"Where do you get your ideas?"
Every published writer has heard this question - probably more than once.
It's a valid inquiry, but there is no pat answer. The cold, hard fact is—and pardon me if I’m disillusioning anyone, but…—neither babies nor ideas are delivered by a stork with a basket in his beak.
They aren’t for sale on department store shelves.
There’s no recipe for mixing one together, complete with baking instructions.
They can’t be hunted, shot down, beheaded and hung over your doorway as a trophy.
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / shiffti
But they’re out there, hiding in plain sight. Think of them as chameleons. You just have to be willing to play a little hide-and-seek. Chameleons blend into their surroundings, and it takes a sharp eye and intentional observation to spot them.
Honing the skills to spot those hidden idea gems should be a deliberate daily effort for any writer.
Truth into Fiction
Below is a headline and blurb from Reuter's-Oddly Enough. The headline alone should raise any writer's idea antennae.
Funeral horses stampede, overturn hearse
The story in a nutshell: A hearse overturned when the horses pulling it to a south London cemetery stampeded, dragging the carriage and coffin past appalled relatives and sending floral tributes flying.
This situation is horrifying just as it stands. But let's find the chameleonic ideas hidden in that small paragraph. Time to play "what if"....
• What if the coffin had come open and the body had been thrown out at the feet of the grieving widow?
• What if that body was not the one it should have been?
• What if the coffin was empty? (Where's the deceased? Why would anyone steal his/her corpse?)
• What if there were two bodies in the casket? (Who is the additional body? Did the mortician put it there? If so, why?)
We could find another half dozen story ideas from this one sad little article. But by now you see the "hidden picture."
Beyond the Obvious
A woman and a child sit nearby while you wait to board a flight. The child has hauntingly beautiful eyes. She does not say a word, and displays none of the expected impatient fidgeting, no squirming in her seat, no whining about being bored, no curious inquiries about the upcoming flight. The mother never releases the little girl's hand, and then...you notice tears. Mommy is weeping.
As a writer, your mind should be very busy by now.
Why is this child so quiet? Is she mute? Maybe some trauma has stolen her vocal ability. What trauma? Is Mommy sending the little one away? Where might she send the child...to an ex-husband? A medical facility for post-traumatic disorders?
What if, instead of simply holding her hand, Mommy has the child on a safety harness? Why would this be necessary? Is the child dangerous in some way? Why would she be dangerous?
Where would you take this scene? Would you have questions other than the ones I asked?
If You Could See What I Hear
In a cozy little coffee shop, you wait for a friend to join you. She's ten minutes late, and you're starting to be a bit annoyed. But, like the good writer you are, you're tuned in to what's going on around you—which is why you hear this little bit of idea fodder from the adjoining booth:
"You can't go back there, Teri. I won't let you!"
By the time your lunch partner arrives yet another ten minutes later, you've filled up a whole page in the notebook you carry with you everywhere you go. Your notes might look like this:
"You can't go back there, Teri. I won't let you!"
• Back where? To an abusive husband? Disreputable job?
• Scientific experiments! Maybe she's been taking test drugs and they're doing awful things to her. (What things? Are the results visible? Behavioral? Physical?)
• Will Teri really be prevented from going where she wants to go? Is the passionate statement a threat? Are the women sisters...friends...mother and daughter? Is the statement a warning, a threat, or just a way of speaking?
Coming up with ideas from everyday circumstances is like a mental muscle…it withers away from lack of use. So then, what's the best way to tone muscles? Through exercise, of course. Strengthen, tighten and tone your observation and idea-spotting muscles by working them...every day.
How does one exercise that kind of muscle? Let me count the ways! Take the exercises below and run with them, but don't stop there—come up with some of your own.
- Find a good website or buy a book that provides daily writing prompts. Here's the kicker: Don't just read the prompts—carry them out! You aren't practicing until you're doing something. You’ll find an enormous amount of help and information here: http://www.creative-writing-now.com/
- Take a walk, go shopping (people watching), volunteer somewhere (exposure to a world of experiences), etc. Ideas are hiding in life, and you must live if wish to see them.
- Flip through the pages of a magazine or browse photos on a stock photo site online. Choose three photos that grab your attention for whatever reason. Create a storyline around those photos.
- Free write. Set your timer for 15-30 minutes, then sit down and start writing. Don’t plan. Don’t worry if it makes sense, or whether one sentence relates to the next. Just write whatever comes to mind. You’ll be surprised what nuggets you can glean from these sessions.
- Perhaps most importantly...pull out the old enthusiasm and fervor that you wore like a cloak when you first started writing. You need that garment again, and guess what? It still fits.
Are you ready to play a game of hide-and-seek with the chameleons?
Delia Latham is a born-and-bred California gal, currently living in the beautiful mountain town of Tehachapi with her husband Johnny and a Pomeranian she calls Boo. She’s a Christian wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and friend—but above all, she treasures her role as child of the King and heir to the throne of God. She’s got a “thing” for Dr. Pepper and absolutely loves hearing from her readers.
You can contact Delia at any of the following locations: