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Where Do Ideas Come From?

by Lisa Lickel

The journey of The Map Quilt started when I was in fifth grade, learning about the Underground Railroad, watching my grandmother sew quilts, and discovering the astonishing fact that not all black people in the United States came here on slave ships. That was long before I was silly enough, about the age of forty, to start taking writing classes. I had edited a local history book for our local historical society and learned a little about press releases and follow-up articles-the extent of my writing.

I grew up on the east side of Wisconsin, but as I gradually learned more about the side closer to the Mississippi River, the rich culture wove its way into my psyche. To the north of our farm a colony of free black farmers settled in community, where a few of the round barns created by a master carpenter, Alga Shivers, still stand. To the west of our farm a few farmers still grow tobacco and dry the leaves in long sheds.

Back on the eastern side of the state, while on a ramble one nice day, a historian of my town points out a dilapidated tavern and kitty-corner, a blank-eyed house on a rural crossroad. “They say there’s a tunnel under the road,” he says. “For the underground railroad.” It no longer exists, perhaps filled in, bordered up, or only a fanciful notion.

But that’s where fiction comes from – a veritable “what if” of fanciful notions. The whisper of a rumor, the wish of being part of history, the wonder of why we are the people we’ve come to be.

Quilting remains a popular pastime in the Midwest. We even paint quilt blocks on our barns. I once served as president of our elementary school parent-teacher program. I helped book many programs, including people who impersonated famous people to bring history to life for the children. I worked freelance for our community newspapers for a few years and even got to know the police chief of a nearby small town who is gracious enough to help me with facts.

I put all these strange events together and discover that story grows anywhere there’s fertile imagination. The Map Quilt is the continuation of a cozy mystery series about a free black woman and her son forced to flee terrible injustice on the Underground Railroad. The Robertsville, Wisconsin ladies quilting society makes lovely quilts to guide them to the next station, but tragedy strikes. In the present day, the local newspaper contains a mysterious code, while the main character, Hart’s, widowed mother has quite the interlude with the local bachelor police chief. Driving Hart crazier is a woman playing Harriet Tubman in Judy’s class, but who may have ulterior motives for visiting.

Stories come from everywhere and anywhere. Stay alert. Use all of your experiences and blend different ones in wonderful, new combinations to create your own unique story.


Lisa Lickel is a Wisconsin writer who lives in a hundred and sixty-year-old house built by a Great Lakes ship captain. A multi-published novelist, she also writes short stories and radio theater, is an avid book reviewer, blogger, a freelance editor, and magazine editor.

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5 Responses to Where Do Ideas Come From?

  1. Joanne Sher says:

    Just fascinating. Need to read this, my friend.

  2. Lisa Lickel says:

    Thank you, Joanne. This was a lot of fun to research and write. Oddly enough. Becky Melby’s new book has a lot of the same themes, but on the eastern side of the state where the Underground Railroad actually ran.

  3. Adam Blumer says:

    Hey, Lisa. Sounds like a fascinating novel. I love historical suspense. Well, any suspense, for that matter. I also love local history, from which can emerge all sorts of tales for our novels. Great article. Thanks.

  4. Lisa Lickel says:

    Thank you, Adam! I’m excited about your upcoming novel The Tenth Plague coming at the end of summer! Woot.

  5. Mary F. Allen says:

    I did like the premise for that story on the quilts – I think I got to crit abit on that years ago. Anyway, great follow-up and it’s so true about grabbing bits and pieces of history and working them into a story.