Monday, February 14, 2011

10 Places to Find Stories Waiting to be Told

Where do Ideas come from?  It's the question every writer dreads and emphatically answers with "I don't know".  Honestly, I suspect that for most writers that's a bit of a fib -- we may not know where ideas come from in the cosmic sense any more than we can tell you the meaning of life, but we generally know where a specific idea came from, or at least what prompted it. 

If you put enough of those answers together, you begin to see major features of the landscape of this mythical land of ideas forming in the fog.  But I suspect that in truth we don't like to talk about it because either we're all a bit superstitious, or because we're afraid that these private reserves should be held for us alone and anyone caught visiting there treated as poachers of the King's deer. 

Probably a bit of both.

Culled from conversations with hundreds of writers, books on writing, and my own private hunting grounds, here's my list of ten places where unused ideas scamper and play, just waiting for you to snatch them up and turn them into stories:

  1. Have a Nose for News.
    Subscribe to news alert services of every political stripe.  Online or on the television or in one of those old-fashions thingies that leave ink on your fingers, I think they're called "newspapers", the news is chock full of ideas.  The other day I got a news release from DARPA about the formation of a committee to promote interstellar exploration within the next 100 years My wife sent me a story about a kid who accidentally bought a retired RAF Harrier Jumpjet on eBay!

    Case in point:
    On one day several years ago there was a front page story in the Seattle Times about the University of Washington arguing that they didn't need military-level protections on the lab where they would be studying the 1918 Spanish Flu virus that killed half the country.  On page three of the same paper was a story about a clemency hearing for a militant environmentalist who had expressed repeatedly the idea that humanity should be eliminated from the ecosystem by any means necessary.  That's an eco-thriller waiting to happen.  Or perhaps a great backstory for a dystopian post-apocalyptic epicFind the connections that everyone else missed.

  2. Watch TV
    We've all done it.  We were watching a show and thought we knew how the show was going to wrap up, or said "I wouldn't have done it that way".  Guess what: that was a story idea you had there.  The moment your version of the story moved away from what was actually happening on screen, it became a new idea.  I'm not talking about fan fiction; I'm talking about finding a story in someone else's premise that they missed. 

    OMG, Seriously, Is that okay?  Yes.  It's not plagiarism because the idea is yours, not theirs.  And ideas cannot be copyright protected anyway.  (Characters can, at least their names and likenesses can anyway.) You're not stealing their intellectual property because your idea will call for significant changes and different characters (you don't want their old characters anyway) and you are going to put it in a new setting and when you're done there will be no doubt in anyone's mind that it has nothing to do with that episode of Grey's Anatomy that annoyed you last night.  Right?  Right.

  3. Talk to People.
    Not just your friends, but people.  On airplanes, in coffee shops, in the queue at the checkstand, you are constantly surrounded by people whose lives are fascinating and diverse.  Develop interviewing skills and employ them.  If you read an article about someone who does something that fascinates you, make a phone call.  The worst they can do is say no, but in my experience, if you are honest with them about what you're doing, they usually won't.  If you use what they tell you, remember them in the author's note or afterword.  Don't rip off someone's entire biography, though, we're talking about idea generation, not literary cloning.

    A brief aside about talking to people:
    Every time I hear of some writer getting their royalty check and retreating to a cabin in the back woods of Maine to write their next Great American Novel, I know that I'll never hear from them again.  Much like technological innovations, with very few exceptions, the great stories and compelling novels come from the field, not from the laboratory.

  4. Daydream.
    It has been said that the greatest difficulty a writer faces is convincing their spouse that staring out the window is work.  Your entire life someone has been telling you to knock it off.  I'm here to tell you they were wrong.  Don't knock it off.  Develop the habit.  Call it meditation and buy a mat and some incense if it makes your loved ones feel better, but however you do it, make it pay for itself by writing them down.
  5. Look at photos.
    Whether you go to your mother's closet and take down a photo album or go to Flickr and start clicking on random images and coming up with the stories that are behind them.  I've been known to buy old copies of Life magazine just to page through them and imagine the stories behind the photos.  Sometimes you'll get a character, sometimes you'll find a setting, sometimes the story will spring from the image, whole and ready to be told.

