Where do I get my Ideas

I believe I’ve mentioned before that the question above is one of my least favorites. When I’m standing in front of a crowd of people, fielding that one is a struggle. My assumption is that the questioner is asking about the idea for the plot. I do my best to stay away from real cases, so those have to gradually emerge from my head into existence. I don’t pick them up from newspaper headlines.

The thing is, a lot more goes into stories than the bare bones of a plot. The characters have to come alive on the page. They have to seem real enough so that readers can connect with them. If that doesn’t happen, the book ends up being little more than an empty shell.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Steven Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George. The George in question was George Seurat, a French artist known for being a “pointillist.” His paintings are made of up thousands of tiny dots of paint rather than brush strokes. The song that really touched me from that was “Bit by Bit, Putting it Together.” As soon as I heard it, I had goosebumps because I realized that’s what I do, too, putting stories together bit by bit with words rather than with paint. I’m coming to realize more and more that the “background” bits in my characters’ lives are often made up of a patchwork taken from my own.

For instance. When Bill and I married, we came up with the bright idea that bringing a pair of new puppies into the household might serve as middle ground as we worked to blend our two families. Within days of returning from our honeymoon, we brought home two eight-week-old red dog golden retriever puppies. With an electronics engineer as the head of the household, the dogs were named Nikki and Tess after Nicola Tesla.

We lived in a house that didn’t have a fenced yard, so walking the dogs on a leash was a necessity. Guess who did the lion’s share of walking? The person who wasn’t going to school and who worked from home.

Bill and I were newlyweds with several kids in the household. We had a tiny coffee pot in our ensuite bathroom, and we didn’t emerge from behind closed doors until we had consumed two cups of coffee and read the newspapers—one for him and one for me. One day he was perusing the want ads in his and said aloud, “This is a sad story.”

“What?” I asked.

So he read it to me. “Free to good home. Eleven year-old golden retriever. Why don’t you give them a call?”

We needed another dog like I needed a new hole in my head, but call I did. It turned out, the family’s kids had moved out and the parents were downsizing to a no-dogs-allowed condo. They lived only half a mile or so from where we did, so the next day, we packed up kids and dogs and moseyed over to their place to meet Mandy. She was a lovely platinum golden, but when I reached down to pet her, my hand came away dirty. She seemed nice enough, but the woman looked at our crowd of people and dogs and said they were hoping she’d go to a place where she’d be a solo dog. “Okay,” I replied, “but if no one takes her, give us a call.”

Three weeks later, they did. When we went to pick her up, she came to us without so much as a blanket or a toy, and she was still dirty. She was wearing a collar that was so tight we had to cut it off. Her hind legs were covered with matted fur three inches thick. I don’t know how she was even able to walk. It took hours to get that mess cut off. And we soon discovered that she had no idea how to walk on a leash. The only way to get her to do her duty was to let her loose. Then she was fine. Not only that, she taught Nikki and Tess that they, too, could go where they were told without needing a fence.

The previous owner had told us that Mandy had arthritis, so we began giving her baby aspirin which seemed to help. One thing I noticed about her was that she hated flies. If one was buzzing around the family room, she would stalk it and snap it out of the air. I have a feeling that when she was so filthy, flies really tormented her.

At first she came upstairs and slept in our bedroom, but after a while the stairs became too tough for her. We soon learned that Mandy was terrified of going to the vet, so every trip to the vet’s office was accompanied by a Burger King stop for a Burger King Junior for Mandy.

One day, six months in, when I opened the front door to get the newspapers off the porch, Mandy spotted some crows strutting around in the front yard. She took off after them and came back, a few minutes later, with one hind leg clearly out of commission. Our local vet recommended a visit to a specialist. I was in tears walking her into their office where I was told to leave her with them. An hour or so later the vet called to say it was bone cancer and there was nothing to do but put her down. I asked if I should come back, but they said, “No, she’s settled now. It’s best if you leave her be.”

So we did, but I was brokenhearted. The following week, Bill had a work conference in Hawaii, and I went along, laptop in hand, so that while he was in meetings, I could work. I was writing Payment in Kind at the time, the book in which Beau finally meets his long-estranged grandparents for the first time. I was writing, yes, but I was also still grieving. Then a miracle happened. When Beau arrived at his grandparents’ home, his grandfather was sitting on the front porch with a platinum golden retriever named Mandy sitting at his side.

