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Becoming a Writer: Where Do Stories Come From?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Becoming a WriterThose of you who have children 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 come to me through the characters that I come up with—usually because I’ve developed a crush on a certain actor in a certain role. With Stand-In Groom, I wanted to use Peter Wingfield, whom I’d fallen for in the role of Methos in the Highlander TV series, as a hero in a romance novel. I also wanted to use the plus-size supermodel Emme as a heroine. This was around the time that I’d seen the movie The Wedding Planner, which, even though Matthew McConaughey was quite cute in it, really turned me off because for the resolution of the romance to come about, it meant that an engaged couple had to be torn apart.

Once I have my characters, the second part for me is asking a “what if” question. What if a wedding planner started falling in love with the groom of a wedding she was planning. But what if that man turned out not to be the groom, but someone representing the groom? And what if the real groom turned out to be someone from the wedding planner’s past? And I had a plot.

For Ransome’s Honor, it happened somewhat similarly. I fell in love with Paul McGann as Lt. William Bush in the Horatio Hornblower movies, which led me to read the novel Lieutenant Hornblower, which is written mostly from Lt. Bush’s point of view. Both in the films and in the book, Lt. Bush cannot for the life of him understand why anyone would want to get married. Which led me to start wondering just what kind of woman it would take to make a man like that fall in love with her. From there, I started developing a heroine with the necessary character traits. The story took a little longer to come together—and it wasn’t until William’s little sister, Charlotte, burst onto the scene and demanded a point of view, that the entire plot of the trilogy fell into place.

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.

There are so many other ways to get story ideas, though.

Dreams—If you are a vivid dreamer like me (which, if you are naturally a night person, your dreams typically come closer to the time when you wake up in the morning, so you’re more likely to remember them), start keeping a dream journal. I have several “idea” files on my computer with story ideas that came from dreams.

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. One of the sales reps I worked with and I were out at lunch. She got a phone call from someone back at the office, which was pretty much a one-sided conversation (the other person doing all 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 an ad 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. For example, see this post I wrote when something like this happened to me.

From Life—There’s a reason why my tagline is “Inspired by Life…Molded by God.” 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. Well . . . now-a-days it’s more things that I see happening through the window of my television screen, since I’m not around people all day long anymore. But I think you know what I mean. Whether it’s something we read in the newspaper, see on CNN, 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. This is how I came up with the name for the character of Major O’Hara. You see, back during the Civil War, one of my ancestors on the Caylor side of the family (my maternal grandmother’s side) was a soldier. His life was saved by a Major General whose name he never knew. In honor of the man who saved his life, he named his son, born after the war, Major General Caylor. I’ve loved this story ever since my great-uncle told me back when I was in college. And even though in Menu for Romance, I’ve given another explanation for Major’s name (based on his family background), I wouldn’t have come up with that entire piece of his backstory if I hadn’t always wanted to use the name Major.

Where are some unusual places you’ve come up with story ideas? How do you keep track of the ideas you’re not currently using?

  1. Thursday, January 22, 2009 6:15 pm

    When I’m writing a story, I always have a second document I call “inspirations”…if I have a scene suddenly pop in my head I write it down…even if it couldn’t possibly fit into the story. Sometimes I end up using these, sometimes not, but it’s good for the creative juices (which are not my best point when it comes to the writing process).

    As far as random ideas…same thing. I have a story idea document where I write one-liners down…

    “Guy rear-ends girl’s car.”

    Then later if I need inspiration I can go back and look over ideas. Hmm…where could I take that? I’ve just had an apostrophe…I mean, an epiphany. 😉

    Loved the post!


  2. Thursday, January 22, 2009 6:53 pm

    I got the idea for my current trilogy from a museum exhibit on children living in and evacuated from England during WWII. However, I wouldn’t have found that nearly so interesting if my grandpa hadn’t been a soldier in the American army and been telling me stories of his time in service since I was seven. It gave that huge war a face, and I hope my stories can do that for the kids who will someday read them.


  3. Thursday, January 22, 2009 7:29 pm

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your articles on writing! They’ve been very helpful.
    I come up with so many story ideas in the shower! I also get inspiration from movies and tv. Sometimes I can’t hardly finish a show without stopping and jotting something down. I also get inspiration from nature…sitting on a log or on the porch of our stable.


  4. Thursday, January 22, 2009 7:54 pm

    My WIP was inspired by a minor character in another author’s novel (a southern plantation slave who spoke with a Scottish accent). Since I know the author, I was able to ask her if that character was based on research, or someone she completely made up. When the answer was research, I began to wonder what a story from such a character’s POV would be like. And what if that character was of the opposite gender? And what if the story was actually about that character’s child?

    The original inspiration became a springboard into a sea of my own making.

    Another great post, Kaye. I’m really enjoying this series.


  5. Friday, January 23, 2009 2:16 am

    Kaye, the guy on your book’s cover does resemble that actor you picked. Did you send them his picture?

    The book that got me my agent came from watching Peter Vessey make Dennis Rodman cry during an interview in the late ’90s.


  6. Friday, January 23, 2009 2:22 am

    I do a file of “reference” images for each book when I submit it. Plus Barbour has a great worksheet for their authors to fill out that goes to the designer.


  7. Friday, January 23, 2009 9:04 am

    All of the above. I’ve gotten ideas from dreams (I sometimes have incredibly vivid dreams with full plots!), and things that I hear, and just wondering “What if”


  8. Saturday, January 24, 2009 12:53 am

    I think it was Anne Lamott who said “if you’re family doesn’t want you writing about them, they should behave better.”

    But that’s probably just snarky wishful thinking for most of us.

    I get ideas when I read folktales and Wikipedia entries. I snabble down a sketch of the idea and add it either to my “fiction book ideas” or “non-fiction book ideas” documents in a “projects” folder.

    It was one of the hardest things to learn to leave those ideas alone once I got the core down. “Sexy next book” is a real enticement, but so far I’ve remained faithful to my WIP. And I don’t regret it.


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