Cheryl St.John: Where I Get My Ideas

cheryl_stjohn_logo.jpgAny writer can tell you that the most frequently asked question they hear is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Writers get their ideas the same as everyone else does. Ideas just come to us. The difference is that writers learn to brainstorm and embellish on the original idea until it’s a plausible idea for a book.


I used to reply with a quip, such as one of these:

“I subscribe to Idea Monthly.”
“I close myself in a dark closet, chant a mantra, and don’t come out until a complete story has come to me.”
“I remember everything everyone tells me and I use it.”
“Little green men come to me and night and whisper plots in my ear.”

“There’s a warehouse on the outskirts of Tulsa….”


The problem with answering like that is that—people take me seriously!
story-creation-beginningMany of my ideas come from hearing a song, watching a movie, reading a book, or from my research. Something will catch my attention, and I’ll think “what if”? Then I play with the notion until I turn it into a story.

From the original concept, I develop the characters first. Exactly what kind of person will fit this role or this scene or this setting? Then I create the other lead character with built in conflict and an opposing goal. I start a binder. The members of my RWA chapter who saw my binder at our retreat have started calling it The Binder of Wonder. Okay, I confess to being a tad obsessive about things now and then.



Top one is the binder at the beginning of the process—one page of notes only

Second one is my current binder on my desk

Third one is my desk with the story in progress spread all over – can you find Hugh?


Each book gets its own three-ring binder. Into the binder goes a character grid I’ve created by combining other charts into one that works for me, and a character fact sheet, which isn’t about physical appearance at all, but lists of words that describe them and mostly information about their past. Then as I go along I add dividers to separate the material I collect: Research on their occupation or a locale, names I will use, a map, society and etiquette, a brainstormed list of 25 Things That Could Happen, photos of people who resemble my characters. My current hero is Hugh Jackman, but his photo isn’t inside the binder; it’s over my desk. Duh.


I accumulate historical facts, dates in history, weather, a calendar of the year, on which I record my events as they take place, photos of places, houses, scenery, and a style sheet, which records all the characters and place names I use in the book.


story-creation-the-workspaceThe original idea, that little glimmer of a spark, is most often one thought I write down on one sheet of paper – and then tweak and tweak and tweak. Starting with my first book, here are a few:

— Heaven Can Wait originated as taking a girl who knew nothing of the outside world from a sequestered environment and flinging her into a completely alien culture. That theme still fascinates me, and I have more ideas for others.

— Rain Shadow developed from the desire to do a sequel to Heaven Can Wait, using the previous hero’s brother as the hero, and needing an exact opposite to pair him with. Thus the gun-toting Wild West character of Rain Shadow developed.

— Land of Dreams came from my fascination with and empathy for the children who rode the orphan trains, and, as a result of the many diaries I’d read. So many of the children suffered in their new environments nearly as much as they had on the streets of New York, often being sexually abused or used as servants, and many thinking they’d been adopted into families, only to find out years later that they hadn’t. I wanted to give some of those kids a good home. And Too Tall Thea was a character burning for a story and someone to love her.

huja— Saint or Sinner sprang from my passion for watching late night westerns. There’s an old black and white flick with Joanne Woodward where this guy comes back from the war and builds a church. She’s just a kid he tries to reform, but I thought…what if this fellow had a life after death experience and came back a changed man…and there was a woman who didn’t believe he’d changed?

— Badlands Bride actually started out as merely a title I’d saved for years. I needed a story to go with that great title. The idea of having an unprepared reporter go west disguised as a mail-order bride popped into my head, and I decided to send her to the badlands and use that title. I love the underdog characters, you may have noticed. She’s desperate for her father’s approval.

— A Husband By Any Other Name came from the Bible story of the prodigal son. One son runs away, squanders his inheritance and comes back to his father’s welcoming arms. The brother who stayed home and worked doesn’t think that’s too fair, even though he surely loved his brother. Seeing the father plan a feast and roast the fatted calf irks him. I further complicated that story by having the brother who stays home marry the fiancée of the brother who went away. Did I mention he pretends to be the brother who went away?

— The Truth About Toby: I’ve always been a bit fascinated with dream interpretations, I guess. I had originally titled the book Dream A Little Dream For Me, because the hero is helping the heroine with precognitive dreams. Austin came to me first, a reclusive, tortured hero who simply wants to forget the horrors of his past. And for him I created Shaine, the woman he can’t resist, who needs him to remember it all. And then the eds told me that dream title would never fly. A month after my book came SEP’s masterpiece.

— The Mistaken Widow is a historical version of the movie, “Mrs. Winterbourne, where Ricky Lake pretends to be Brenden Frasier’s sister-in-law. As soon as I saw the film, I started picturing it in a historical scenario. My story has a bit more twists and turns, however.


collagemarvel— The Doctor’s Wife came from watching a talk show where the female guest told her story. She came from the “trash family” in a little town. I felt so sorry for her and her story was so sad that I sat and cried. Often when I’m moved by someone’s real life story, I want to write one that turns out better. It’s like I can fix the world one book at a time or something. The real person in this case was ridiculed and teased by the other children. Her family was so poor that she wore her brother’s underwear. Her mother gave birth to more than one baby and made the daughter go bury them. One particular time, she secretly gave the baby away. This was one of those reunion shows, and they brought out the sister whose life she saved so many years ago and they were reunited with hugs and tears. Bizarre story, eh? Once again truth is stranger than fiction. Well I changed all that and had the baby be my heroine’s and had her hide it to keep it safe. But that’s where the idea was conceived.

