Generating Story 11: Creative Q&A with Author Janci Patterson

I was introduced to Janci Patterson at a local convention by author Sandra Tayler (some may know Sandra because of her husband Howard who does the online Schlock Mercenary comic).  Janci told me she’d just signed with a YA publisher. That was exciting. I asked her what her novel was about. She told me, and I immediately hated her because it sounded like such a fun idea, and I wanted to not only read it, but also write the story myself. Luckily I have a few scruples and did not pay the local Klingons to off her and drop her body in the Great Salt Lake for the brine shrimp to feast upon.

BTW, did you know that back in the day hucksters placed this ad in Boy’s Life magazine?

Look at that cute sea-monkey family. Look at the picture of the human family watching the sea-monkey family swim around a castle in a bowl. Click on it. See it large.

As a young lad, I, as every good Boy Scout should, subscribed to the magazine. I saw that ad over and over.  Who wouldn’t want a sea-monkey? So I saved up my money, earned by watering plants and trees at a nursery in the hot Utah summer sun, and ordered me a family to put on my own shelf.

The aquarium came. It was not a bowl and did not have a castle. But, hey, there were real live sea-monkey eggs right there in the packet. They weren’t just fantasy creatures! I mixed in the water and salt and dropped the eggs in. I can’t tell you how excited I was. Days later the eggs hatched. And what did I have?

Brine shrimp.

BRINE SHRIMP!

I could have had my mom drive me to the lake where I could have scooped up a million of them. For free. That was, I believe, my first great disillusionment. The first great step from child to adult.

Alas, sea-monkeys . . .

Anyway, back to story. Janci was one of those Codex Writers who shared how she used Q&A to develop her killer story idea. She agreed to share it with you. Here’s Janci.

***

The idea for CHASING THE SKIP started with a game of existential questions.  That’s like Twenty Questions, only with no question limit and much more confusing subject matter–like the Pythagorean theorem, or gas prices.  My husband and I like to play the game on long road trips, since a really good round can take two or three hours to play out. 

On this occasion, I chose a bounty hunter.  It took Drew about five minutes to guess that one–not my finest subject ever.  But after he guessed it, we started talking.  I knew that bounty hunters still existed, but I had no idea how chasing down a fugitive could be a part of our contemporary justice system.  Just what is it that bounty hunters did, anyway?  How did it all work?

After our road trip, that question stuck with me, so I began to do some research.  What I discovered fascinated me.  A bounty hunter could legally chase down his mark because of the bail bond process.  In order to be released from jail before a pending trial, an arrestee had to put up bail money as collateral, to ensure they returned for their trial.  Since most people can’t afford to post the full bail amount, a bondsman will post it for them, in exchange for a smaller fee.  When the arrestee skips bail, the bondsman is out the money–unless he can get bring the arrestee back.  In fact, he’ll have that person sign away their constitutional rights to privacy in addition to paying the fee.  He’s allowed to go find them if they don’t show up in court.  He can even break and enter to do so–dragging them out against their will.  But the bondsman is a busy man, so he signs those rights over to a bounty hunter, and off the bounty hunter goes, chasing down the skip.  If a person is good at it, bounty hunter can be a legitimate career.

As I researched, I knew I had the beginnings of a story.  This had all the elements–reality with a touch of danger, crime with a touch of justice.  I wanted to make it work. 

But I write YA novels, and no bondsman would sign on a teenager to go after his skips.  That would have all kinds of negative legal ramifications, and even if it didn’t, no reader would believe it. Enter my Creative Q&A, the question I always ask when I’m doing idea development for a novel: where can I put a teenager in this?

Answer: she couldn’t be the bounty hunter, but she could be the bounty hunter’s daughter.

That posed its own problems, of course.  No dad in his right mind is going to haul his daughter along on the road with him as he tracks down skips.  (Or, in question form, what would make a dad in his right mind bring his daughter into such a dangerous situation?)  I needed a crisis, so he had to bring her along, had to track down the skip, had to keep going with all of it, even when things got rough.  And if I could work in some interpersonal drama, all the better.

And so it was that Ricki became abandoned by her mother, forced to ride along with her bounty hunter father, a man she barely knows, as he chases down a skip who is more dangerous than his usual mark.  Why would he take this particular job with Ricki along? 

Ricki would like to know that, too.

***

John Sez: ins’t that a great idea?  I hate Janci.

While we’re hating her, did you notice that she got some random bit of zing playing 20 questions with her hubby? She followed it up by doing some research.  After doing that, she had a lot more zing. She also knew she had a general topic for a story.  She knew she had the beginnings of a story because her zing meter was going wild. 

But she didn’t have a story yet.  She had a vocation, which is nothing more than a bit of setting.

To have a story you need character, problem, plot, AND setting.  So she whipped out her Creative Q&A tool to help her find a character.  And the question she asked was one she’s found is very productive for her. It’s a basic question. But it’s an excellent question. And from that Q&A she started to develop the rest of the story parts.

The take away isn’t that playing 20 questions on road trips is the key to story ideas.

It isn’t that one question Janci asked, as fundamental and productive as it is.

It’s that the principles we’ve been discussing in these posts work. Develop the 6 Core Parts. Think about objectives. Start anywhere. Hunt zing. Generate your own zing. Use Creative Q&A. Work on the various parts using whatever tools you have until you have developed enough that the story comes alive in your mind.

I hope she sells a million.

For more in this series, see How to Get and Develop Story Ideas

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