So You Want to Be a Writer: Where do stories come from?
What experiences can you trace your story ideas to?
What’s the most unique way you’ve gotten a story idea?
Have you ever built an entire story around a celebrity crush?
What do you do to keep track of your story ideas?
If you have children, you are probably familiar with this question: “Mommy/Daddy, where do babies come from?”
The age of the child asking the question probably determined how you answered this question—whether you told them about the stork or about the “birds and the bees” in full disclosure mode.
Answering the question, “Where do story ideas come from?” is very much like answering the baby question. There’s the stork-like answer we give to non-writing friends and then there’s the full disclosure we discuss amongst fellow writers.
The “stork” answer would be: [shrug] “I dunno. They just come to me.”
When we’re amongst writers, though, when we can really analyze where our ideas come from, this is when we allow ourselves to get into full-disclosure mode.
My stories often come to me through the characters that I come up with—usually because I’ve developed a crush on a certain actor or celebrity. For example: the Ransome Trilogy came from my obsession with Paul McGann in the Hornblower movies. The idea for The Art of Romance came from my crush on Top Chef Season 2 cheftestant Sam Talbot—only, I’d already written a book featuring a chef main character (Menu for Romance) so I decided, given Sam T.’s tattoos, earrings, and overall style, to make him an artist instead. And a romance-novel cover model. Because Sam Talbot.
The Big What If?
Once I have my characters (which, obviously, is usually the hero of the story), the first thing I do is start asking what if questions. What if a wedding planner started falling in love with the groom of a wedding she was planning? What if a romance novelist, who’s always had a crush on the model from her book covers, meets him in real life—but doesn’t realize right off that it’s him? What if a Royal Navy officer who’s dead-set against marriage falls in love with his admiral’s daughter? What if a spinster has to choose between marrying for money to save her family or marrying a poor man for love?
And, from thence, I start plotting.
Many other character-driven writers (whether they write character-driven or plot-driven stories) have similar experiences when it comes to their story ideas: the character comes first, followed by the “what if” scenario that leads to a story.
Where Do Ideas Come From?
Dreams—If you are a vivid dreamer like me, start keeping a dream journal—or at least have a notebook beside the bed so you can make notes before you forget. I have several “idea” files on my computer with story seeds that came from dreams—including the sci-fi idea that I’m determined to write one of these days.
Overheard Conversations—Several years ago, when I still worked at the newspaper, I briefly toyed with the idea for a suspense novel, based on something someone said. I was out at lunch with one of the sales reps I worked with. She got a phone call from someone back at the office, which was pretty much a one-sided conversation (the other person doing most of the talking). When she hung up, she looked at me and said, “We’re going to have to kill Meyers when we get back to work.” Now, I knew she was talking about killing a newspaper advertisement we’d scheduled right before we’d left the office. But could you imagine being someone sitting at the table behind us, seeing two professionally dressed women having lunch and hearing a comment like that? Especially if he were prone to be suspicious—as in, if he were a cop or some kind of law-enforcement agent? And there you have the seed for a story.
Art—If you have an art-museum/gallery anywhere near you, take a few hours and a notebook and go spend some time losing yourself in images. It can be any kind of art—from realistic portraits to modern art to sculpture. Find something that speaks to you. Write down the words that come to mind as you look at the art. If you can take photos of it, do so. If you can’t, take as many notes on it as you can.
Other Authors’ Work—I’m not advocating plagiarism. Nor am I telling you to go out and write spinoffs or sequels to your favorite books. What I am saying is that whenever you sit down to read, keep a notebook and pen nearby, because something you read may spark an idea for your unique story—even if your story has nothing to do with what you’re reading. Do the same when you’re watching TV or movies.
From Life—There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t have at least one new story idea sparked by something that happens around me. Whether it’s something we read in the newspaper, see on TV, or see others around us doing, there is story potential in everything around us. Make a habit of going into a public place—like a busy coffee shop, a mall, or an airport—and just sitting and watching people. Pay attention to how they interact, how they greet/farewell each other, let your imagination run wild and make up backstories for them based on how they’re dressed, how they talk, how they move, how they react to others around them.
From Your Family—This one can get a little dicey. Most of our family members, once they know we’re writers, are afraid they’re going to end up in our books one day, moles and flaws fully exposed to the world. They may also assume that everything you write about is autobiographical. If you know that using something from your family’s history will create problems in your relationship(s) with them, don’t do it—no matter how compelling it is. But talk to your family—especially the older generations—and see if, way back in the recesses of time, there aren’t some interesting tidbits of family history just ripe for writing about. If nothing else, you can get some great, unique, names. Family names I’ve used: Major, Caylor, Bradley, Julia, William, Michael, Katharine, Andrew, and many, many secondary characters.