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The most common question I am asked after I tell people I write fiction is, Where do you get your ideas? I wish I sold a book for every time I was asked this! :) I know that would make my publisher happy. People are naturally curious and sometimes it does seem like writers have a secret formula for coming up with interesting plots and characters for their stories. The following information is half instruction for finding your own story ideas and half explanation on where I discovered my idea for Poison Study
Writers surf for ideas. We are surrounded by a sea of stories. Keeping your mind and ears open are two vital skills when you’re surfing for ideas. When you move through your day, you are encountering numerous potential sources for inspiration. The morning newspaper is full of ideas. The people you meet on the train/bus ride to work. Magazines. The waiter that serves you lunch. The people talking in the booth behind yours. Be friendly. Ask questions. You’ll be amazed at what some people tell you. Take classes and workshops on whatever subject strikes you as interesting.
-> I once heard author Harlan Coben say he has “hooks” on his brain. That as he goes through his daily life occasionally an idea will be hooked. Now, it might not be enough for a full story, but it might come in handy later. Author Orson Scott Card used the analogy of an “Idea Net” as he’s trolling through life’s sea of stories.
-> I was reading Orson Scott Card’s book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. In chapter 3, Card tells the writer to consider some questions before choosing the main character. He wrote, Too often - particularly in medieval fantasy - writers think their story must be about rulers. Kings and queens, dukes and duchesses - they can be extravagantly powerful, yes, but too often they aren’t free at all. If you understand the workings of power in human societies, you’ll know that the greatest freedom to act in unpredictable ways is usually found away from the centers of power.
-> This comment led me to think about a person who was close enough to the center of power to witness important events, yet not be the Prince or Princess. I thought about a food taster (because my husband tastes chocolate as part of his job) and a scene jumped into my mind. I saw a woman tasting food that was most likely poisoned through the eyes of the King. He watched her with heartbreaking horror because he had fallen in love with her.
-> So you “hook” an idea, now what? Write it down. That wonderful phrase you just heard will not be remembered later when you’re at your writing desk. Keep paper and pen with you always. Author Anne Lamott suggests index cards. They’re thin enough to be slid into a pocket and then you can put them into a file box for future use. One person even used dividers and organized her cards by characters, dialogue, ideas. I re-write everything into my notebook - some use a computer to keep track.
Keep an idea file. That magazine article on survival skills might not spark an idea right away, but it caught your attention. Clip it and file it. Someday, one of your characters might get lost in the woods and there you’ll have the perfect resource on getting him out alive. Same with newspaper files or any brochure or pamphlet that might be useful.
Ask yourself What If? Any situation that presents itself to you can be augmented by a “What if” question. For example, it the newspaper you read this morning had an article about a comatose woman who was raped by an orderly and got pregnant. Ask yourself: What if the woman’s mother paid the orderly to rape her daughter so she could have a grandchild? (an episode of Law & Order) What if the woman regained consciousness years later to discover she has a 14-year-old son? What if the child decides to find his father? What if the orderly decides to sue for custody and wins? All these questions can lead to very different stories.
For my food taster idea I asked the following “what if” question: Who would choose to become a food taster? My answer was “No one.” So someone would be forced to take the position – who? Not someone loyal to the king/Commander – he wouldn’t want to risk a good man – even though a loyal man might consider the job an honor. There is a good chance the food taster will die – so who would the king/Commander use and not feel bad if the person dies? Someone on death row. She will be executed anyway – her life is forfeit, waiting in the dungeon for execution. But how to keep that person from escaping? Butterfly’s Dust – a poison that stays in the body and if the food taster doesn’t show up for a daily antidote she will die. Great, but why is she in the dungeon? Execution is an extreme punishment – so she had to do something extreme like murder. Why and who does she kill? See how the story is taking shape? And the questions don’t stop until the story is done.
Keep a writer’s journal.Another way to help nurture those ideas is to In this private place, you can give yourself permission to write badly or ungrammatically or however you want. You can answer those “What if” questions in the journal’s pages. You can experiment in it; do writing exercises and freewrite (see below).
- “Keep the journal regularly, at least at first. It doesn’t matter what you write and it doesn’t matter very much how much, but it does matter that you make a steady habit of the writing. A major advantage of keeping a journal regularly is that it will put you in the habit of observing in words. If you know at dawn that you are committed to writing so and so many words before dusk, you will half-consciously tell the story of your day to yourself as you live it, finding a phrase to catch whatever catches your eye. When that habit is established, you’ll begin to find that whatever invites your attention or sympathy, your anger or curiosity, may be the beginning of invention. Whoever catches your attention may be the beginning of a character.” from Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craftt by Janet Burroway.
Writing exercises. These are great ways to get started. Many of my short story ideas have come from doing writing exercises. Where to find them? Most writing how-to books have exercises. I’ve listed some recommendations below:
- Escaping into the Open, by Elizabeth Berg is a great book for exercises and for getting started with your writing career.
- The Writer’s Idea Book, by Jack Heffron is full of writing prompts to get you started.
- Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich includes 127 writing exercises and self-critique questions to help you assess your work.
Freewriting. I could re-write what this is, but Janet says it best:
- “Freewriting is a technique that allows you to take very literally the notion of getting something down on paper. It can be done whenever you want to write, or just to free up the writing self. The idea is to put anything on paper and I mean anything, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s coming out of your head and to the ends of your fingers… Its point is to keep going, and that is the only point. When the critic intrudes and tells you that what you’re doing is awful, tell the critic to take a dive, or acknowledge him/her and keep writing. If you work on a computer, try dimming the screen so you can’t see what you’re doing. If you freewrite often, you’ll be bored with writing about how you don’t feel like writing and you find your mind and your phrases running on things that interest you… Freewriting is the literary equivalent of scales at the piano or a short gym workout. All that matters is that you do it. The verbal muscles will develop of their own accord.” from Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway.
I’m going to end this with this excellent quote from author, Jack Heffron:
- “The secrets to getting ideas aren’t really secrets. Open your mind and heart. Open your eyes and ears. Take risks. Trust your talent and your instincts. Be willing to see your ideas -- and your life, and the world around you -- in new ways. Be patient. Be positive. Don’t be distracted by the opinions of others, real or imagined. Don’t worry about getting published -- that’s a whole new topic, and one worth investigating if that’s your goal, but it’s a needless and potentially harmful distraction when you’re writing. Don’t worry about “getting better” or fret about whether you’re really any good. Read a lot. Write a lot.” from The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron.
Jack – I couldn’t agree more!