Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?

“You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” - Jack London

Where do you get your ideas from? I’m sure most writers have been asked this question at least once. The likely answer is probably a question: “Where don’t I get my ideas from?” We don’t wait for the ideas to appear; we go looking for them instead.

Just this past weekend, I drove over two and half hours to a meeting and then another two and a half hours back. I had lots of time to think and wonder “what if”. My sister-in-law suggested I listen to CBC radio when driving alone for long periods of time. She was right. The music radio stations play great tunes, but they don’t keep my mind from becoming sluggish. CBC radio has lots of interesting shows and topics that get me thinking. Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone listen to CBC radio, but that listening to a radio station with a similar format might spark story ideas.

Listen to the news or read newspapers or magazines; these are a wealth of information to spark great ideas. For example, a family had lost their home this past week in a house fire. What kind of memories would a little girl have of being rescued from a burning inferno? Would she be terrified of fire for the rest of her life? What if she fell in love with a firefighter?

At our SRW meeting, Hayley brought a book, The Definitive Book of Body Language by Barbara and Allan Pease. She read to the group the clues women put out when they are interested in a man. Wouldn’t it be fun to create a heroine who’d read this book and tried to use these tactics on a guy she was interested in, but he is clueless to her clues?

Writing magazines and books quite often provide great suggestions for story ideas too. For example, in The Writer, January 2009 issue, the article, “Tantalizing Warm-ups” gives some exercises taken from Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston. One such suggestion had me thinking what if: “Two old friends unexpectedly meet in a store. Have each of them shopping for an item that reveals something about their present situations.” What if these two people had a one night stand with unprotected sex a couple of months before while the guy had been in town for business? Perhaps he’s back in town and gives the gal a call to meet up for the evening. What if before the date, they run into each other at the pharmacy – he’s buying condoms and she’s buying a pregnancy test. What happens next?

Songs give me lots of ideas too. Several years ago, a country song called “Sacred Ground” by McBride and the Ride made me think about writing a romance about a married couple that had drifted apart, but they hadn’t realized it until they’d become empty nesters. Do they still have anything in common? Does a new man in town make the guy realize that he still loves his wife, and he needs to show how they still have a marriage worth saving? Or vice versa?

Photos are another important source for story ideas or character development. How many of us have used pictures from magazines to remind us what our characters or settings look like?

Have you ever ripped a page out of a magazine in a waiting room at the doctor’s or dentist’s office because an article sparked an idea for a story or character? I admit I’ve ripped out a recipe for my son’s birthday cake and a table decoration for my daughter’s wedding, but I actually asked the receptionist at my massage therapist’s office to photocopy an article about a school for butlers. Some day I will write a story with a butler character.

The Darwin Awards fascinate me. In the future, I hope to write a story that’s based on one of these awards. Check out the following website for some laughs and maybe a story spark or two: http://darwinawards.com/

Every year Time magazine puts out the top ten lists for several different categories. Surely one of these items would have writers thinking “what if”. Check out the following link for ideas: http://www.time.com/time/specials/2008/top10/

Obviously, I could go on and on about where to get ideas. I haven’t even talked about taking personal experiences and using them in stories.

What sparks story ideas for you? Do you record these ideas as soon as you can or do you hope to remember them when you’re ready to write the story? Do you have more ideas than you could ever use? Do you have a story idea that you’ve carried around for a long time, waiting for the right time to write?


Karen said...

Hi Suse, lots of ideas seem to come to me thru the newspaper. I guess its because I read or scan it six days a week. I also like to people watch or dare I say - eavesdrop. I cut out articles or rip out pictures in magazines. And for as many story ideas as I remember to write down, I forget to record many others.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
Ideas can come from anywhere. I agree with Karen about the newspaper. Sometimes the true stories are crazier than anything we could make up.

I love CBC radio for the news and stories. Years ago, my favorite show was "Morningside" hosted by Peter Gzowski on weekday mornings. One morning I heard him interview a gentleman (I don't remember his name) who was riding a city bus when some creep started harassing a woman. This gentleman stepped in to help, in a somewhat unorthodox manner. Instead of going all macho on this creep, he pretended to be an escapee from a mental institution. I think he even made a pass at the creep, who ran screaming from the bus at the next stop. I used that anecdote as the opening of my book "Rescue Me". That opening remains my favorite of any I've written.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Great post Suse! I love all the premises you're tossing around in it. So many intriguing ideas for shorts and novels alike.

I always try to keep a bit of paper and a pen on me in case I get an idea or hear a line of dialogue that sparks something. I've also found some intriguing tidbits begging to become stories in my lit classes.

For instance in my 17th C drama course, I was recently told that it was common in the period for children to be stolen off the streets if they were attractive, not for elicit purposes, but to be forced into acting for the children's companies.

