A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. – G.K.Chesterton. (Found on Writers Bloc @writers_bloc – I recommend following if you are on Twitter.)
Not harsh, as such; good advice.
Believe it or not, ideas for stories are everywhere. Yet, it is one of the most common questions asked. Many writers are looking for a guide list. Some of the questions I hear are:
Where do you get your ideas from?
How do you know it’s a good idea?
How do I find an idea that no-one has used?
How do I make my ideas interesting?
Do you worry about running out of ideas?
What do you do when you don’t have any ideas?
Most people who struggle to find ideas want a list: a roadmap and guidelines. Often they’re looking for a plot for a short story, a novel, a book, even an essay; some type of dot-to-dot drawing.
One of the problems with writers is they are reluctant to accept that it is work, hard work. No matter what you want to write – poem, play, short story, novel or anything else, it takes work, persistence, determination, time, false starts, failures and frustration.
A teacher can help you learn techniques. The hard work is up to you. But, because ideas are so hard to come by, rather than make a list, I’m going to give three ideas and take them in two different ways each. There are as many ways to write these simple ideas into stories as there are writers.
1. A little boy hides from people searching for him.
2. A man has lost his job but not told anyone.
3. A woman hears a terrified scream.
A little boy is lost in bush land. It is dark and he is cold, hungry, frightened. Lights scoot over the landscape and feet crash nearby. Loud voices, stranger voices, call his name but he curls smaller, hiding. ‘Never go with strangers,’ he whispers to himself.
Will they find him? Will he come out into the open? Or will he flee and come to harm?
A little boy takes biscuits from the pantry, slips behind the heavy chair and settles behind a thick fold of curtain to eat. Mum said no eating before dinner, but he is hungry. He opens the pack and takes out a crumbly treat. It’s a wheat flour biscuit, laced with crushed nuts. He lifts it to his mouth, too young to understand his allergy to nuts.
How allergic is he? How quickly does he react? How many biscuits will he eat? Is he making a noise that someone hears? Are they even looking in that room? Perhaps a pet or a baby sibling makes the discovery. Will it be in time?
Every morning, he showers, shaves, puts on his suit, laughs during breakfast. He puts his briefcase in the car, backs out of the driveway and heads up the road, the same way he has done for twenty years. Only, at the end, he turns left instead of right. He has lost his job and not told his family.
What does he do? Look for another job? Go fishing? Start drinking? Find a rich widow? Keep driving? Why did he lose his job and when? What about money? Does he hide behind credit, savings or a payout? What is he feeling? What does he think will happen if he tells?
The alarm rings, he turns over. ‘Time to get up, love.’ His wife heads for the shower. He says he is sick. He is sick for a week, then a fortnight, but he refuses to go to the doctor. His family worries, take care of him, tell him not to worry, just get well. Always independent, he is surprised at how good it feels to have others take care of him for a change. But, his independence strikes back and he knows he needs to find ideas for his future.
Will he tell his family and get their input and support? Is there something he has always wanted to do but thought was a pipedream? Will he start giving his time for charitable works, or study and retrain, start his own business, travel? Perhaps he looks up old friends, calls in favours, how will that turn out?
The scream is long, high, filled with terror. Her stomach flips, her heart thumps, her knees go weak. For a long time she stands frozen, listening, waiting, too frightened to do anything. There are no other screams, no other noise. None of the neighbours have come out. A dog barks somewhere in the distance but apart from that, the world seems empty of everything except that scream.
Did she even hear it? Was it really a scream? Could it have been a car screeching? A cat? What if that drunk next door has just killed his wife? Or what if the young woman on the other side has just found her baby dead in his cot? Who screamed? Why? What will she do?
The scream motivates her into spontaneous action. She flies through the front door and into the road. People are everywhere, and everything is confused. Neighbours have hands to their mouths, their eyes round and glistening with shock. They mutter and stare and point. Someone notices her and it starts a ripple as people look at her from the corner of their eyes, move aside, throwing down a gauntlet.
Why are they looking at her? Has someone been killed, injured? Where’s her prize winning dog? What has happened? Has there been an accident, or a fight? Has someone been attacked? Perhaps there’s been a car crash. Or someone has had a seizure, a heart attack or a stroke. Are they alive? What will this mean to the woman?
These stories could go in a variety of directions. They could become flash fiction, a short story, the opening of a novel. These ideas aren’t new, exotic or fantastical. They could happen to any of us. They are simple ideas but they can become consuming stories.
