told some friends about my new pet sitter who watches cats for folks when they travel. “Are you sure she’s a cat sitter and not a cat burglar?” one friend asked with a wicked grin.  She was kidding, but her remark turned into an enthusiastic give-and-take among my friends about a cat sitter who might be a burglar or might case houses for a cat burglar.

“No,” I said, inspired to give the idea some thought, “The cat sitter would be accused but not guilty. My landlady sleuth could investigate to prove she’s innocent.”

This personal experience and conversation with friends might provide the premise for my next short story or the next book in the Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mystery series. It reminds me of the way I gathered ideas for the first book, CATastrophic Connections. A friend told me an open-your-mouth-wide-and-shake-your-head-in-disbelief story about a “psycho” cat that had saved her life. From other friends, I gathered more cat stories. I heard descriptions of embezzlements by their company bookkeepers from friends who ran small businesses. My husband and I own rental properties, and one of the tenants told me a tale about her mother and another about her boyfriend. Her narratives led to the main plot of the book. My amateur sleuth is a landlady, because I understand that job.

After that, it was a matter of putting all those stories together, adding a murder and believable crooks, researching BOLOs, writing chapters, revising, rewriting, getting feedback, and revising some more. It took over a year before I was ready to find a publisher. Easy-peasy, right?

Okay, maybe not easy—but as more observations demanded my attention, I decided I needed to write another book. FURtive Investigation, the second book in the series, is based on ideas I imagined about some of our other rental tenants. I had invented a landlady sleuth, and I had experience with rentals. My imaginings took off into story form. Though, until it crept into the story, I never imagined the skeleton Psycho Cat finds in the duplex attic. It would have been creepy to paint and clean the rental unit if I’d had to think about a dead body above me.

Nine LiFelines, the third book, grew from a story I heard at a meeting years ago from the head of library technology in my school district. While giving a report on what she’d learned at a conference, she told a personal story about the elevator in her hotel that would never go to her floor without going to another floor first.

“A ghost?” she asked. “Maybe a nefarious scheme?” The lady had a good imagination.

I transferred that elevator to a condo building in Brookside, the quaint neighborhood in Kansas City where my fictional landlady sleuth lives. The devilish elevator became one of the mysteries the landlady and Psycho Cat have to solve to save a tenant from going to prison. The tenant and the murder victim are both immigrants, a theme that came from the news.

When my husband and I took a trip in our fifth-wheel RV about a year ago and unhooked to visit the Alamo, crooks broke the door lock and tried to steal our parked truck. They broke the ignition but failed to start the engine because we carried the key fob with us. The aftermath involved phone calls, police officers, insurance claims, a tow truck, a locksmith, and our two kitties having to spend extended time in the fifth wheel back at the RV campground. To top it all off, after we finally left for home, the truck’s engine died (while I was driving, no less) in the middle of I-35. We camped for two nights in a Ford dealership parking lot while our truck sat in the shop waiting for a part to be delivered.

That true story, plus a murder and some fumbling hoodlums, became Tailed, the fourth Psycho Cat mystery. In the story, as you might have guessed, the hoods follow the RV back to Kansas City after a murder is committed. The reader knows it could be the end of the road for the landlady and her cat if they can’t solve the mystery this time.

A Harvey House Restaurant display at the Kansas City branch of the National Archives provided characters and setting for my short story “Harvey House Homicide,” which appears in the anthology Noir at the Salad Bar: Culinary Tales with Bite. I wrote “Ghost in the Headlights”, a short story that was selected for Kings River Life magazine’s Halloween issue, after a neighbor had a run-in with her bisexual boyfriend. He broke into her house after their breakup to steal some important papers, and she called the police. My newest short story, “The Legacy,” resulted from a visit to a friend’s in-laws’ house, an 1890’s mansion filled with antiques and surrounded by overgrown gardens and woods.

I have more examples, but you get the idea. I always need more stories. If you, dear reader, have an interesting tidbit, please comment here, or contact me. Your story and your name in the acknowledgements could become part of my next book.

Find the Psycho Cat and the Landlady books in paperback, e-book, and audio formats on Amazon.

Visit the author website to read more about the author, her books, and her two cats. A YouTube video in which Psycho Cat tells about the books can be found there, too.

Like Joyce’s Facebook author page:

Joyce Ann Brown, the author of the Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mystery series, set in Kansas City, was a librarian, a landlady, and a Realtor before becoming a short story, blog, and novel writer. She has two mischievous cats and a family scattered across the country.

Ms. Brown spends her days writing (with a few breaks for tennis, walking, and book clubs) so that Beth, the landlady in the series, and Sylvester, the Psycho Cat, can solve puzzling who-done-its involving heinous crimes involving rentals and rental properties.


The Birth of a Story Idea — 11 Comments

  1. Great post, Joyce. I enjoyed hearing the inspiration for your mysteries, the series sounds fun. I’ll definitely check it out. I’ve often found inspiration for plots in newspaper articles, and the experience of friends, too. Sometimes those personal stories seep into my subconscious and I use them without thinking. ( Can be embarrassing…) Does that ever happen to you?

    • Absolutely, Anne. Sometimes I don’t remember to ask friends if I can use their stories until after I’ve finihed a work. I haven’t been turned down yet.

  2. Great post, Joyce. I enjoyed hearing the inspiration for your mysteries, the series sounds fun. I’ll definitely check it out. I’ve often found inspiration for plots in newspaper articles, and the experience of friends, too. Sometimes those personal stories seep into my subconscious and I use them without thinking. ( Can be embarrassing…) Does that ever happen to you?

  3. Interesting where ideas come from. Sometimes, ordinary events can become extraordinary in the hands of a skilled writer like Ms. Brown.

  4. Nice to see you here on Maggie’s blog, Joyce! I enjoyed reading about the backstories, so to speak, of your books. It’s amazing how many real-life things end up in fictional tales. When people say that truth is stranger than fiction, I think that’s often true.

  5. It’s good that imagination comes into play, too. Guess that’s how we became writers–we can use our imaginations to create stories out of experience.

  6. Interesting!! Joyce, I am very behind and will catch up with the landlady’s adventures soon!