We had Mandy for only six months. I like to think we gave her a good retirement, but she lived on in several more of my books, and she’s still there—in print and in my heart.

And that’s where I got one of my ideas.

33 thoughts on “Where do I get my Ideas

  1. What a great story. Mandy knew you were the right place to go to. Animals sense that about people. Bill and you should feel proud.

  2. Found a bunny outside my house in Pa on a cold day with heavy snow predicted. He was so weak we were able to catch him. Had no knowledge how to care for a rabbit but off we went in a blizzard to get food & whatever a bunny might need. His first home was a Charmin toilet paper box but we then got a big plastic storage box, put litter in it & he was set as he knew what it was for. My husband traveled for work & me & bunny went along- he was in 7 states(sat on the console right between us & caused no problems at hotels. Had him for 7 years til he died of cancer. Miss “Wildfire” every day of my life.

    • Your rescued and adopted bunny could have been an abandoned pet-
      We have had rabbits since 1993, and one of ours was found on a road one night-
      She was all white, which is what made her visible to the man who rescued her and
      brought her home to his wife, a volunteer with the New Jersey House Rabbit Society- We then adopted her and she lived to be 10 years old-
      We now have two rabbits who love each other- The female had been dropped off at
      an auto mechanic shop, about to be thrown out into traffic when, Thank the Lord,
      the son of an animal-lover came by to say hello, and called his Mom to tell her about the bunny- She became the foster mom of Lily until we could bring her home to be a companion to Tony-
      It boggles the mind that so many pets of all kinds have been dumped in parks and streets- In New York City it is illegal to sell rabbits in pet stores- Recently guinea pig sales have also been outlawed- This law was the result of scores of people dropping off guinea pigs in Central Park-
      Thanks for sharing your experience with Wildfire- You are the first person that I know of who has commented about a rabbit in response to Judy’s Blog-

  3. At my retirement I adopted a golden of approximately 10 years of age. He was my heart dog and was with me 5 years, thru divorce and resettling. I will never forget him!

  4. From your “ Northern Arizona Stalker” writing from my hospital bed in Prescott Valley where I’m temporarily taken residence. I fell a week ago at our home in Cottonwood and old left hip bone suffered…..yep new hip replacement and now some intense painful therapy. So bought a bunch of your early paperback weeks back they were the first thing packed for the trip to PV…..so I have many days and hours of reading that will help pass the time and the grueling therapy. Keep pen to paper you will be a close partner for many a week to come ……Dann

  5. Thank you for a lovely story, and the story behind the story Payment in Kind…
    you truly do find inspiration everywhere!

  6. Thank you for your compassion for Mandy. I can relate.

    On a totally different topic, did you happen to see that a polygamous community in Arizona is up on charges of child molestation?

    I remember writing to you a few years back about your book on a northern Arizona polygamous community (sorry I forgot the title) and asked if you had ever gotten any feedback from the governor or his minions. Surprisingly, you said, “No.”

    I think today’s news item is a vindication to you for bringing the subject to the awareness of Arizona readers – including the police. I wish more arrests will be m, made.

    • Cold Betrayal is that book. I was in grade school when the real governor sent the National Guard there. So I’ve known about the existence of that community for a long time.

  7. Sitting here with the Today Show on, my 2 dogs barking at everyone walking by, my 2 kittens playing in the rare PNW sun streaming through the window and I think “Oh it’s Friday. Need to see what JA Jance has to say.” Now sitting here with tears streaming down my cheeks. What a beautiful story. You absolutely gave her a wonderful retirement. ??

  8. Thank you for sharing how Mindy became part of your books. I thought of my tour of Steinbeck’s house. The docent said, “John lay here in front of the open bay windows and wrote down their conversations as the townspeople passed by.” I think your experiences and ideas provide a much wider variety of characters, settings, and plots. Keep writing your engaging books. I have more time to enjoy them.

  9. Beautifully written, Ms. J. Dogs are so much better than us, and, incidentally, much better than wives – Dogs don’t kick you out of bed when you snore ..