The trick is to have a basic idea and write without thinking too much about it. Quality of the writing is unimportant at this stage. What matters is where you take it. And you do that by asking questions. See the action taking place in your mind’s eye so it comes to life. Think about the person it is happening to, how they feel, what affect it has on their life, what they can do about it, what they decide to do about it. If you are writing a short story, it might end there, with the decision. If you are writing a novel, the consequences of the decision will make up the story.
The world is full of novels in which characters simply say and do. There are certainly legitimate genres in which this is sufficient. But in real and lasting writing the character is.
Hmm. I struggle with the answer to what is my favourite book. I always do when anyone asks me what is my favourite …? And I’ve attempted to write this article several times. In the end, I’ve decided I have to par it down, and down, and down. As I can’t include all the books I would like to, I’ll choose some books randomly and give some reasons what they mean to me.
Books which informed my social conscience are Black Like Me (John Howard Griffen), Cry My Beloved Country (Alan Paton), Cry Freedom (Donald Woods) and includes Charles Dickens’ novels, especially A Tale of Two Cities and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. There are many more but these are significant to me.
Books which gave me an interest in psychology include The Caine Mutiny (Herman Wouk), I cannot read it now due to his homophobia, Don Quixote (Miguel De Cervantes), Lord of the Flies (William Golding) and the play script Equus (Peter Shaffer).
Genre books I love include psychological thrillers such as written by Val McDermid, especially her Wire in the Blood books; fantasy includes books by Sara Douglass, especially her Axis trilogy, Terry Brooks especially his Shannara series and Knight of the Word trilogy and, so far, everything I’ve read by Robin Hobb.
Science fiction includes I, Robot, a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov and the books and short stories by Ray Bradbury and Anne McCaffrey, and the Lensmen series by EE Doc Smith – the latter were written in the 1920s and 30s so the social mores are quaint to say the least.
Autobiography includes Ruth Park’s Fence Around the Cuckoo and Fishing in the Styx; Alan Marshall’s I Can Jump Puddles, This is the Grass, In My Own Heart; and Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life.
Some other books which have given me much and fired my imagination are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Shakespeare, Rebecca by Daphe Du Maurier, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, The 39 Steps by John Buchan and Margaret Attwood’s The Blind Assassin. By no means the definitive list, just the first taxis off the rank of instant memory grab – which is probably the best way to go.
Philosophy and ethics include the ethicist Peter Singer and Raimond Gaita – these two are often aligned and just as often opposed, yet always calmly which is refreshing. I read many books on social issues and ethics and some on politics. I enjoy reading most of the philosophers from Kant to (Iris) Murdoch to Hughes to Plato and Socrates.
A few of my favourite Australian books include The Shiralee by Darcy Niland; A Poor Man’s Orange and The Harp in the South by Ruth Park; Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey; My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin and the Woody Creek books by Joy Dettman. One book I adore for its language and the visual tapestry it creates is The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood. I especially love my copy because my youngest son spent ages tracking it down to give it to me for Christmas some years back.
I’ve been reading some of the other articles on the subject Favourite Book (at Wrytestuff.com). Most of the writers can’t choose either and list books I’d like to list as well. Perhaps, instead, I’ll tell you about the first book I ever read Little Gray Donkey by Enid Blyton. It set me off on what has been a reading frenzy ever since.
I grew frustrated at never having enough willing people to read to me. I knew every word of this book by heart and it was the only thing I wanted the ‘giants’ I lived with to read to me. I bored them silly with it, but in fairness it wasn’t a very long book. However, most of the giants were in their teens and didn’t have much time for a four year old. They tried to skip words, paragraphs even pages. Of course, they couldn’t get away with it and I’d insist they go back and read it properly. Hmm, I hadn’t realised what a little martinet I was, but I suppose most four year olds are – aren’t they?
One dark night, Mum was working over steaming pots getting dinner ready for the table, and the giants had claimed homework as an excuse not to read to me. I pestered Mum but, feeling harried, she got ‘steamed’ and said, ‘Read it yourself.’
‘But I can’t read,’ I said.
‘You know every word in that book. Point to them and you’ll be reading it yourself.’
Well, that was an idea. I sat nearby, my back up against a kitchen cupboard and started pointing to the words. It was working. I was reading. Well, I was pointing to the appropriate word and saying it, with just a bit of intermittent help from Mum. I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother, but this was a gift she gave me I’ll always be grateful for.
