“Ripped from today’s headlines.” Remember the expression? The TV show, “Law and Order”, right? I often think of that show when people who don’t write fiction ask me where I get my ideas for stories. Where don’t I get ideas? They beat me about the head until I capture the idea in a computer file for later examination.
One of my Write on Sisters, Callie Armstrong, wrote recently about how she collected story ideas. Her post, Story Ideas in Unlikely Places pushed me to consider explicitly where my story ideas originate. Of course, I quickly realized the sources are as many and varied as the stories I write.
The stories push themselves into my consciousness as I notice a mom and recalcitrant toddler at the grocery store, when I see the woman facing away from the man in the car at the traffic light beside me, when I read a “Dear Abby” column. I am unable to escape the stories. I often respond to those who ask about story ideas that I feel as if I am downloading life into my computer and won’t come close to living long enough to complete the task.
To those who don’t write fiction professionally, it must seem like magic of some sort that we see stories all around us. That the hard part of writing is not the story idea, but in bringing life to the idea with characters the readers care about.
But, for those who might be reading this who are not bombarded with stories, let me share some other things I do on a regular basis to keep the story well filled with water. My sons would say that saving this stuff is just further evidence of my OCD problem, but, in the interest of art, I’ll put up with their abuse.
Decades ago I began collecting Chinese fortune cookies slips. Sometimes these are fortunes, sometimes they are aphorisms, but either way, they are story topics. I have hundreds of these, and have even strung some of them together in a story outline about my best friend, Pat, in which we meet together every year for Chinese food and then the intervening chapters tell how our cookie fortunes played out between our yearly dinners.
Another source is the newspaper. I have stacks of news and feature articles (typically feel-good stories about locals who overcome obstacles) and piles of advice columns. These provide a structure for your story way beyond the kernel of cookie fortunes. I have a whole folder on articles and story plotting about the mummified babies found in a storage room in California. I create a now-what story for the girl who beat cancer. Who hasn’t imagined what the letter writer did after getting the professional’s advice to dump the chump she wrote in about?
I practice describing settings and characters while traveling. It’s something to do to while away the time. The airport and plane are filled with opportunities to bring what you see to life. Sometimes you need a background character for a scene and having a set of character or setting sketches handy can help. Even if you don’t ever use them, just paying attention and describing is a good writing exercise.
I collect overheard conversation bits as I am walking down the street, in a meeting, or buying pickles. People talk on their phones as if they are in the phone booths of long ago. Hello! We all can hear that conversation! Another great source of conversation bits is restaurants. Again, people carry on the most intimate of conversations in the most crowded locations! Always keep a notebook (file cards, fast food receipt) at the ready.
I sit on a swing and notice the plane overhead, and a novel of the passengers and crew who face an emergency landing in a remote location pops into my head. The odd-shaped passageway into a tree’s core calls forth the little people who live under it and their struggles with another race. The unexpected chill on my neck brings forth the tale of an unhappy spirit seeking peace and release.
I seem to have the knack to convert a kernel into a creamed corn casserole. It takes but a spark to get me doing my “what ifs” to unravel a tale. Isn’t it great to be paid to lie? That no one will chastise you ever again for a runaway imagination? That in fact your ability to expand and develop characters and situations is admired by many?
The world is stories. Keep an eye and ear out for all those you happen upon every hour of every day.