A Spark to a Story: Listen to Your Instincts to Find Story Ideas

By Sara Ackerman

 Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers is a wartime tale set on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1944.  It centers around three women and a young girl whose lives are forever changed by the war and the American soldiers on their doorstep. Between a missing husband, accusations of espionage, and an African lion smuggled in by the troops, the women band together to prove that few things are stronger than love, friendship and homemade pie.

Every author has a different process in terms of how they get the idea for their next book. There is no one way, but I want to share with you my way. With me, it’s always the same: a tiny, nagging idea. One singular person, place or object that I can’t seem to shake, visiting me while I’m walking in the forest, swimming, driving, sleeping. In the case of Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, that spark was a lion named Roscoe.

I first heard of Roscoe when I was a young girl growing up in Hawaii, listening to my grandmother’s war stories. A few of the Marines had managed to smuggle an African lion over on the ship, and had miraculously been allowed to keep him as a mascot at Camp Tarawa in Waimea, where they trained. Soon after Pearl Harbor, civilians were encouraged to flee to the Mainland, but my grandfather was the school principal in nearby Honoka’a, so they stayed. My grandmother never called the lion by name, but she always had a twinkle in her eye when she spoke about him and I hung on her every word. Fast-forward to several years ago, when I had written three other novels and was trying to decide on the subject of my fourth, when an idea struck.

You need to write a story about that lion!

First things first — research. It is crucial to do your homework. Eager to know more, I began to look for information online and I found a handful of photos and learned that his name was Roscoe. I sent my sister a picture of Roscoe perched on the front of a jeep with kids all around him and she emailed me back right away. “Do you recognize anyone in that picture?’ she said. I looked more closely, and as it turned out, my mother was one of the kids in the photo, with a big smile on her face as she held her hand out towards the lion. At that moment, I knew this was the jumping off point for a story.

As writers, we have to act on these instincts, most of us have a spark inside of us but not everyone knows what to do with it. I always let it simmer for a few months and then start writing. Don’t wait until you think you are ready, or for that elusive day in the future when you have the luxury to lounge around all day in your pajamas sipping lattes and dreaming up plots. Don’t read every book there is on writing, or outline your story to death.

Write now. You will have the chance to revise and rewrite later, trust me. I’ve been to writers conferences with people who are there to learn, but haven’t written anything yet. It should be the other way around. Write first and you will get so much more out of your conferences or books on writing. Give the spark a chance to come alive and you will find that one thing leads to another and before you know it, maybe six months down the road, you will have a novel.

To begin fleshing out my story, I pored over accounts of servicemen that had been here in Waimea, old newspaper articles, and interviewed my parents, my uncle, and others that had lived through the war here in Hawaii. The early 1940s were dark times, to be sure, but I also got a real sense of nostalgia from my grandmother when she talked about those years. Mixed in with the fear and the horrors, was a deep sense of connection and love and hope. People banded together and leaned on each other. Lives were lost and friends were gained. So much has been written on the horrors of war, so I wanted my story to portray the indomitable strength of the human spirit. I wanted it to show both the dark and the light — that though the war years were some of the worst years of my grandmother’s life, they were also some of the most meaningful.

As Ella, the 10 year old in my novel, says, “…everyone should know what it feels like to live through a war. I can’t remember life any other way, which may not be a good thing. Blackouts and bunny suits. Shortages of sugar and air raid drills. Collecting metal scraps. And how for each soldier out fighting, there are people suffering at home, hoping their loved ones are spared. On both sides. But not everything is bad. We made pies, we made friends. We fell in love.”

For me, a spark that began with one little lion developed into a story centered around a group of women, a young girl, and a handful of Marines. Truly one of the magical things about writing is that characters often appear along the way and help tell the story. Don’t stress if you don’t have all of your characters developed at the very beginning, as with my case, sometimes, they come naturally. Play off your protagonist and let things happen organically. Violet, the protagonist in my book, is very loosely based on my grandmother, but all the other characters came to life of their own accord. The men that I wrote about were pieced together in my imagination from dozens of accounts I read. I got to know them as I went by asking them questions and seeing how they would answer, or putting them into situations and watching how they handled themselves. Your characters want to help you!

So, next time you have a tiny nagging idea in your head, don’t ignore it. Act on it! Use it as fuel, as inspiration. Do the research and find your story! And above all, keep at it. In this profession, you will be humbled and the thickness of your skin will be tested over and over again. You will want to tear out your hair and be unable to see straight for days on end. You will probably cry––a lot. Patience and perseverance are non-negotiable. And yet it is such a thrill to sit down every day and see what is going to happen next.  That’s my favorite thing about writing, watching a spark turn into a story.


Sara Ackerman is the author of Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and earned graduate degrees in psychology and Oriental Medicine. When she’s not writing or practicing acupuncture, you’ll find her in the mountains or in the ocean.


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