I’ve been reading non-stop ever since but I had limited access to books in childhood so spent quite a bit of time with my nose in a dictionary, an encyclopaedic dictionary and an encyclopaedia, and my father’s art and poetry books, unless he was in a grumpy mood. When no-one was looking, which was reasonably often since I was surrounded by giants and they lived up there somewhere, I spirited away whatever anyone else was reading and pored through it. This meant I didn’t always get to finish but I did get to read something and I’m sure not finishing actually helped my own imagination for writing.
Aladdin’s Cave came to my little home town when I was 14 in the form of a bus, a bus filled with books. And I was old enough to choose any book I wanted. No single shelf like at school. No gender demarcation like at school. No forbidden access to older grade books like at school. No sneaking a book to a corner when the giants weren’t looking. Complete access. Four books at a time! And I could read them from first word to last.
Whatever the weather, every Tuesday night I set out for the walk from my bush nestled home, up to the main road and along the dust track beside it into the village. Then, climb the steps of the bus, grin at the driver and pass into the treasure trove of beckoning titles. I spent several hours reading, viewing and selecting the magic I would take home. Next, check them out, and carry them home wishing it was daylight so I could read while I walked.
My heart beat echoed against the warm covers of the books I carried tight to my chest, knowing I was now part of the land of giants and, from that lofty height, I could fly – anywhere.
I’ve written several articles on ideas for stories. I believe ideas should be the easiest part, is the easiest part, but for a very many writers it is the first and biggest stumbling block.
The fact is, though, ideas are everywhere. Literally. You cannot open your eyes and avoid ideas. You cannot close your eyes and avoid ideas. You cannot wake nor sleep, eat nor drink, move or lie prostrate without encountering ideas. You can’t even breathe without bumping into ideas. They are, as I say, literally everywhere.
You can look at a floor and see ideas. How long has it been there? Does it squeak? Who has walked over it? What coverings has it had in its lifetime? Who changed them? Why did they change them? What has been spilled on it? Who has done what on it? Where have the feet been before that have stepped onto it? What steps will be taken to it and from it? Is there a door? Where does it go? Are there cupboards along it? What is in them and why?
You can look at an empty bench and see ideas. What is usually made, prepared, stacked, served, collated, sorted, fiddled with, opened, packed, crafted, played on it? Who does these things on it? Who has to clean it afterward? Has anyone ever slept on it? Who? When? Why? Who put it there in the first place? Why?
Or a blank wall; or a wall covered in marks, smudges, wallpaper, artwork, photographs, diagrams, appointments, reminders, newsletters. Again, there are a myriad questions and thoughts to be had about that wall – not to mention the windows in them.
One of the first writing exercises I did at college was to describe the room we were in. We were given 15 minutes, the lecturer then collected each piece and took them away. The following week in the same class she handed them back and we each read them out. I’m proud to say that out of only two that actually described the room, mine was one.
Mostly, the other students wrote about what they could see outside the window; what they were feeling; about travelling to class; how they felt about college; and about the other people in the room. They hardly described the room at all. Yet, it was a very interesting room with many things in it, an ambience and a history of its own. Since then, it is the first exercise I give to students, including some high school students who I took for remedial reading. It hones both the observation muscles as well as the ideas muscles. The two are and should be inextricably linked.
There is nothing wrong in writing this exercise and not writing the room. At least the ideas of started and from there, more ideas follow.
That’s the trick, really. Start with an idea, any idea, stream of consciousness, existentialism, plagiarism if it comes to that (don’t forget to remove that later) but start. Fresh ideas will follow, and following them are more ideas, and behind them yet more. you get the idea.
And never tell yourself you can’t get ideas. That’s a sure fire way to knock all those ideas down like a line of dominoes and you know what they say about ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.
So, next time you can’t find an idea, just look on the end of your nose and follow its line of sight and start to question what you see. How’s that for an idea?
This is a personal story, but if you’re characters in your stories have something like this type of link, you will go a long way to enriching your work and bringing your characters to life.
I offer my respects to the original owners of where I grew up, to the elders and the ancestors of the Wurundjeri People.
I regularly return to where I grew up, Warrandyte. It’s no arduous trek. I live a 25 minute drive away. I feel drawn to Warrandyte. It’s changed obviously over the years but some of the people I grew up with are still there. I don’t visit them and there are no family members living there. I visit the place itself. Much of my sense of self and personal identity is tied in to the small township that is Warrandyte.
My childhood was lonely and painful. I was abused at home and at school. I was a loner and despite living in a very small community, few made even the peripheral attempt to alter that. To those who did, I am increasingly grateful as I grow older and more sanguine.
