By: Deborah Brewer –
As a writer stares at a blank page or a mangled plot, it may feel like there is a dearth of good ideas. Yet there are ideas everywhere, a veritable cornucopia of inspiration, waiting to be noticed and incorporated into our tales if only we could grasp them and put them to use.
In order to turn the abundance of inspiration around us into great stories, we must first look and see, take notes on our observations, and finally be curious.
Seeing is about more than opening one’s eyes. It’s also about opening our minds. We see what we expect to see, whether it’s good or evil, scarcity or abundance.
On a road trip to see family, I observed fields of the deepest jade green in Colorado and puffy rock formations in Utah that looked like Gaudi had advised their construction. But a story may develop from my observations of a grim, young Instagram husband at a trendy restaurant whose wife only smiled when he was taking her photograph.
I don’t travel often, so much of my story material must come from closer to home. At a local sandwich shop, a critique partner told the gist of a gruesome story he’d read in a mystery magazine. The story involved vessels filled with body parts, which morphed in my mind to become a room full of potted plants. Wanting a small number of characters for this short story, I considered what relationships I’ve experienced but not yet written about. I settled on a pair of sisters and am off to a good start.
Are you more of an armchair traveler? Nestled in my easy chair, I was exploring the internet when I saw a photo of an early woman photographer on a ladder in the middle of a street. Such an interesting idea that women, when women were still mostly confined at home, were wandering the country, taking photos of people in the middle of the street. What might they have photographed that others wouldn’t have wanted seen? Shenanigans during a volunteer firemen’s pump race? Imagine brigades of men in their underclothes racing towards a finish line with hose-laden water carts in tow. Curious, I’ve requested a biography of Jessie Tarbox Beals, America’s first female newspaper photographer, from my library on an inter-library loan. My genre being mystery stories, I can’t help but wonder how a photographer like her might also have solved cases of mysterious crimes.
You are a writer, and to write, you need fresh, immediate ideas and words. I’m not suggesting you sit at a family dinner or fancy restaurant on date night recording everything your loved ones say, but when inspiration strikes, pull out your phone or tiny notebook and jot down a few words. Describing settings isn’t a strength for me, so I often take a quick series of photos when I find myself in an inspiring location. I can delete them later after I’ve had time to contemplate their attributes and commit descriptions to words.
I keep a “story ideas” document on my computer and a similarly titled file folder in an actual drawer. I may not use all of the ideas. But when I get whiny and start thinking there aren’t any, I have plenty of evidence to the contrary close at hand. And some of the ideas are pretty good.
Little kids instinctually know what’s important to know—what happens next, and why? Stories, like juicy gossip, are more than a collection of observations finely wrought in words. They are studies in causality. They tell us how to get what’s good from life and how to avoid disaster.
This is demonstrated in the opening of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Alice’s curious mind is numbed by her sister’s boring history book, and she falls down the rabbit hole of her imagination. The best history books don’t merely report the facts. They expound on what is useful to know if the worst of history isn’t to repeat itself—causes and their effects. Carroll was a logistician, having received a prestigious “double first” in mathematics from Oxford. He couldn’t have been better prepared to understand the subtleties of causality. His story of Alice probes preposterous, illogical aspects of an adult world from the perspective of a curious child. His young readers are encouraged to ask, “why, why, why?”
Ideas are all around us. We notice interesting things all the time. What we need is to notice ourselves noticing—and take notes. A night on the town, an article in the news, or even the pesky memory of that horrible thing you said to that nice girl in seventh grade might be the beginning of an interesting tale.
Well, maybe not that last one. It might be an idea that’s too close to home. It’s a painful, recurring memory that causes me to cringe from time to time. Frankly, I know what happened next. And the matter of why I said what I did seems like a terrible question to probe. I’ll put the memory in my ideas file and consider it again another day. Perhaps you’re like me— I’d prefer to write fun stories, not painful ones, even though I know the stories that hurt are the ones that help other people grow. I wonder if the reason I sometimes don’t have any good ideas is that I’m not willing to consider inspiration from my own emotional cesspool as ideas at all…
For Further Reading and Research:
Lewis Carroll page on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia written by volunteers worldwide. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Carroll
Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology, Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.