Lightbulb Moments (Getting Ideas: Part 1)

I want to write but I don’t know what to write about. I don’t seem to have any ideas, any good ideas and certainly not enough ideas. Writers don’t seem to like being asked where they get their ideas from. Where DO they get their ideas from?

The answer is that they get them from anywhere and everywhere but that’s not very useful when you are just starting out. After all an idea is only a germ. Once you have netted it you still have to do something with it for it to grow legs and go somewhere.

The sources of ideas that follow are likely to work more easily for short stories than novels but they are useful starting points and may provoke further ideas. There are too many for a single post, so I will post some more ideas tomorrow and then next week we can start with something fresh; ways of using our own experience and of expanding and developing our ideas into story.

Try Some, or All of These:

Read – Long ago when I was told a writer needs to read, I took that on board like a rule I didn’t truly understand. Now I know that reading gives you ideas. Surprisingly often, something you read will lead to a thought that will produce a completely unrelated idea – but record it quickly, before it slips away.

Look to books – for variations on themes. This works for novels and short stories. Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acres was a reworking of King Lear. Turn bible stories into contemporary fiction. Use people’s experience’s in histories and biographies and invent around them. If something intrigues you about someone else, use your curiosity and lack of information to invent a story.

Use headlines or newspaper and magazine articles – Look out for striking images, snippets of dialogue and unusual situations in an article. Better still, combine two articles, the one about a man who rescues a falcon with the one about the man who went out climbing in bad weather. Week end supplements are often rich in ideas and I find I can engage emotionally with the more creative approach to feature writing in these.There is often plenty of interesting detail and some clue as to the motivations behind a person’s actions to provide the bones of a story. (You can use these for poems, too). You might be fascinated by a introverted artist who lived in Rome in the 1940‘s whose relationship with a woman caused him to burn all his paintings. You can change the facts and write about an extroverted sculptor on the Isle of Man whose meeting with someone causes him to gives his art away.
Listen out for news items on the radio, too.

Make New Lists – Naomi Epel in ‘The Observation Deck’ suggests that it is useful to set yourself the challenge of generating a specific number of ideas. For example 25 conflicts, 18 character motivations etc. It is important to go for quantity, so you have plenty of ideas to choose from. You can judge them later.

Explore associations with place – landscape and atmosphere. Your story doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What can living on Dartmoor or close to the sea offer your characters.

Explore emotion – I know a lot of writers start with place or character. I do tend to start with character but also with emotion. I always want to know, how would that feel? What would it feel like if your father left home when you were four?

Explore character – There is an exercise in The Fiction Writers Workshop by Josip Novakovich where he suggests going into one restaurant and noting how a lone person behaves and then, in another restaurant, note the way a couple relate to each other. And then how a waiter behaves towards his customers. I think it would be interesting to bring these people together in a single story. Try and hear a characters unique voice in your head, whether it is someone from history, the old woman next door or a homeless person you have never met. Choose someone with a striking character trait. Lots of ideas can come from character, which we will look at in due course.

Next post tomorrow: ‘More Lightbulb Moments’: Getting Ideas Part 2 – Are there any other ways to get ideas for stories?

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