The experiences I had growing up are painful and I learned to live only on the edges of my own life, cutting everything down into the ‘now’. That was all I could cope with. So, it would seem that the last place I would want to visit is where I grew up. Not true. My roots are buried deep in the shale and quartz, nestling among the towering gums, the brittle wattles, the ferns and brackens, deep down where the earth is cool and nourishing and flecks of gold still light the way. The Yarra River gives my roots rich waters and stories and knowledge. As I push through the hard clay above, I gather strength and energy to reach toward the sky where the sun greets me and the winds carry the songs of life to welcome me into the land of connected life.
Yes, I know. That’s a little poetic and very fanciful, purple prose if you will: yet, it is the truth. As a little girl, I withdrew from people to spend every moment I could in the bush that surrounded me and at the river and in the old gold mines, to run barefoot along the bush tracks, wade in the creeks and explore the (apparently) untravelled scrublands. I felt as though the trees were my siblings, the birds and animals my friends, and the river my mother.
I felt safe and welcome. I knew I belonged. I was accepted openly, warmly and despite my failings and frailty, despite what happened to me in the human world and despite the fear and shame imposed on me by the human world. And when I was tired, I climbed a tall tree and squatted in forks and slept, just like the koalas and often alongside them. Even these often cantankerous and wild creatures accepted me.
Warrandyte is in a State Forest. It is the first place gold was found in Victoria, although it was not the first place registered, so its title is accepted but unofficial. It grew from the era of the gold mining rush but not as rampantly as many of the other goldfields. The taking of gold was hard and little more than flecks were found in the waterways, still it thrived as people came to find the end of their rainbows underground in tunnels blasted and dug from the rock. Some even found them.
I (was) moved there as a baby, 17th months old, and know no other place or time in which I grew. If my family had not moved there, I most probably wouldn’t have survived let alone thrived (in my own way). I might have, there is no knowing the answer to that, but I’m glad that I grew up in Warrandyte and that my link to it is powerful.
I’m sure there are many places I would be happy living. I’m happy living here at the base of the Dandenong Ranges and the gateway to the Yarra Valley. I was happy living in Sydney for six months but that was more about my son and his family than it was about the place. I’d be happy living down on the Bay with my daughter and her family, but only because they are there. I’m not a beach person. Rivers have that affect on people.
Some things I do require to aid in my homeostatic relevance: the bush, eucalypts, bellbirds, kookaburras, magpies and eagles, the Yarra – but only where it is surrounded by bushland and native animals. It is a stranger, a friendly one, but a stranger nonetheless in the city of Melbourne or where it flows through suburbs. I could not live for any length of time too far from these things, and from the ability to visit Warrandyte from time-to-time.
It is my strong and powerful link to this small township, to its natural environment, that gives me a sense of equilibrium and a personal knowing. It also gives me an understanding of refugees who flee their homelands to travel to the other side of the world seeking a new home. So many people, including the politicians, denigrate them and say they are just seeking a better life and only want to come here to change the way we live, to ruin it. I wish I could help these people understand the true link we all have to where we grew up, even when we don’t consciously realise it.
The irony is, of course, that many of these people, especially those who aren’t migrants or earlier refugees, have that link to this land and it fuels their fear of losing it to others – they just don’t realise it. And they don’t realise that anything that tore them from it, sent them into camps and leaky boats would be much more than a whim. Lack of empathy is a sad and limiting reality that probably deserves an article of its own.
Here is the Dreamtime story of the origins of Warrandyte:
The night the star was thrown
The Wurundjeri dreamtime story told how Bunjil, the great eagle, the all-powerful, ever-watchful creator of the world, had once gazed down upon his people from the star Altair and seen their wrongdoing. Awaiting their return, he, with a mighty crash of thunder, hurled down a star to destroy them. Where the star struck it created the gorge we see today. Bunjil’s Warrandyte, the place where Bunjil had hurled down the star to punish his people.
I have many hobbies I suppose. I don’t necessarily think of them as hobbies but more as expressions of who I am. To think about what they are, I need to list them:
Music (playing and listening) and singing (loudly and sometimes even near a key)
Writing – anything and everything from to-do lists to novels
Learning stuff – as much stuff as possible
Reading – how do you stop reading in such a visual world anyway?
Craft – often wish I was more crafty by nature but…
Gardening – not weeding. Love mulch! And boiling water takes care of many weeds if you get out there quickly enough. Otherwise, they invade your land and corral you into a dank corner next to the compost.
Making a mess – if only I could get excited about cleaning it up
Hmm. Eclectic collection, not in any necessary order and interesting to stop a look at. I wonder if I should focus on just one or two. Fact is, whichever one I’m doing is probably my favourite at the time and therefore the one I can’t do without.
