I Lived in Steve Berry’s House!

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

I was recently lamenting my lack of writing inspiration with an author friend and I had an epiphany. While I was blaming the demise of my muse on now being an editor, which makes me agonize over every word and comma, the answer hit me. I’ve stopped daydreaming.

Years ago, when I first started writing novels, I was caught in a loveless marriage, so I started making stuff up. I read romance novels, surely, but I also put myself into romance situations…in my mind. I pictured meeting handsome strangers and being swept away. I would fantasize while washing the dishes, force myself to stay awake in the bed until the wee hours, pretending I was something I could never be. But in my dreams, I could be anything I wanted. 

Then at some point, I realized this obsessive compulsion to avoid real life wasn’t healthy. I thought, “Well, if I sit down and write this story out, maybe it’ll get it out of my system.” So I did. I sat down at a bulky computer (in the mid-90s, computers were not sleek), opened up Word Perfect, and started telling my daydream.

The Process

My editor-in-chief

Putting my visions, thoughts, ideas into concrete words was exhilarating. One day I typed in a full fifty pages. Another day, I was so wrapped up in the story I forgot to hit “save” – well, you know the outcome to that story. Power failure and total loss. I cried for two days then got back on and rewrote it. (I’m still bad about hitting “save.” So much for lessons learned.) I could sit at that computer for 18 hours, kids and husbands be damned, and crank out the word count. The entire book, which ended up at a whopping 160,000 words (that’s close to 600 pages), was pretty bad.

The end of that part of the story is when I finished the book, I felt so empty, and so drained, that I sat down and wrote another book. That one, 20 years later, became Hitchin’ and it’s published. And it’s still my favorite of all my stories. I ended up writing four full books in two years before we moved back to Norfolk, Virginia.

So what’s that got to do with Steve?

Downtown St. Marys – The Riverview Hotel is the white building on the far left

Which brings me to Steve Berry. A couple of years ago I made a trip to St. Marys, Georgia (where we’d been living when I wrote those stories) because one of my books was based there, and I wanted to see how much the area had changed. (The area, a lot… the small, quaint downtown of St. Marys, very little.) I stayed in the Riverview Hotel – it was there in the early 90s when I’d lived there, and I thought it would be fun. (It’s supposed to be haunted, but I didn’t see any ghosts.)

Very unlike this complete introvert, I started talking to people. I wandered into small shops and chatted up the owners, and as is often the case in small towns, gathered a whole lot of town gossip. Not the least of which was the fact the Riverview’s owner had been married to Steve Berry.

Wow. I love his books!

Historic Riverview Hotel, St. Marys, Georgia

When I returned to the hotel (which was just one block away) that evening I joined the local crowd at the outdoor patio for a drink (where the brick columns are in the photo). The owners invited me to sit with them, so I did, meeting more locals and chatting them up. I told Gaila how I’d lived there before, near Crooked River State Park. She told me she’d lived in a house out there, also. As we compared notes, I said, “The house I lived in was on Live Oak Lane,” and she responded, “Our house was on Live Oak Lane.”

Imagine my shock when we determined I had lived in her and Steve Berry’s home that Steve had rented out after their split. I was blown away. Talk about coincidences (you can’t make this stuff up).

That house had been added onto over the years, and had a long hallway leading to four bedrooms, with the master at the end. In the middle of the hall was a niche, wide and deep enough for an upright piano, and we had our computer there. And that’s where I spent all those hours, writing those four books.

In retrospect, I like to think that house had some kind of psychic vibe…some energy left behind by Steve. Or maybe it was the house itself. I can’t even swear Steve did any writing within its walls.

But it’s sure nice to think so.

Success! You're on the list.

If it’s broke, fix it!

I’m struggling with my NaNo word count. I’m way behind, and see no breakthroughs ahead that will bring me up to speed.

I hate this book.

I love the plot idea and the small bits of events I have planned. But there’s nothing tying them together . . . I need more subplots and segues. I’m just jumping from scene to scene. The characters are flat (the nice guys are just NICE and the bad guys are just SLEAZY). They’re all one dimensional.

I started writing novels in 1994. I never outlined, I didn’t plot . . . I did do some extensive character development, however. But I started writing with one goal: to get A and B together, or A to meet B – there was always an end result in mind. In the process, my characters spoke to me. They went places I never expected. Yes, I edited a lot. I cut hundreds of pages from the final stories. But I could also crank out as many as 50 pages in a day. I was driven.

But my writing has taken a turn. I’ve since taught high school English and become a grammar-nazi. God forbid I should misplace a comma. And in the evolution of all this, I’ve lost my emotion. My heart. My guts. Like the talented violin player who is technically gifted, but her playing has no heart, neither does my writing have any heart.

And that is heart-breaking to me. It makes me want to quit. To give up this dream of writing books I’ve had since first grade.

I complained to my daughter-in-law about this problem last night—how I used to be able to write by the seat of my pants and miracles happened. The one book I tried to plot took me ten years to write. The other four took just a few weeks each.

She said,

“You’ve changed. You’re not the same person you were 18 years ago. So you need to change how you write.”

CARAMBA! Is this a teachable moment? An epiphany?

I need to change how I write.

I understand this is a defining moment for me and my writing. If I can embrace this notion, maybe I’ll get my writing mojo back.

And maybe I can finish NaNo this year.

You got that idea from where??

One of the most frequent questions any author will hear is “Where do you get your ideas?” And while the specifics of their answers will vary, the theme for all is the same: Life.

Every conversation you hear, event you see (small or significant), tidbit you read, experience you have… all of these can spark an idea. It depends on your interests, your background, your thoughts and emotions. And like the tiniest sapling, it will flourish and grow until it forms a mighty oak.
(Okay, that was a really bad analogy, but I liked this image I found. Which serves to prove my point about inspiration. I didn’t say all of it had to be good.)

During an adult-ed creative writing class at Jacksonville University, one of my fellow students wrote a descriptive passage about the area that was so beautiful, I thought “I can do that!” and wrote a novel based on a nearby town. I’ve also found story ideas in letters to Dear Abby, snippets of overheard conversations, and even from well-meaning friends who said, “You should write about…” I’ve written novels involving hitchhiking (yes, I did that), house renovation (I’m still doing that), and spouse trading (I didn’t do that, but I probably felt like it once or twice).

Oddly, if you read those books today, you probably couldn’t find any of those inspiring moments in them, because they evolved and changed in the process. But one thing all successful writers will tell you, you have to get the words on paper. We all know the person who “is going to write a book someday”, but it can’t happen unless the words hit the paper.

So if you are an aspiring writer, start listening, reading, paying attention. You never know what might spark that next idea. And for my reader friends, the next time you read a novel and think, “I wonder where that idea came from?”, well… you just never know.

For more thoughts on where writers get ideas, check out these links: Where Do Authors Get Story Ideas? and Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?  Meanwhile, share your thoughts! Where did your best idea come from?