Some authors give the impression that their fully-developed story appears in a lightning flash and flows through their fingers onto their keyboards to their editors who passed it to the printer. Made-for-TV movies perpetuate that myth with editors or agents coming to the author’s house, sitting around waiting for the author to finish the story, or a newbie being told, “You belong to the world now.” Yeah, right.
If you are out there, please tell your secret to me. I want to live in that world too. In my experience, ideas sneak into my thoughts like Trojan horses where they languish until curiosity and hard work breathe life into them. Or I dig through old newspaper clips and bits of paper with a few inscrutable words that once meant something. Writers must find their own best method. There is no right or wrong way. No matter how we get our ideas, we recognize that they are only the first step to telling a story.
Ideas are everywhere. Strangers might catch our attention, and we briefly wonder what in their lives inspired their behavior or unusual wardrobe. We see a sad-looking, neglected building and imagine that its walls, like Dorian Grey’s portrait, absorbed terrible secrets. Or we might see on the news the devastation left by nature. We might stop to consider how something over which we have no control changes each person’s life. Like the ripple of a single drop of water, their reactions spread out to affect and change others.
I collect ideas like dandelions. Foolishly, I worry that I will run out of ideas before I run out of heartbeats. In my writer’s notebook, I jot down possibilities for the next story even if I am working on a story at the moment.
A physical notebook sounds old school, but there is something about the sensory detail of touch that I need more than speed. I feel more invested and connected to the subject when it is a physical thing like a photograph or news story. We keep our writer’s eyes and ears tuned to our surroundings. We dig into our pasts to remember ordinary or traumatic moments that impacted our lives then and now. Some writers travel to exotic places for their ideas. Others, like Eudora Welty, get inspired by the local events and people.
Reading other books, especially unsatisfying ones, stimulates ideas. The moral of that is to keep your favorite note- taking method handy. Ideas that hit like lightning disappear as rapidly. Jot enough to help you remember, or else a couple of disjointed words might as well be “buy bread.”
When you hit a fallow period, ignore it and just write about your day. Ideas are like seeds. We nurture them into plots. Impatience is to an idea what blight is to seed. If we rush in too fast, we are in danger of the story being slight or ordinary. No matter how fresh an idea feels to us, there is little chance that it does not exist in already published books. Or it might be on the editor’s desk. When I sold my first novella, the editor told me that my manuscript was one of five with a similar idea. In one of them, the main character had the same name. I was too happy that she chose mine to buy to worry about the whys and what ifs. Many writers are empaths, or we wouldn’t need to write. With so many manuscripts floating out there at any given moment, it is inevitable that we occasionally bump into each other.
No two stories are exactly alike. Our philosophies formed through our life experiences is the difference. Our group of mystery writers met monthly to hear experts in law enforcement. One particular month we heard from a hotel detective.We heard the same information at the same time. One writer wrote an adult mystery romance set in Florida; another wrote a teen mystery set in a Houston hotel, and I wrote a juvenile mystery set in a ski resort solved by my series character, Sebastian. Each of us sold our manuscripts using information from a guest lecturer.
The willingness to dig beyond the first idea that comes to mind pays off. We should consider as many alternatives as possible. If we eventually use our first idea, it should be because none of the alternative ideas worked as well.
If we find published books with our idea, it shouldn’t discourage us. That alerts us to find a different approach. Consider writing it for a different genre or location, or a different main character. Inspiration is everywhere when we live every day with our eyes and ears tuned to that around us—electronic and print news items, letters to the editor, eavesdropping, old photograph albums, estate sales, or injustices that make you want a do-over. Recall the unique people, past and present, that made you curious.
In keeping with my resolution for this year, I plan to take time away from my current project this week to jot down some ideas: interesting people, situations, and locations. That gives me the bonus of coming back to my work in progress with a fresh eye, plus the comfort of knowing that I have some other ideas waiting. Why not join me?We’re on our way to building a better book, step by step.