There is a bit of an order though. Music and singing, writing and reading and learning are probably, definitely the highest rated and are more expressions of who I am than just what I like to do.
The others are things I love to do, actually. I was going to say like, but no, love is the appropriate descriptor. I love them most when I’m doing them. Well, mess making, perhaps that is not meant to be in this list but head of the list of things I most need to change about me.
Once, exercise would have been high priority. These days I’m less able to exercise but I intend to get back as much as I can. I have a couple of autoimmune deficiency diseases which have made movement not as easy as it used to be. (Can’t have anything to do with the fact that I’m turning 61 in a few days! No, definitely not! Only as old as you feel…um, perhaps that isn’t a good bit of reasoning here. In regard to exercise, which is addictive and the more you do the more you want to do and the more you enjoy it, especially the challenge of doing more – see, I told you it’s addictive – I could easily list the types of exercise I like (love).
Walking and swimming – not at the same time, but I can chew gum when I walk
Horse riding (that’s out now unless I can take a portable hoist)
Ballet – should be No. 1 as I did it for 30 years. Love to do it but, at least I can still jiggle a bit
Running – for more than the bus, or my lost breath
Climbing (trees rather than mountains)
Pilates and Yoga
And Tai Chi (which I’ve learned in a remedial setting).
I’ve played the guitar since I was 18, ah the good old days of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Now I add quite a bit of Leonard Cohen and a thousand others. I also thoroughly enjoy writing my own songs. I get the odd screech from my clarinet, can whistle a happy tune on my recorder, plunk a few chords on the piano but haven’t yet learned to master the neck muscles needed to play my blues harp. Still trying though.
Writing, well that goes without saying. In fact, it is a toss up for me which is the most important in my life, writing or music. I don’t think I can decide actually. I often write while listening to music, and I write my best poetry with a classical air abounding.
Singing, love it, need it, would have liked to have been a professional singer but definitely do my best singing in the shower. As it would automatically come with me to a deserted island, it isn’t usually on my list of three things I would take, or that ugly list of 1. Music or writing? By the time I decided, I’d be on that island without either of them.
Reading, that’s a given for a writer and I’ve done it since I was 4. Couldn’t get enough stories read to me so I learned to read using a favourite Enid Blyton book “The Little Grey Donkey” which I knew by heart. That way, I could read whatever, whenever. Only way to go and I’ve had my nose in a book ever since, even walking home from the school bus. Only trouble is, I can’t read just one at a time. I usually keep myself to one fiction and several non-fiction at a time.
Learning stuff. Well, what’s the point of being alive if you don’t continue learning? I don’t think I’m suited to finding the answers that suit me best and sitting under their umbrella. That only makes me feel insecure rather than the opposite. I have trouble understanding people who sit under such brollies – but I continue to try to learn to.
Craft. I enjoy all sorts of crafts but the one I am reasonably able to do is knitting. Thankfully I have grandsons who are still young enough to love picture jumpers and then there are footy knits and then it’ll be… Oh, Nan, I’m too old to wear that! A few good years to go yet. I can sew a bit, but nothing too intricate.
I enjoy decorating a room and drive my family mad because I’m always moving the furniture and changing the décor (and where everything lives in the kitchen cupboards). I don’t need expensive items or anything, in fact I’m too green to be a heavy consumer or materialist. I’m happy to reuse things I’ve had for years, found in second-hand shops or at markets or have made. One of my favourites is a piece of driftwood that my father gave me when I was a kid. There’s hardly a decor it doesn’t go with somewhere, often as part of a dry arrangement.
Drawing in charcoal or pastel (done badly, not fit for human consumption) is a sometime occupation. It’s not as important as some of the others but I get a buzz now and then and drag out all my stuff (making a mess of course).
I get fads as well. I’ve done a few cross stitch items, tapestry and collages over the years. Made the odd dream catcher, decorative cake and lacy soap holder – much to family and friends delight – right? Crotched a few berets, bootees and a granny square blanket or two. And during those empty years when my own children were ‘too old’ for home knits and the birth of grandsons, I met my knitting fetish-um-hobby by making baby clothes for charity.
But wait, there’s more…
No, thinking about it, my grandsons are getting older by the minute so I better get back to my needles. Plus, I’ve got some tomato seeds to sow. It’ll be spring here in a few weeks. And then there’s that dressing table I want to restore, the material I bought for a tablecloth and… she walks away mumbling to herself…