Starting from Scratch

Where do story ideas come from? It seems to be a universal question, one I frequently hear asked of published writers when newbies are able to corner them. Where did you get that idea? How did you find that premise? Whatever made you think of that?

More often than not, writers seem unable to respond. At least not with any specificity. Sometimes they can give you a where or a when — “I was touring a rain forest on my vacation…” or “It was New Year’s Eve, 1997, and I was home with the flu…” But this is unusual. They’re even more unlikely to reply with a step-by-step explanation of the story’s evolution. Not because they’re being difficult, and not because they can’t recall (though I suspect sometimes they cannot), but because the answer is neither simple nor straightforward.

Story ideas are complicated things. Writers might come up with a kernel that they suspect could bloom into a story, but often it gets tucked into the back of their minds to play with the other kernels — for years, in some cases — until they rub up against each other, and make friends, and figure out which ones should continue on together into a more fleshed out concept.

Of course, that makes the process sound magical, and the reality is that it’s not. The reality is that generating ideas — great ideas, that can grow into salable manuscripts — is work. Real work, not daydreaming or wool gathering or whatever label non-writers sometimes put to writers’ efforts. If you simply wait for inspiration to strike, chances are you’ll be staring out the window well into your dotage, with very little to show for it.

The truth about writing is that “Where do you get your ideas?” is the wrong question. The question people should be asking is “How do you create your ideas?”

So, you’re starting from scratch. You sit down at your computer and open a new document, or pick up your pen and notebook and turn to a fresh page. Whatever project you’ve been working on is completed — turned in to your agent or editor, or off with your critique partners, or sitting in the bottom drawer until you’ve sufficient distance for your next round of edits. Today you’re starting a new project, and you have no idea what it will be.

Sound terrifying? Or exciting? Maybe a bit of both. But what do you do? Put the date at the top of the page, perhaps. Then it’s no longer blank. But it’s not a new idea, either. So how do you set about beginning?

Chances are good you already have something in mind. Even if it’s not a story or novel idea yet, you have a character, a brief encounter or situation, a location, even a weird object that you’ve been obsessing over for whatever reason. So you write that down.

Then begins the idea generation, because kernels are just the start of an idea, not the idea itself. You play the “What If?” game — what if this happened or that? What if the character got a phone call or a telegram or a visit from a stranger? What if war broke out? What if someone’s recently died and there’s no will? What if there’s more than one will? You write a bit, and then ask again. What if? What if? If, then, if, then. It builds a pattern. Not all the details will capture your fancy. Maybe you’ll start over and head in a different direction. Perhaps you’ll like the latter parts of the scenario best, and discard your original kernel entirely. Maybe you’ll file the entire thing away for further thought, and try something different instead.

How else can you generate ideas? Read nonfiction. Skim encyclopedias (or Wikepedia — do encyclopedias even exist anymore?) for intriguing facts. Scan the newspaper for real-life events, crimes, fundraisers. Read the obituaries to discover interesting career paths or inspirational lives. Borrow from everywhere to build a character or a community or a disastrous event.

Sit in a coffee shop and eavesdrop. Listen to conversations in the locker room at the gym. Wander through an antique store or a flea market and imagine who used to own the shabby items on offer. Go through an old family photo album and check out your oldest relatives — people you may never have met. Note their poses, their clothes, their expressions. Who were they? Who might they be in your imagination?

Do you have other methods? A system you use to come up with your next project or to fill your idea book when you’ve got a few spare moments? Please feel free to share.

Ideas rarely come from somewhere. They aren’t floating through the atmosphere, trying to determine whose mind to grace. Writers create ideas — they craft them, search them out, uncover them, design them. Generating ideas is the first step to generating the larger story. Start from scratch and build from there.

One of my favorite writing quotes comes from author Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” Words to live by. Happy writing.