I spent years working in bookstores, setting up and hosting book signings with authors ranging from Mabel from down the street with her trunk-full of creepy, unedited iUniverse books to brilliant bestselling authors who had to be smuggled in through the loading dock by publicists to keep them from getting mobbed by the hundreds of milling fans. When the Q&A portion of the signing came around, invariably, someone would ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”
The author would always answer politely, acting like it was the first time they’d ever been asked that interminable question. And every time, the answer would boil down to, “Duh… everywhere.”
If you don’t have story ideas, it’s only because you don’t know how to look for them–because they really are everywhere. You just need to switch your mind over to pay attention.
I watch a few front-list authors who are active on social media, not because I want to emulate them, but because I’m a fan and want my next hit of their brilliance just like every other book-junky out there.
A couple of years ago, someone posted an interesting article on Anne Rice’s Facebook page. It told about the discovery of a village that had sunk into the ocean off the coast of England a few hundred years ago. The underwater pictures of the structures were beautiful. A year and a half later, Lestat went to Atlantis.
I only mention that instance because it’s so rare for me to see someone else’s direct inspiration for a specific story.
How to Pay Attention
Every bit of human knowledge is at your fingertips every second of ever day. Have you ever sat back and actually thought about how incredible that is?
Not that I expect people to be in awe all the time. The vast majority of the time, I take it for granted too, but it’s really a big deal.
When I was in grammar school and had a question that the encyclopedias my mother acquired with her Green Stamps couldn’t answer, I only had one option.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Library had an ‘Ask a Librarian’ hotline. (I linked to it, because I checked and… holy shinola, it’s still there. Digital now, but still there!) Those ladies could get an answer to just about anything I needed. Sometimes they had to call me back if my question was really obscure, but I don’t remember them ever failing me.
Now, I don’t even have to lift my head off my pillow. “Alexa, what was Bette Davis’ final movie?”
She fails me–fairly often–and doesn’t like when I curse at her. But, I’m also never out of reach of an iPad or my phone. Everything I need for enough plots to keep those stupid “infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters” busy for an eternity is right in my hand.
If there’s a person out there who doesn’t catch themselves falling into an internet blackhole every now and then, raise your hand. I can guarantee no hands were raised. There’s nothing at all wrong with that… unless you’re at work, are supposed to be taking your insulin, feed your child, etc.
But, when it does happen, keep in mind that you need story ideas.
I highly recommend setting up an Evernote account and having a notebook that you name “Story Ideas.” Evernote will let you save a whole page to the folder.
It’s not often I need the whole page though. In most of the news articles I’ve saved, the title is the thing… it’s like all the things. Here are a few examples from my notebook:
- Police Search for Armed Man after Woman Killed in Monks’ Retirement Home
- Salem Wiccan Priest Sentenced for Heroin Distribution
- Americans Use the Internet to Abandon Children Adopted from Overseas
- Three Lost Trying to Save Family Dog
Now, does it really matter what the bodies of the articles have to say? If at least one of those titles doesn’t send your mind reeling into story-land, we need to have a talk. I will bring my old-school Legos to your house and we will build castles, space-stations, and mountains until I’m convinced your imagination has been resuscitated.
People are boring. Dead boring.
Have you ever overheard a conversation on the subway? There’s rarely any reason to listen… but every now and then, it will spark an idea. When it does, WRITE IT DOWN. Either keep a small notebook with you or use one of the billion note-taking apps for your phone (I like IA Writer for that because I’ve found the sync to be flawless). Then schedule a time, once a week, to collect those ideas and put them all safely in one spot.
They won’t all be winners. When you look back at them six months later, a lot of what you’ve jotted down won’t even make sense to you. But there will be more than enough good stuff to keep you going.
I would suggest a verbal note-taking app, but every time I think of it, I remember the douchebag from this movie…
He recorded an outlandish “novel idea” every five minutes on his little digital recorder. The movie got bad reviews, but if you’re in a writing group, it’s well worth watching. Authors Anonymous with Kelly Cuoco.