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.