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.

3 thoughts on “Grabbing Ideas Out of the Air”

  1. Interesting you should post this right now, as I am just sitting down to write a short story with absolutely no idea in my head.

    But, really, ideas are a dime a dozen. This is why Dean Wesley Smith drove it into my head not to worry about copyright infringement. Ideas are everywhere. It’s the execution that requires skill. And your execution is automatically copyrighted the moment your fingers hit those keys.

    I think I’m going to write a story about a detective assigned to a case where someone gets supposedly eaten by Ogopogo, even though setting something in Canada goes so against my thoughts about fiction writing. There actually ARE a few Canadian-set stories coming out in my new short story collection Unbroken Horses, I have to admit (see my shameless plug. For more information on that, you’d have to visit my website at: http://www.michaelhiebert.com

    Anyway, another great post. Keep it up, Garth 🙂

  2. Love your blog. Well done!

    Also love that Stephen King quote. Ideas are indeed everywhere.

    I have used story contests as idea generators. Have entered many story contests based on a premise or theme. Contests allow me to explore not only ideas and genres, but also style and economy of words.

    My current project, a three-book saga, was triggered by something my father told me, a tidbit of Newfoundland history, about a little girl surviving a tsunami. (Until then, I knew nothing of the 1929 NL tsunami.)

    Then there was the Celebration of Life I attended back in January of this year. (Wrote a short story based on that.)

    The problem for me is not in finding ideas, but in deciding which to pursue. I keep a file, listing them all. I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot write them all.
    (Sigh.)

    1. Hi, Annie,
      I was re-reading your comment on this blog and found myself re-appreciating what you said. Using contests to generate stories and to sharpen your skills is great advice. I’m going to search out more contests. I loved your alphabet story by the way,–you’re so brilliant with challenges like that.
      Hope you and yours are well and happy on this Thanksgiving Day.

      Garth

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