and on and on…..up to the book I’m working on now:


— Her Make-Believe Husband started out as one little thought. I wanted a child to get letters from a made-up father. And then the made-up father to show up. It took me months of hashing out the idea and coming up with things and then having to chuck them because they wouldn’t work and then setting it aside time after time. Finally one time when I went back to it, something clicked and the idea all fell together. I am loving this story so much — and who wouldn’t with Hugh Jackman as the hero, eh?


stjohn.jpgSo anyway, ideas come from anywhere and everywhere: TV shows, the newspaper, songs, other books. I’ve never found that warehouse outside Tulsa, dag-nabbit, so I do most of the dirty work on my own. Actually, the ideas are the fun part, the part that never runs out. Carrying out the work is the hard part. There are a lot of people who call themselves writers and who come up with ideas, but there are far fewer who actually do the work and get it all in publishable story form on paper!


Ask another writer and she will most likely have a completely different explanation of where stories come from – but I’ll bet she won’t know about the warehouse outside Tulsa.


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22 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John: Where I Get My Ideas”

  1. Good gosh almighty! I feel like such a sloppy writer 😉 WOW, Cheryl!! I’m amazed at your organization–and those binders!

    What fun insight to your stories and your process–thanks for sharing 😀

    Love those pics of Hugh!!!

  2. Looks like Stacey is up as late as I am! We’re EARLY morning posters. I love the concept of a full binder for each book. You are so organized. I jot things down, ideas and character traits and then I lose them and go from memory. Nothing is organized… I’m a pantser as they say. I’m impressed with your technique! I love how you explained how you gave life to each story.

    Her Make-Believe Husband sounds like such a fun concept. Is it an HH or your newly contracted LIH? Congrats on that contract btw.

    Struggling through a plot only to make it all work out, is so rewarding and I bet you will really love the story when all is said and done. 🙂

  3. Wow, I just discovered you and now I’m inspired! Your new story (with hero Hugh) sounds a bit like “Dear Frankie” which was a British movie starring Emily Mortimer & Gerard Butler. Screenplay by Andrea Gibb. It was a charming story but if yours is a western, I’m sure it will have more grit. Can’t wait to see how it develops.

  4. Ahh, organized Cheryl. I’m amazing by your process. And some people think writing is easy! What I wouldn’t do to have just a bit of your talent.

  5. This is an HH. I only look as though I’m organized – LOL – I’m actually an obsessive panster. I write a synopsis, but I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the story. In fact I just read the synopsus for my current book and thought how it was sure turning out differntly from how I’d first thought. Of course it always does, and I don’t think editors expect anything different. The characters tell me where they’re going next, and that’s something I can’t know until I get them there.

    Sue – one thing the editors mentioned when they bought this idea on a synopsis, was that it was gritty!

  6. This was very interesting, Cheryl! If I were a writer, I think I would have to organize things like you do in order to keep everything straight in my head!

  7. Goodness gracious, Cheryl! Such organization!
    But such great books that are the end product of
    all your work!!

    Pat Cochran

  8. Wow, Cheryl, how organized you are! I need to take lessons. Do you do online workshops LOL??

    I just get ADD so darn bad…

    thanks for the amazing tips. I learned a ton today.


  9. What a great post Cheryl! You seem so organized with everything. I am just not that organized at all. It almost looks like you would know where to look for something if you needed it. I love the way you get your ideas and it make since.

  10. The creativity of authors is what I find amazing. One little thing sparks an idea and then you are of to create! Kudos to all you talented writers! 😀

  11. I think I may have to post a link to this article. It was wonderful to know how one author does it. Thanks for the insight.

    ABreading4fun [at] gmail [dot] com

  12. As someone who can be a part of Cheryl’s process, I have to admit it amazes me, too. 🙂

    I have a couple of files (and, okay, I’ll admit this too,) and a messy assortment of notes on my desk, that help me remember my inspirations. Usually it’s a line from a song, or something someone said, or just any little thing. A conversation here on P&P turned into a fun short story.

    I really like taking a phrase that usually makes you think of one thing and meddle with it so it turns out totally different. Like the title of my last book. 😉

  13. I’m impressed. What a wonderfully organized way to create. The image of a writer just sitting down and typing out page after page always scared me. Character mix-ups, lost trains of thought, good ideas for the plot you forget – just a few of the things that could happen. Your method is so much better. For certain it shows in your books. Have read several of them and enjoyed them all. Your writing process shows in the final product. Your characters are full and the stories rich. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  14. Awesome as usual! My desk resembles yours a fair bit, Cheryl…lots of notes and pictures all over the place and I too have oodles of characters mapped out and ideas just waiting for me to put pen to paper and bring them to life. There just isn’t enough hours in the day…

  15. Cheryl,
    Thanks for all the organizational help. Now if I can just follow up and take action! So far, I’ve managed to put everything for each book in a file folder, but that’s not vry organized.
    Maybe what I need is a picture of Hugh Jackman on my desk for inspiration! Wonder if my husband will mind sharing space with Hugh?

  16. Cheryl, I LOVED reading this post. One of the hardest things for me in my writing journey is coming up with new ideas. It particularly intrigued me that you’ve taken a movie and changed it to a historical setting (and of course, changed the details). I’ve wanted to do that before and wondered if I should. Now you’ve given me permission, so thank you!!

    I’m NOT an organized person and probably never will be. I have my own weird little disorganized system, but I guess if it works, don’t fix it, huh! But if you’re ever out on the West coast, I’d love to have you drop my and organize me!!

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