‘Siena Saint James’ – The Backstory

The creative process has always fascinated me. How do authors get their ideas? I once went down such a rabbit hole on the subject, I ended up writing my Master’s capstone on the creative process of my all-time favorite author, Elizabeth Peters.

When asked where she gets her ideas, Peters noted that authors can get rather snappy about this sort of thing. Some give non-answers like, “There’s a drugstore in North Dakota where I order mine.”

But I discovered new depths when I was studied her notebooks and journals for my capstone. So if anyone is similarly curious about how Siena Saint James Is Not a Spy came to be, I thought I’d share the backstory, being as transparent as possible!

The Impetus

It was early 2021, and I saw a reel of this beautiful girl defending herself against a bunch of guys who fake attacked her. She was promoting her local Krav Maga studio, and that was enough to get me Googling!

When I looked into Krav Maga more on YouTube, a video of a Sorelle Amore doing a 30-day Krav Maga challenge appeared. I’d never heard of her, but she just seemed like an all-around awesome human.

I watched it a few times and wondered… could I do a 30-day Krav Maga challenge?

The First Steps

Unfortunately Sorelle did her 30-day experiment in Australia, BUT her trainers also offered an immersive Krav Maga camp in Israel!

The most recent round had been cancelled because of COVID, but they were hopeful they could start back up in May 2022. After a day or two’s deliberation…I signed up.

Airfare was still super cheap since Israel was constantly closing its borders, so I snagged First/Business class tickets all the way to Tel Aviv for less than the price of an economy ticket today!

The Idea

So how did that turn into a book? Well, I’m always thinking in terms of stories. I was talking to my aunt Susi, who is the best brainstormer known to man, when she said something about how this would make a great story — some petite girl is attacked, but she has all this specialized training and kicks their butts. A few friends asked, “Are you secretly in the CIA?”

It reminded me of a Covert Affairs episode (Season 2, episode 11 – “The Wake-Up Bomb”) where Annie is kidnapped and zip-tied to the ceiling handle in the back of a car.

She’s trying to protest her innocence, and the bad guy just looks at her. “You know what I think?” he says. “You’re way too cool right now. You look like someone who’s been tied to the back of a car before.”

And that, my friends, is where this entire book started.

Save The Cat

I forced myself not to rush off in all directions like I did with Ahead of Her Time, but instead methodically plot the story before writing.

I began with a “Stream of Consciousness” document where I put all my notes, thoughts, and research. The document begins:

Initial inspiration: 

“You know what I think?” the villain sneered. “You’re way too calm right now. In fact,” he caressed my cheek with his pistol, “you look like someone who’s been interrogated before.”

My nostrils flared as I inadvertently inhaled his rancid breath.

Interestingly, those exact lines never made it into the book, but they were the kernel around which everything popped.

Using the Save The Cat software and lessons from Donald Maas’ writing books (specifically that good writing is comprised of scenes), I sat and walked and doodled notes in the waiting room of the dentist and generally obsessed over ideas from August-October 2021.

In addition to my “Stream of Consciousness” document, I eventually created a seven-page synopsis (which I learned from Elizabeth Peters) and (most importantly) a Google Doc with 44 separate pages, one for each scene.

At times I got carried away and just wrote the whole scene. One of the first ones I wrote was when Siena meets Bradley at the bar in her Alias phase (don’t want to give anything away, but you’ll remember it if you’ve read it). After that, I wrote more-or-less chronologically.

The idea to create a vocabulary edition came from Ahead of Her Time and everything that went into that book!


You know that feeling when you can’t wait to get back to a good book? That’s how I felt for months. I just couldn’t wait to get back to it — I wanted to know what Siena would do next!

Every so often, I’d look at my “kernels” document and think about where I could put one. It’s basically just 32 pages of random quotes. One comes from a conversation between my cousins, and it goes:

“You’re the worst fighter I ever met,” person says.

“Oh, yeah?” other person retorts. “You have the worst breath I’ve ever smelled.”

That line ended up between two people at Krav Maga camp.

