Writers are frequently asked how we get our story ideas.
For me, there are sometimes they are like an epiphany (read my last post for a scary moment that became a novel—yet to be published), but more often they’re an evolution. A sentence in a newspaper article, a scene in a movie that I really like but think I can do better. Like a pearl, the idea starts small, grows in my mind, then takes on a life of its’ own.
Mostly, my characters determine the path of the story. At the moment, I’m languishing in the middle of my third novel in the Nick and Meredith Series. I’m an outliner by nature—not just my stories, either. I started Possession for Sale with the barest idea of what would happen between my two characters to get them to the end. So I outlined the beginning—as much as I knew. Then, I outlined the ending and left the middle open for all the different tribulations Nick and Meredith must endure to become the people they hope to become.
I am now a quarter of the way through Possession for Sale. Imagine my surprise when I typed the main characters kissing waaaay before I planned. Oh no! So, do I write the whole middle differently?
Yes, I do. The characters have spoken. Even though they jumped into each other’s arms prematurely, this may work to increase the tension for the rest of the story. The end should, I say should, remain as I planned. But you never know: the characters may find a more truthful ending—their truth.
Back to how I get my ideas. When I’m stymied, there are a myriad of places to go to jumpstart my plotting. First, prompts are very helpful. Writers Digest has a daily prompt sent to your email inbox. Calendars offer prompts as well as specific writing classes. In my county, we have two that come to mind: Jumpstart in Petaluma and QuickStart in Rohnert Park. I found a used book at Book Passages in Corte Madera with an inventory of plot ideas: Plots Unlimited by Tom Sawyer and Arthur David Weingarten, Ashleywilde, Inc. 1995. Inside, you will find thousands of variations of ideas to get your characters moving. Usually, I find a snippet of an idea that leads to another then develops.
I read news reports, subscribe to several online law enforcement e-zines that re-tell true stories by the dozen. Sometimes, I’ll find my path there. John Wills put together an anthology of women cops that is rich with ideas based in truth called Woman Warriors: Stories from the Thin Blue Line. Here is where I learned a valuable lesson: stories don’t always end happily, or the way you think they should. Sometimes, they are untidy conclusions and/or in need of a sequel to sort things out. This doesn’t mean you should end your story with a cliff-hanger, per se. The work should stand on its own as if the reader will never pick up another one of your books. But an ending with short term solutions and long-term intrigues can lead to interest in your next book.
Sometimes, my stories depart from the original plan. My second (unpublished) novel, The Walls of Jericho, started in one direction. When a transient-type drop-in critique group lambasted my secondary hero as being vengeful, I had to look at the story I was trying to tell. I finished the novel as outlined, packed it up and shoved it in my closet where it sits today. Over the years, I’ve re-directed the two main characters, minimized the secondary hero and generally re-constructed the story—in my head. Don’t look for that one anytime soon, though. I have the third Nick and Meredith novel to finish as well as prepping the first two for publication this year.
I will get to The Walls of Jericho but it won’t look anything like I originally planned. I’ll just change my outline. And it will be a better book for it.
The point is: cull your ideas from overheard conversations on the street, your cousin’s disastrous third marriage or whatever. Then, even if you outline, stay open enough to allow the story to be told the way it should be—by the characters voices.
That’s where you’ll find your best ideas.