Saturday, September 18, 2010

Stories In Surprising Places :: Finding Ideas

The most ridiculous question I get -- that any writer gets -- is "Where do you get your ideas?" We don't know. Sometimes we answer flippantly and spin yarns about a clandestine mail-order catalog that we all have a subscription to, but in truth we usually have no idea or just can't remember.

But the truth underlying the truth is that we know exactly where we get our ideas and aren't willing to admit it: we get them by paying attention to the things that most people ignore. And by doing the things that other people avoid. By watching and paying attention to the world around us. And (this is the most important part) by writing it down.

You wouldn't believe the number of people who tell me they want to be writers but don't actually want to write anything.

Once in awhile, I post a picture on Dailybooth where I'm holding a sign (or some children's blocks) that says "Tell a story".  I'm always surprised by the results and the stories have almost always been anecdotal (at least they were until a recent deviation into matters of passing gas in elevators... we don't judge here at Pages to Type...).  These stories from life, from your past, from your present, from a road trip you took through Pennsylvania or riding your bike down the street when some hoodlums jumped you.... these stories are the nuggets from which many a novel or short story could easily grow.

I think that we tell anecdotes because it's easier than making something up and because we don't feel licensed to do so.

And that's an important lesson. It's not because there's anything wrong with storytelling based upon our lives (don't ever say that were Bill Bryson can hear you) but because the people who paid attention are the ones with stories to tell. The people who stepped out there and got involved, have the stories to tell.  And if you take that a step further, they have in a single experience the nuggets for a lifetime's writing in any genre.  Yes, even science fiction.

In 2008, I was summoned for jury duty and was cut off from the internet by dint of the fact that the jury room in the Pierce County court house is in a bomb shelter and therefore doesn't allow for WiFi. Cut off from the rest of the world, I kept a journal of my experiences.  Over the course of the next few days I plan to share it with you, because I want you to see how even perfectly banal days (and there's nothing more banal than jury duty) are packed full of story ideas ranging from the mystery novel to the flights of science fiction and certainly a certain kind of horror.  Romance might require a bit more of a stretch...

If you don't see how you find story ideas from every day life by the end of this... well, the world needs readers too. ;o)

Incidentally, If you like storytelling, you owe it to yourselves to and read @jimbonius's "Uncle Milt" story from the first go-round of Dailybooth storytelling:


  1. My standard answer is "at the bottom of a bottle of cheap California wine." Even when I have spent months without drinking. Any answer will do. However I will be very interested to see these notes of yours. (And I'm sure that even a romance will require no more of a stretch than any of the others.) When we say "write what you know", this is what we mean.

  2. Maggie, Agreed. And I think you really would appreciate the aforementioned "Uncle Milt" story at the end of that link.

  3. Strangely, most of my ideas come from not paying attention (to reality). I tend to become entranced by some mundane object - say a mailbox - and I wonder: what kind of person would live in there?

    Next thing I know, my husband is yanking me out of traffic.

    I guess the things you pay attention to reflect what you write. I write fantasy, and I'm always daydreaming. :)


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