Suse said...

Hi Karen,

Thanks for your response. Do you tear the pages out of the newspaper and keep them in a file, or do you write snippets down to remember?

I took an online course where my first assignment was to listen in on a conversation and record it, while depicting the characters talking. I had a tough time not letting on that I was listening and recording their conversation. Have you ever been caught eavesdropping?

I guess we can't worry about the story ideas that got away because there are so many more stories to take their place.

Suse said...

Hey Jana,

It is amazing how zany some of the true stories are, as are shown by the Darwin Awards or the top 10 Oddball Stories with Time magazine.

I remember your opening scene to "Rescue Me". I didn't realize you had gotten the idea for this from a radio interview. Now that I've 'discovered' CBC radio, I think I will get a lot of ideas from there too.

Suse said...

Hi Hayley,

Thanks for your comments. I think I will follow up with some of those ideas I threw out in this blog.

Do you keep the scraps of paper with your ideas on it in a file folder, or do you transfer them to a computer file? I think I'm going to start putting ideas down on the computer, rather than having bits of paper allover my desk.

I can't imagine having a child stolen. Your tidbit from your 17C drama course sparks all kinds of ideas for stories. In fact, I can think of several stories that could be developed from just this one idea. It could be told from the parents' view, the stolen child's view, or maybe from the view of the people who steal the children who run these acting companies. And I bet you've had some ideas about this as well.

Janet said...

You are the idea Queen, Suse! Wow, I'm impressed. I hope you get around to writing all those stories - I'd love to read them.

I have tons of ideas too - and tend to write down the beginning with key words then file it away with the rest of my story starters.

Great post, Suse. And thanks for sharing where you get some of your ideas.


Suse said...

Hi Janet,

Maybe I should just generate ideas and someone else could do the writing. It's (fairly) easy to come up with ideas; it's the actual act of writing that's hard work, especially novel length.

Have you ever found that when you've gone back to look at your story ideas that you haven't written enough down to recall that spark that made you write down the idea in the first place? I've got a file with ideas for blogs that I looked at last night. One idea I have no clue where I was going to go with it.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Suse, you have so many wonderful ideas there. I'm with the rest and say you should use them even if you don't remember what sparked it, with an idea talent like yours, I'm sure it won't take long to come up with a new angle.

I always have either my iPod Touch to take notes, or my digital voice recorder when I'm driving since a lot of my ideas come while I'm driving and notice things. Then I start playing the 'What If' game.

I used to tell my family about my ideas but sometimes they'd look at me in horror or say, 'That's not nice,' if I was thinking of a villain. Now, I keep them to myself.

I have one file on my laptop and whenever I think of something, no matter how mundane, I jot it down in there. Just the idea can spark other ideas or stories later on.

We listened to CBC Radio when we had our commercial greenhouse and played in the dirt all day. It was entertaining then. Now, I don't have any radio, TV, kids(if I can help it) during the day. I find if I listen to things, my mind stops working and just goes with the flow. 8-(

Great post, Suse. Keep those ideas flowing...

CherylStJohn said...

I just subscribe to Idea Monthly.

heh heh

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Suse, checking back. I have word files for everything, these days. A file for the scraps I cull from my writing but know I'll use later, a file for writing in when I'm getting too nitpicky about the official wip file, and of course a file for story ideas -- those pertaining to my book (and resulting sequels, etc, as the fantasy genre thrives on installments) and those for other one-offs I might like to do.

Apparently there were records of legal cases in 17thc London of wealthy parents trying to get their children back. However there were also instances of poor children going on to huge success after being stolen into a children's company, so depending on your situation it could be a huge blessing. So many possibilities!

Suse said...

Hey Anita Mae,

It sounds like you've got yourself organized with getting and keeping ideas.

I used to keep a voice recorder on my passenger seat when I was driving, but a couple of years ago when I leaned over to pick it up, I ended up plowing snow. Suffice it to say, I don't do that anymore. I have to trust I'll remember the idea until I can write it down.

I rarely write, or work for that matter, without something on - TV, stereo, radio. I find I think better if I have that background noise. I have been distracted by TV though, so usually I have music on. (Music for my muse, I guess.)

Suse said...

Hi Cheryl,

Thanks for stopping by. I've been to your blog a few times, and I love your Recipe Archives. Your Turtle Pie recipe looks especially yummy!

When do you have time to write all those books if you're cooking and baking?

Suse said...

Hey Hayley,

I had a feeling you would be very organized about your writing. It looks like you have a lot of great strategies for keeping ideas, etc. straight.

This 17th century kidnapping of children for acting is very intriguing. I googled it. I couldn't find a lot of information, but it looks like the actors would have been mainly boys in that century. I had forgotten that females were not part of theater history back then.