  10. Loved this story and it made me cry. I see a lovely Golden nearly every day as Daisy walks by my house here in Sun Lakes. She likes to lie in the shade there on these hot days. Got a chuckle from your “Northern Arizona Stalker”… sorry to hear he’s laid up, but glad he’s got good reading material to keep him company. We’ll be up in Sedona before too long and hoping it’ll be cooler there than here. (Can’t read your paperbacks at all; now need large print books, dang it)

  11. I had heard/read Mandy’s story before, but it always brings me to tears. Our family took in some sadly neglected ferrets during our ferret stage. (I’m too old to keep up with a ferret these days!) If a cat in need should come into our lives, I’m sure we’d take on the challenge.

    It is often obvious where some characters and character traits come from, given the stories you tell about the inspiration for characters and the stories you tell about friends and family and your personal adventures and setbacks. However, you never seem to reveal what starts the process off — where the first murder victim comes from and starts the ball rolling. I suspect your capacious brain stores a great many random bits of information that somehow congeal into the beginnings of a story, and even you don’t always recognize the source.

    I promise never to ask that question if I am lucky enough to see you in person again!

  12. I cried for you and Mandy. We took in a rescue that had been badly abused, Cobie never got over his past but was learning to believe in a loving home when he had a heart attack and died.
    I have loved reading your stories so much because of the background story. You make everyone and everything real.
    So just a simple THANK YOU is all I can do for making my life better.

  13. Your essay brought tears to my eyes. About 5 years ago, shortly after the beagle I raised from a puppy died from acute kidney failure at the age of 12, I saw an older beagle at a kill shelter online. Even though the shelter was a 2 hour drive from our house, I insisted we go to see her. She was estimated to be around 9 years old, she had a small to medium tumor on her chest, had been picked up as a stray, and had been in the shelter 2 months with no one coming to claim or adopt her. She also was on the kill list because she had been there so long and her age. Needless to say she came home with us that day. We only had three years with her. During that time we had to have the chest tumor removed in the first year as it grew to the point it was interfering with her walking. She was a stoic dog, rarely getting excited about much. It took her nearly a year before she decided since our other dog could get on the couch that she could too. She adored the beach, we have photos from our first trip there with her and the smile on her face is one of pure joy. I have never seen a dog quite that joyous. Sadly, she developed a bone cancer which also put her in kidney failure. We did our best to extend her life by doing home subcutaneous IV fluid bolus’ but in the end we only bought her about 6 months before I could see the pain and exhaustion in her eyes. We then decided that quality was more important than quantity and let her go. I still miss that lovely smile.

  14. Several years ago, a little stray dog appeared in our neighborhood. He was probably some kind of poodle mix. He was skinny, with dirty matted whitish fur. He was alway around somewhere, but he avoided people. Neighbors complained that he was turning over trash cans looking for food. I put food out on my porch and in the morning it was gone.
    One morning, I looked out my window and a dog catcher was chasing him down the street. I went onto my porch and the little rascal came running to me. I grabbed him. I told Animal Control that I would handle the problem.
    My little “Vagabond” adopted me immediately. I took him to the groomer and got him cleaned up and a rabies shot.. He liked my husband, my mother, my kids and even our other two dogs … and he absolutely adored me. He had found his forever home.
    A few weeks later, my mother called me at school and said something was wrong with Vagabond. When he walked, he was dragging in legs and rear. I took him to our Vet. He told me the bad news. Some time in the past, he had probably been hit my a car. The healing that had taken place had broken loose. He said he was in pain and it would only get worse.
    So it did what any responsible dog lover would do. I held him to in my arms to the very end. I wanted my little Vagabond to die knowing that he was loved.
    Now, 40 years later, I sill brings me tears. RIP Vagabond.

  15. Your dog characters are my favorites – crying is so therapeutic.

    Thanks as always.


  16. God Bless you! Mandy was so lucky Bill saw that ad. Knowing how she came to you, I can only imagine the life she’d had. 6 months of love and care and Burger King Juniors – she’d been given a glimpse of the heaven that was waiting for her. Thank you for sharing her story. They are never with us long enough.

  17. You gave Mandy the love she needed. Good for you!
    As for your plot ideas, you paint a canvas and fill in the colors. And the “painting” never disappoints.