    Honestly, this works better for me if I don't know the story behind a photo, so I avoid doing this with family albums unless the photos are so old that even the oldest family members are uncertain as to who they are or what they're up to.

  6. Buy a Map
    The map may not be the territory, but it is a source for many, many stories. I've spent so much time poring over old maps and daydreaming about them that it's practically a second vocation.  I cannot count the ideas that have been generated in that way.  Here, there be dragons.

    My second-favorite store in Seattle is Metsker Maps.  It's a source of infinite ideas because they sell not only current maps and travel guides, but also classic and reprints of historical maps, but the local history rooms at your local university or public library are an excellent place to start.  Call ahead, though, sometimes you need an appointment.
  7. Read, especially the classics
    Stephen King says (and rightly so) that if you have no time to read, you've neither the time nor the tools to be a writer.  Literary culture is defined as a culture because it feeds itself, evolves and progresses and has specific defined movements.  In part, this is because we get ideas (similar to what I was talking about with regard to TV shows) by thinking about how we would do this differently, or because some throw away aside in one book sparks an idea in your mind and a book of your own.  I say 'especially the classics' to acknowledge that in many ways, Harry Potter is David Copperfield with wizards and wands. Oh Brother Where Art Thou is an unabashed retelling of The Odyssey.  This sort of thing happens constantly and with good reason.  Certain stories are good for all times.  Certain stories just work.

    Beyond the current meme for grafting zombies or robots into classic novels, there are story elements to be harvested there that are rich enough to blossom anew in the light of the modern world.  No matter how many times a story has been done, there's always a new twist to be found for the reader/writer who is alert for ideas.

  8. Phone a friend.
    When a bunch of writers bands together, one of two things usually happens: they're just catty and competitive and tear one another down or they form their very own Algonquin Round Table.  When you get a good group of different creative types around a table, people who are receptive, open and witty, ideas just seem to appear out of nowhere and you'll find yourself trading them like baseball cards.

    I've experienced this several times in my life in one form or another and when it happens, have your notebook ready and be ready to have so many ideas that you're giving them away.  I've given many ideas away that simply weren't of a variety that I'd be willing or able to bring fully to life and received many others in return.  If you want to do this, chose your circle carefully and do not limit it to just writers if you can help it.  If it's just writers, it will turn into a critique group and in many ways that's a separate thing.

  9. Take it on the road.
    Some of my favorite ideas came to me while I was traveling.  Most of the best came as a result of some odd moment in a road trip, but even if it's choosing to walk instead of driving to school or work or the coffee shop, there's something about the act of traveling that tends to stimulate ideas.

    This is number three on my list of writer's block remedies and it's here for the same reason.  Just as a stagnant scene can be renewed by moving it to a new setting, so too can the writer's mind be refreshed by a change of scenery.  Just remember to stop before you get more than ten miles from home.
  10. Put it down on paper. 
    This is the oldest writing advice in the world and it's relatively simple: unless your memory is far better than my own, you need to jot down those ideas that spring fully-formed into your brain at 3 AM, or when you're sitting in a boring business meeting.  I sometimes like to imagine all the terribly rude people who are tapping on their Blackberries through every meeting rather than listening to the speaker have just had a great new idea for a story.  Sometimes we forget that this doesn't have to be elaborate or expensive -- for carrying around, I like Moleskines as much as the next guy, but the notebook on my bedside table was bought for $.50 at the local supermarket.

    Oh, and one more thing...  I've more than once awakened to find a few meaningless wandering lines of ink on my bedside notebook and wondered what wondrous idea they were meant to capture.  Consider turning on a light or investing in a headlamp if you've someone sleeping next to you.
None of those should come as a galloping shock to you.  Or at least I hope not.  But often it's seeing someone else write it down or admit to it that makes you feel less anxious about the generating of ideas and get on with the writing.  If nothing else came out of that list, I hope you remember this: They really are just day dreams until you write them down.

Do you already have your idea?  Are you wondering where to go from here?  
Try this post from last February: Ten Tips to Get Your Novel Started

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).