How do you develop ideas for plots?

A note from Nava:
In the comments under "Can good work be done in short sessions?" Travelscribble left a question that she hoped a Literary Lady might answer. Perhaps not an exact fit, but Madeleine L'Engle's description of how she developed stories came close, especially since Travelscribble mentioned that she's fond of children's literature and fantasy. I welcome other readers leaving their questions, and I'll do my best to find a fitting answer.

Dear Literary Ladies,
Where do you go looking for plots? Did your stories once begin with just a title in your head? Did you have a mundane thought that you somehow developed into a plot? I enjoy writing and am satisfied with my craft but sometimes feel that I must be really dull or lack imagination. I might add that I am especially fond of children's literature and fantasy. (submitted by Travelscribble)

When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day’s work, I drop a carrot in one, and onion in another . . . When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don’t remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of the work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unselfconsciousness, of letting go and serving the work.

— Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, 1980


JQ. July 6, 2009 at 8:01 AM  

This is one of the prettiest's I've ever seen, how did you do it? I sure would be happy if you could assist me help mine. Not to mention the subject of this blog...I love it.
A great blog and so glad to have found it,


Nava Atlas July 6, 2009 at 8:16 AM  

Hello Jaqueline,

Thank you so much for your kind comment. Believe me, I'm no techie. There are lots of free blogger templates, and this is one of them. You can see lots of them at Download the one you want. Then what you do is once your blog is set up with a temporary template, you go into your dashboard, select "edit html" and then select "upload template from a file on your hard drive" --I think that's pretty much it. I may have missed a step here, but I feel like if I can do this, anyone can.

You'll be amazed at the array of templates available. Aside from the site I gave here, you can google "free blogger templates" and you'll come up with other. Hope this helps!

brazen July 7, 2009 at 3:33 PM  

I just discovered this blog today and I am far too delighted with it to stop myself gushing! I LOVE it! It's already one of my favourites!

I am a literature student and I love writing but have only just begun to work seriously at it. I have to say that finding some of my everyday writing challenges addressed by female authors that I adore is a great confidence booster!

The post about imitating your favourite writers in your own writing gave me a sudden realization that this was something I have been struggling with personally. I am now on a quest to uncover my own style of prose instead of winding up with defective imitations of Muriel Spark and Dorothy Parker!

This is a delightful blog and I will certainly be back!

Nava Atlas July 8, 2009 at 4:45 PM  

Dear Brazen,

Thank you so much for this awesome comment! I agree with you completely that discovering that these hugely successful authors encountered the same challenges as does anyone who writes is comforting indeed. I have learned so much from them.

Eileen Williams July 9, 2009 at 7:24 AM  

Dear Nava,

I so agree with the two comments from Brazen and Jacqueline. Not only is this site beautiful to look at, it provides encouragement, thoughts to ponder upon, and real-life Literary Ladies as muses and mentors.
However, what amazes me the most, is your personal boundless creativity. I encourage each of your readers to check out every one of your links. Each is different and unique and each is a true treasure!

Nava Atlas July 9, 2009 at 10:44 AM  

Eileen, I've meant to let you know how much I enjoyed your interview with Cheryl Saban, who talked about self-worth and feeling deserving of having and using one's voice. The theme of that interview went very well with some of the ideas here. And what you said above is so spot on—these remarkable women from the past are muses and above all, mentors. Each one had their own set of troubles and struggles, but they were so strong and refused to give up!

Nava Atlas July 12, 2009 at 7:07 AM  


Anonymous July 19, 2009 at 12:32 AM  

Dear Nava,

I am thrilled with the Madeleine L’Engle post. Thank you for providing such an appropriate response to my query. You must be extremely well read to have hit on so perfect a reply. Do keep writing.

Best Wishes,

p.s: have you disabled trackbacks & pings on this site? if not, could you pls provied me the trackback url to this post?

Nava Atlas July 19, 2009 at 5:41 AM  

Hello Travelscribble--OK, I *think* I enabled trackbacks. I wouldn't know how to fix the above comment so it tracks back, so I'll provide your URL: --for anyone who reads this comment thread. Thanks for pointing that out to me, and also thank you so much for your kind comment, above!

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Wouldn't you love to get advice from  classic women authors on writing and the writer's life? Here I fancifully pose the questions, and the Literary Ladies answer in their own words.

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