October 5, 2012

How To Come Up With Story Ideas

Story ideas
You’re sitting there, staring at your computer, willing your fingers to type. There’s a story in your head somewhere, you just need to squeeze it out. Minute by minute, hour by hour, nothing comes. What some people call writer’s block, I call ‘inspirationally barren’, and when you’re a writer, nothing feels worse. So here are four ways I call upon inspiration when my imagination seems to have given up.

1. My Childhood

Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I now realize that I was fortunate enough to have an interesting childhood. My parents were dreamers, always moving from one town or city to the next, hoping for their big break. They traveled the carnival circuit, mined for gold, and for a short time lived in the suburbs holding down ‘respectable’ jobs. Subsequently, I was exposed to a variety of people and places that have crept, and often leapt, into my stories.
For those writers who complain that their childhood was boring and normal and nothing worth writing about, I say you haven’t looked hard enough. A run through the sprinkler on a hot summer’s day can be a nostalgic point of remembrance for the protagonist who knows she is dying. The PTA meetings your mother religiously attended may have been a front for a witch’s coven. The boy who ate the same peanut butter sandwich every day throughout Jr. High, may have really been an old man who discovered that the combination of peanuts and Wonder bread reversed the aging process. Reality? Probably not. But that’s not the point. Childhood is full of wonder and possibilities and when we think back on those experiences and examine them under the microscope of imagination, we have more stories to tell than we have years to live.

2. Public Transportation

Many of my writer friends say that they find inspiration in restaurants and coffee shops. They claim that people, when nestled within the secure confines of their tables and booths, will speak as freely and inanely as they do in their own homes. I agree. I’ve gotten lots of inspiration from food court eavesdropping. I once heard a woman saying that she wanted to dye her toddler daughter’s blonde hair a dark brown so that she could compete in The Little Miss Kardashian Pageant (horrifyingly, no joke). But while restaurants are good for people listening, I find public transportation the way to go for people watching.
If you’re lucky enough to find an unclaimed spot in the corner of a bus, subway, or train, you can witness human interaction at its most real. There you will find people of all walks of life, the young and the old, the suits and the slackers, the sexy and the sexless, sharing a few minutes together before moving on to their ‘real lives’. While you can hear snippets of conversation, it’s the body language that’s really fun. The look of uncertainty on a prim woman’s face as a leather-clad man plops down beside her. The way an old woman’s eyes mist up as she watches a young mother bouncing a toddler on her knee. The way a businessman looks out the window and then at his watch repeatedly as he taps his fingers against his briefcase. Fear. Love. Lust. Loss. It’s all there for you to interpret and restructure. A traveling human zoo. Next stop, inspiration town.

3. Friends and Family.

These are the people you know well: The ones you grew up with, the ones you hang out with, the ones you call at night for reassurance that you’re still pretty when your husband ogles the Dunkin Donuts girl. You know their mannerisms, their slang, their manner of dress, and their annoying habit of revealing the end of the movie while you are watching it. So why not write about them?
Friends and family are a great source of inspiration. You can learn more about the human condition by listening to those closest to you than you could by watching one-hundred hours of the evening news. What drives them? Compels them? Makes them yearn? You may know them but do you really know them? Find out why your best friend is always late to parties or why your brother compulsively collects souvenir spoons. The people of your inner circle represent the masses. Tell their story, or at least part of it.
A word of caution: Writing about people you know requires a degree of understanding and sensitivity. The goal isn’t to write a tell-all book of dirty secrets, but rather to reveal the depths that exist within the familiar.

4. The Unknown.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. As a writer I know that I can spend days, even weeks, locked in a room with just a cup of coffee and a laptop to keep me company. And nowadays, if I’m ever really in need of socialization, I can just pop onto Facebook or Twitter, gab with the gang for a few hours, and get back to work. It’s only when I’ve eaten the last of me Lucky Charms and head out to the grocery store, blinking back the sunlight like a mole-person, that I realize I haven’t done anything new or noteworthy in days. The point: If you are really stuck for ideas, you may be stuck in your life. When was the last time you took a new route to work? Met someone new? Where did you spend your last vacation? If your mind is as a blank as your sheet of paper, perhaps it’s time to shake things up.
An example: A few years ago I found out that my brother belonged to a group of individuals that protested “work”. Who would protest work, I wondered, and I immediately wanted to meet them. My brother took me by bus (see #2) to a section of town I had never seen before. Most of the houses were boarded up and looked like they had been condemned. We found our building, a dilapidated structure with an Anarchist flag flying from the window, and gave the ‘secret knock’ to gain entrance. A thin man ushered us into a large room where everyone was gathered around a table. The leader preached about the evils of work, rules, and government, while secretary took notes and kept minutes. We were then asked who could donate books for the annual book sale. Next, we were escorted into a room for ‘chorus practice’, where we chortled along to anti-employment tunes such as the classic: “Aint gonna work no more, no more, while we sipped from a flask of whiskey. The meeting was finally closed as a tin collection plate was passed around the room, and we all emptied our pockets of the change we had gotten by somehow not working. Needless to say, that one experience provided me with enough material to tell many stories. Since then I’ve been a staunch proponent of new experiences. Embrace new experiences. If we aren’t living life, then what makes us worthy of writing about it?

(Originally written for The Indie Exchange Oct 2012 by April Aasheim http://theindieexchange.com/how-to-get-ideas-for-stories/)

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