Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of speaking at Career Day for one of my kids. The students who signed up to hear my author spiel were quiet, respectful, and asked some thoughtful questions. The question I received the most was “Where do you get your ideas?”
There are as many places to find ideas for stories as there are writers who write those stories.
This is what I told the kids: I start with my setting. I find that once I decide where my story is going to take place, the ideas flow from that. My first novel takes place in the Thousand Islands; as you might imagine, there are parts of my story that could only take place on an island in the middle of a river. My second novel takes place near Charleston, South Carolina, so a plantation great house has an important role in the story. Not every writer starts with a setting, of course. Some get an idea and the setting grows out of it.
One thing I told the kids on Career Day was that some writers get ideas from reading the obituaries. They read the obits and imagine things that may have happened during the lives of the people who have just passed, whether it was someone who survived the Holocaust or someone who emigrated from Italy as a teenager or someone who spent his or her life as a singer/songwriter. The obituaries are fertile ground for vivid imaginations.
Where else do writers get their ideas? How about newspaper articles? Some writers get ideas from reading the headlines and making up their own backstories. Some read regular columns and make up corruption and intrigue that amp up the excitement. Others use stories from their own jobs; there are more than a few ex-lawyers who use real legal cases in their books. The same is true with doctors and almost any other profession you can imagine.
Ever heard of the book Cape May Court House: A Death in the Night? It’s a book by Lawrence Schiller, an investigative journalist who studied a real case from Cape May Court House, New Jersey (not far from where I live), involving a husband, a wife, their daughter, and a tragic event. Though Schiller stuck very close to the original story, there are lots of real crimes that get fictionalized by authors who are looking for a realistic story line.
The last thing I told the kids was this: ask “what if?” every chance you get. You’re driving by an abandoned house. What if a murder took place there? What if the most recent owner was a recluse? Or you see a father strike his child at a grocery store. What if that father was stressed out because his wife just left him? What if that man wasn’t the child’s father? Maybe you see two people talking on a park bench. What if they’re undercover agents? What if it’s a clandestine meeting? The possibilities are endless.
So think of a place you’d love to set a story. Read newspapers and Internet news stories and the obituaries. Ask “what if?” every once in a while. You’ll stimulate your own imagination and you might just think of something fantastic.
Where do you get your ideas? I’d love to know.
Until next week,