I was also hugely inspired by all the spy and adventure books/movies/shows I’ve binged over the years. Mossad 101 is a great one (formerly on Netflix), and Yonah Hariri is loosely based on/ named after Yona Harari. The scene with the racist French guy is adapted from that show, too.

Yehuda Levi plays Yona Harari “Kinder” in Mossad 101 (HaMidrasha)

I reference countless other adventure and spy books/shows/movies throughout. Some are just part of my psyche at this point. That includes The Mummy Returns, Alias, Covert Affairs, etc.

Others were newer additions that gave me short-term inspiration, like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I loved a line where she was accused of lurking near a crime scene. She is gracefully indignant. “I never lurk!”

That created a scene where Siena is voicing her suspicions, saying, “Well, I saw him lurking…” And her friend responds, “Lurking, you say! Somebody call the FBI.”

Krav Maga Training

Figuring I should probably take some classes before heading to Israel, I signed up for Krav Maga classes 3x/week. It was (and still is) amazing. Many of Siena’s fight scenes, thoughts, and dialogue are ripped straight from those classes.

For instance, I also hate walking away from a fight without winning, even if that means repeatedly challenging my instructor to a re-match (and losing every time). I once had a fellow student (he was as jacked as a professional athlete), say something like, “No offense, but even I can’t take him. What makes you think you can?”

“Reckless overconfidence, mostly,” was my response, and it became Siena’s during a similar scene.

If Yonah’s name and appearance are inspired by Mossad 101, his personality and dialogue come from my Krav Maga instructor, Shihan Mike Vaughn.

The Israel Trip

I was so excited about this trip, I wrote the first draft before my plane even took off! The trip was one of the best weeks of my life — I learned and grew so much, it was just amazing.

When I got home, I changed about 20% of the book to add verisimilitude, though none of the characters are a reflection of anyone at camp!

The changes were more detail-oriented, like the hot sand beneath our feet or jogging atop the aqueducts at Caesarea. I also cut out all the preamble before camp, wanting to get into the action faster.

You can read more about the trip itself here, and watch the proudest moment of my life below:

The Ambiance

I think I learned more Hebrew last year than the whole semester I studied abroad! I really dove into the language, doing Pimsleur in the car, watching every Hebrew show and movie on Netflix/Amazon/Hulu, and subscribing for Chaiflicks so I could watch even more. A lot of my favorite shows aren’t available anymore…Baker and the Beauty with Rotem Sela and Aviv Alush was on Amazon, and it was so good!

I also created a playlist with a lot of Israeli music, listening to it while working out and cleaning the house…

In short, immersion!

The Rest

Ideas always come from somewhere. A good book on this subject is Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. His point, in a nutshell, is that very little is truly original.

This is true for the best artists in history, even in the visual arts. Michelangelo wasn’t the first person to create a beautiful sculpture, and all the gorgeous neoclassical art of the Renaissance is just that…neoclassical. If we wait to do something 100% original, the vast majority of us won’t ever create anything.

As an artist, your job is to take the million things that have inspired or stuck with you, mix it all with your voice, interests and personality, and transform it into something that only you can create.

One of Elizabeth Peters’ books is called The Last Camel Died at Noon. She admitted she got the line in from popular novel, though she didn’t say which one.

Imagine my surprise years later when, picking up Nelson DeMille’s The Key to Rebecca, I read basically the same line! It’s the first sentence.

Like words, ideas can usually be traced. The Key to Rebecca plays off another popular book, the gothic novel Rebecca. And Rebecca was inspired by earlier gothic novels, like The Castle of Otranto. And the term “gothic novel” is inspired by dark and moody gothic architecture. And gothic architecture got its name from the guys who invaded Rome…

The point is, ideas usually come from somewhere. It’s what you do with those ideas, mixing them with a million others and your voice and personality and history and interests, that matters.

Did The Last Camel Died at Noon resemble the Nelson DeMille book in any way? Except for that one line, not really.

Was The Key to Rebecca just copying Rebecca? Not even close. They are two totally different stories.

So while it’s easy to say, “Here’s where Siena Saint James Is Not a Spy came from,” it’s also fair to say that ideas are just the first step. It takes a mountain of ideas to write a book, and mixing them all together is where the real battle lies.

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