  18. As a dog lover, and have gone through many Pembroke Welsh Corgis over the years, I feel your grief, (not to mention many horses as well). So glad you found an outlet to honor Mandy. I have little rock like mementos in my flower bed for most of my dogs and one huge headstone for one for my favorite horses. Some people say they can’t get another dog after a loss, but I remind them that the pain is worth all the joy they give us. There are so many out there that need a loving home. My last 6 Corgis have been rescues.

  19. I absolutely LOVE it! Over our married life we have had around 20 rescues – dogs, cats, birds, plus a cockatoo and fish (the last two we bought). We hope we gave them all a happier life and lots of love and fun. We have only our little poodle/bichon freize but at out age he’s just right (at one point we had accumulated 13 animals at once).

    • I agree, grief is the.cost.of.the.love they give us. Painful but still so worth it.

  20. Saw a.post on FB.a.few.years ago from a long ago high school friend. She was looking for a home for a neighbor’s bull terrier. They were divorcing. Husband was.going to tak dog to the pound. Rosco had already had three or four owners. I knew he had bad skin. Thought we could get that cleared up. Found out he congestive heart failure after I brought him home. We never did clear up his skin. It was due to severe allergies, meds weren’t enough and he couldn’t have cortisone shots due to his bad heart. I had him longer than you had Mandy, about 1 1/2 years. His heart didn’t kill him, he grew a huge tumor in his belly. But he was loved for that short time.

  21. Sweet story! ?
    I dog-sit, so have no pets. Their names (sad that some have passed on ?) are: Beau (hey yeah! the first one), Walter, Sage, Ruby, (also Balthazar the bearded dragon), Scottie, Googie, Reni, Cassie, Maysie, and Taylee.
    I always watch them at their own house, live there, sleep, eat and cook there, and sometimes do my laundry and some cleaning if I am there several days.
    The dogs are happy in their own environment, and the owners are glad not to have to transport the dogs and their “stuff”. I just want the owners to not worry about them and enjoy their travels.
    I forgot Stormy, a rescue who had been abused. She was a fright, and so doped up and vicious that I had to call in another person to help me. After she gave me a black eye on my second get-to-know meeting with her, I still agreed to watch her. After a very scary episode, I stopped giving her the tranquilizers and CBD oil the owner had recommended. She was the nicest dog after that, and would lay on the floor beside my feet and put her chin on my feet. She even slept on the bed I slept in ?. I wasn’t completely complacent about her, but glad she was better, as I was there 19 days!
    I have learned that they just want to be with people, and if the dogs aren’t sure about me at first, they soon get used to me.
    So that’s my little doggie story!
    I am currently reading Trial by Fury. Your characters are so relatable and funny and human. Totally enjoy them!
    Thank you!

  22. Wow, my little emojis seem to turn into question marks. Just ignore them please.

  23. What a beautiful story. I’m absolutely certain that Mandy thought she had a wonderful (although short) life with you and felt the care and love she was missing. I loved the old retriever in the Beau books. In fact I really enjoy when your characters share their lives with dogs.

  24. If I was able to write books like you I am sure the dog in my book would be Heather! A buff colored Field Cocker Spaniel I had for 10 years! Very sweet, very smart! She once saved my father!! He had gone up into the attic above the garage but the later had tipped over!!! Heather always followed him around so he yelled down to her to go get Grandma (my mother, I was at work) Heather ran into living room, tried to get Mom’s attention, then ran back out to garage! Dad told her again to get Grandma! She ran back into house. Luckily she got Mom’s attention, but Mom just thought she had to go potty! So she was surprised when Heather led her to the garage door instead of back door!!! Mom saw the ladder on the floor and was able to upright it so Dad could get down!! Dogs are life saver’s in so many ways for us as you were for Mandy! It is so sad that Mandy came to you in that bad condition, but God bless you for giving her a wonderful life in the end. Sadly I had to put Heather down in the end. I still read up when I see other Cocker Soaniels or think about her! Love your books, have read all but last 4 or 5 of your books, but HAVE all but your 2 newest ones!!!

  25. Thanks for sharing this. As a dog lover, my eyes are moist. A lovely story.

    My husband and I are heading for Seattle soon. “Maybe we’ll run into J.A. Jance,” I told him.
    “If we do, I’ll try not to drop my coffee at her feet like I did in Tucson,” he said. 🙂

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