Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How a Book is Made: The Idea

One of the questions authors are asked on a regular basis is this: where do you get your ideas?

After all, that's where a book starts, in that germ of a notion, a fleeting thought, the aha moment that sparks the birth of what will eventually become a finished novel or work of nonfiction. But as any author will tell you, that can be a hard question to answer. The process is usually different for every writer, and sometimes for every book; my ideas have come from dreams, or other books I've read, or something I saw in my daily life, or just one of those lightning flashes out of nowhere.

In the case of the Baba Yaga books, however, I know exactly how the idea came about, and since a number of people have asked me "How did you come to use the Baba Yaga as a character?" I thought I'd explain how--in this particular instance--the book process began.

For the professional author, it isn't always enough to wait for inspiration to strike. Those who write book after book often have to sit down and purposely work at coming up with an idea. In this case, my agent Elaine Spencer and I had sent out a couple of my previous novels to make the rounds of the publishing houses, and gotten back great, very positive responses, but no offers. [This isn't unusual, by the way. For every author you hear about who sells their first book within a week of submission, there are dozens more who submit manuscript after manuscript for years before finally breaking in.]

One of the advantages of having an agent is that she/he has a much better idea of what is happening in the market: which trends are hot, which have peaked, and which are so overdone that no one in publishing wants to look at anything in that genre. A good agent will also be able to pinpoint your strengths as an author, and make helpful suggestions for what to write and what not to write.

Don't get me wrong--the author has to write something she is passionate about, and writing to the trends never works (in part because publishing moves so slowly, the trend that is big today may be over by the time your book is written, and then comes out a couple of years later). But a smart writer will often confer with her agent about what will and won't work.

So Elaine and I had a great phone chat to discuss "what next." She said that she loved my witch characters, and would like to see me do another one that was completely different from any of the ones I'd done before. And we came up with a list of basic concepts that we both liked, including modern renditions of old fairy tales.

After the call, I mulled over the idea of fairy tales. The problem with the common ones was that they've all been written about numerous times. (Often by writers I love, like Robin McKinley and Jim C. Hines.) Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast...they'd all been done. I needed something different.

Since Elaine and I had talked about witch characters, Baba Yaga popped into my head right away--she's a Russian/Slavic witch who hasn't been used at all, really. (I went online and checked, something I always suggest if you come up with a brilliant idea. You'd be amazed how many times you'll find that dozens of people have come up with the same thing!) And since I come from a Russian Jewish background, I've always had something of a soft spot for her. But she is usually pictured as the "wicked old crone" type of witch, so I wasn't sure if there was a way to modernize her into a kick-ass protagonist.

Then I looked through some of my favorite reference books (which I use both for research and ideas), including a great book by John and Caitlin Matthews called The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. The Matthews had some interesting things to say about Baba Yaga, including these tidbits: she started out as a elemental goddess, she can sometimes appear as a kindly woman who will help those who can prove they deserve it, she guards the gateway between the everyday world and the mythic Otherworld, and is associated with a dragon named Koshei who takes human shape, and a dragon named Chudo-Yudo who guards the Water of Life and Death.

BOOM! Suddenly the story was exploding in my head. I did lots of research, and took many elements of the original mythology and used them. For instance, Baba Yaga was known for living in a hut that moved around the forest on three huge chicken legs, and she flew through the air in a giant mortar which she steered with a pestle. She was sometimes said to have sisters, also called Babas. So I wrote about three women--all Baba Yagas, and all tasked with keeping the balance of nature, guarding the doorways into the Otherworld, and each traveling in her own fashion with her own Chudo-Yudo as a companion. Throw in some romance, and a few wicked enemies, and suddenly, I had a book series!

Barbara Yager, the Baba Yaga in WICKEDLY DANGEROUS (the first book, coming in September 2014), rides around in an enchanted silver Airstream trailer and rides a classic BMW motorcycle. Her Chudo-Yudo is disguised as a gigantic white pit bull. And she is definitely wickedly dangerous.

You can see that from that one conversation with my agent (who LOVED the idea when I ran it past her, by the way), and some brainstorming and research, I took an old, almost forgotten character and turned her into my Baba Yaga. I look forward to having you all meet her when the book comes out!

Any questions?


  1. I love the idea and can hardly wait to read about her...another GREAT book it seems!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Deborah! I always love when authors have "how-to" posts, and this also answers why Baba Yaga. Can't wait for it to come out.

    1. I love those kind of posts too. I was thinking of continuing on through the entire process of getting this book "made," if people are interested.

  3. I have a couple of different editions of the abridged version of The Golden Bough by Frazer. I've gotten ideas from browsing thru that book, just none that I've put onto paper. Yet.

    So looking forward to these books. But September 2014? Seriously? Why is it taking that long? They've had the book for months!

    1. LOL. It always takes a long time to produce a book--usually between a year and a half and two years :-)