Monthly Archives: September 2011

How to get story ideas

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?

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Sense of personal place is a fascinating concept

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.

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