Grabbing Ideas Out of the Air

flyingstuff1Writers are often asked where they get their ideas for stories. Because my idea machine is currently running on empty, I thought I’d do some “thinking at the keyboard” on the subject.

What has worked for me so far is to relate events that I experienced–a strange meeting on a plane, the finding of a 1940’s love letter in an old warehouse, a waterfall being dammed by ice then bursting forth into an icefall, a death on a logging site. These they capture a truth and I get to tell a story as if around a campfire.

Then there are the stories that grow out of someone else’s experience. Years ago I worked two summers as a janitor in the various government buildings in Victoria, British Columbia. I recall a co-worker mentioning one janitor who was a real joker. He scared the pants off his partner one night by pretending to hang by his fingertips outside a third storey window. From that event I was able to create two character opposites alone in building at night, one not quite sure what stunt the other would pull next.

But what about story ideas that aren’t based on experience? To address this I’m better off quoting Stephen King from his book On Writing:

“There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up.”

I consider this quote from Stephen King to be bloody brilliant. It means there are story ideas flying by all the time like microwaves (not the appliances, the waves); it’s just a matter of seeing them. King also talks about “what if” thinking. What if your grouchy neighbour won the lottery? What if the big earthquake that’s supposed to hit the west coast struck today? What if the trend toward social technology, non-face-to-face interaction, and entitlement continues to grow? What would our culture look like in twenty years?

I wrote a post-apocalyptic story that began with the question: What if I looked at life after the apocalypse from a dog’s point of view? What if a feral dog had some minute genetic memory of his species connection to man? I think the story worked. It certainly was fun to write.

Stephen King mentioned two unrelated ideas coming together. This is a real story generator. I just finished reading Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian. He tells the story of a homeless girl from an upper middle class family–an interesting set-up for a character–but he combines that idea with a meltdown at a nuclear power station. Both her parents are killed and the father is blamed. Suddenly, the story idea has doubled the size–at the least–of its audience appeal.

Another device a writer could use–and I think I’ll wind down on this point–is to have the protagonist do something big and bad that either causes a chain of other events, or comes back to haunt him. In the beginning of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, the protagonist sells his wife in a tavern. Years later when he is a well-respected businessman and mayor, his wife and daughter arrive in town.

So my thinking-at-the-keyboard has been fairly productive. I’m remembering a few real life events I could choose to write about, and there’s a true story a girl once told me. But I think I’m more drawn to continue on with my Blood Moon Road characters and try to plan out a second book and possibly a series.

I think my next blog will be about writing historical novels, for history is nothing but layer upon layer of entwining stories. And there’s always room to sew in a fictional thread.

Separation Anxiety

coat of armsI’m suffering from separation anxiety.

No, my wife hasn’t left me, and empty-nest syndrome hasn’t kicked in, though my three sons have gone. The loved ones who are now far away have names like Harald, Selia, Gwyn, Gudrun, and Cnute. Then there is Yngvarr, Ravya, Xaviero, and Floriano. All are precious to my grieving heart, for they are all my creations. I finished my historical novel, Blood Moon Road, a month ago. My main characters headed home to northern Europe and left me in Italy, spinning my eleventh century cart wheels.

Not having been left as a babe in a basket on the steps of St. Agatha’s, abandonment is a new experience. When the novel first began to take shape, I awoke one morning to find that Harald Cnuteson, my protagonist, was making decisions for himself–drinking too much ale and pursuing a beautiful woman. I reacted to his Pinocchio-like transformation by running about the room crying, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” (my apologies to Victor Frankenstein).

When I calmed at last and sat down at my computer, I discovered that I was unable to keep my Anglo-Danish hero from continually running headlong into danger (I refuse to say “in harm’s way”). What proceeded was a half-year chronicling the trials and tribs of myfriend and his companions as we explored Europe in the Middle Ages.

The great British novelist Graham Greene said, “The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment he’s alive and you leave him to it.” I suppose that is the most exhilarating aspect of the writing process. Though you are the prime mover in your book’s universe, developing characters act in keeping with the truth of themselves. For the writer–at least for this writer–it is the experience of a reader losing him/her self in a great book, taken to the next level.

Years ago, I set out to learn the craft of acting. I advanced far enough to get paid a pittance for my work, and managed to learn a few things in the process. I learned–or used the concept–that to become a character you had to reach down deep to find where that character’s anger or bitterness or joy lay either realized or in potentiality inside you. From that place you spoke and moved and reacted.

Creating characters on the page is much the same. They all exist within your psyche, layered in life experience. I don’t recall who said that all characters are but different reflections of yourself, but I wouldn’t disagree. Even the evil that befalls you becomes a part of you.

I have always enjoyed flawed but heroic characters, for when they soar, so do I, whether as reader or writer. And creating a love interest for my hero is to put the ideal of perfect union within my own reach. So do I live life vicariously through my characters? Shit, ya.

My friend, Mary, the wise-woman and seer-ess of The Chilliwack Writers Group, told me she had been advised by a prof to expect sadness and a sense of loss to follow the completion of a major writing project. So what I am feeling is normal. I guess I’ll have to toss ideas around for a sequel and try to track down my lost characters. Blog writing is okay. But I do miss the swords.