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Mining Story Ideas

2007 Anna Furtado


Anna Furtado

Where do writers get those ideas, anyway? Believe it or not, there's a goldmine out there that's yours for the taking! You just have to know where to look and when you stumble upon an idea, you have to be able to identify it, extract it, and do something creative with it. Here are some of the sources of those great ideas to get you started:

Personal Experience
You have experiences to draw on as ideas for stories. They can be as grand and sweeping as coming of age, coming out, your love-life experiences, or maybe your experience of growing older. Or it could be as focused as that funny story about your younger sister who was fascinated by a crab walking along the beach on your summer vacation as a kid. Pick a story that can become the centerpiece of a particular work. Then turn it into a fictional tale.

The Media
Heaven knows newspapers, magazines, and TV are filled with fodder for humor, mystery, thrilling adventures, and even a little romance (and that's just the news). Don't forget op-ed pieces and obituaries in newspapers. And then there's the article about the newest starlet going into rehab or the county jail. There is even the possibility that while you're trolling the Internet, searching for some practical information, like how to make a cheese ball, you might come up with a great story idea. It happened to a writer named Lee Irby. While researching the history of baseball, he came across a brief reference to Babe Ruth's "money problems." Digging deeper, he found one miniscule piece of information on a new part of the Babe's life. He had been sued for a gambling debt. That information yielded a fictional story about a bootlegger who discovered an IOU from Babe Ruth in a book entitled 7,000 Clams. You just never know where you'll find that next little gem.

Overheard Conversations
You've probably heard this one before, but people do have interesting conversations in public places (when they think no one is listening except the person sitting opposite them at their table). You can hear these discussions sitting in a local coffee house, riding on public transit, passing a couple in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store, or sitting in a doctor's waiting room. What kind of story would this quote conjure up for you? "One day, she left a note saying she was going to Colorado and she wouldn't be coming back." Who is she? Who found the note? What were the circumstances? That's it. Let your mind wander.

The Caverns of Your Mind
Ah, the mind, such an amazing organ. Have you ever had a dream that you know would make a fantastic story? Hopefully, you've written it down because when you're looking for that story idea, chances are you won't remember the dream at all. Daydreaming can be another great source of ideas. Sometimes no more than a single fact, a sentence heard on the nightly news might strike you, but you haven't a clue what to do with the information. Let your mind wander and have its way with the thought. Ask "what if." Whole books have been written from just this kind of tiny nugget.

Free writing is also a good exercise to play with an idea like this. Just start writing about the one little morsel that is rolling around in your brain and see what flows from there to the paper in front of you. Limit yourself when free writing to about 15 minutes and see what happens. Set a timer and just let it flow. Don't expect your novel to materialize fully fleshed out at this point, but your brain may well devise a path for you to follow.

Have a fear of snakes? What if your main character also had an incapacitating fear of snakes? What if that character also had a job that often sends them into places where they were likely to encounter snakes? Hey, there's a story. Confront your own personal fears and inhibitions through story. You'll certainly be able to write about how it feels to confront that fear.

Family Storytellers
Grandpa tells the same story every time the family gets together. Don't roll your eyes and tune him out or walk away. Maybe the particular tale he's telling isn't that interesting, but ask yourself what era he's talking about. Then ask him a few questions that might lead to other, more interesting stories. How about Great Aunt Gertrude? You know the one. She never married and seems very conservative and set in her ways. How old is she? Seventy? Eighty? That means that she was born in 1927 or 37. Which also means that she might remember the Great Depression. Certainly she remembers WWII. You might be surprised to find that your Great Aunt Gert was a Rosie-the-Riveter with some wonderful stories to tell. Pull up a chair, ask a few questions, and then listen. There might be fodder for a whole novel there.

Twice-Told Tales
During the Christmas holidays, there are tellings and re-tellings of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. There have been modernizations of fairy tales, myths, and countless classics. Do you have a favorite? How would you tell it? What new twist could you put on it? What if ("what if" again) you took a different point of view for telling an old tale? Now you're back into the daydreaming phase—or perhaps you should take 15 minutes and do a little free writing and see where it leads.

So you've mined your little chunk of ore, now what?
Write the story. If turning your idea into a full-length novel is too daunting, try a short story. Or jot down an outline of how you think the story should go. You can always expand on it later. When you come to your first draft, just remember, it's not meant to be perfect. First drafts are not meant to impress anyone—especially your inner critic. Once you've got your first draft done, you're on your way to a polished gem. So mine those ideas. There's a wealth of them out there just for the taking.
2007 Anna Furtado — Author of The Heart's Desire
Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles

Finalist—Golden Crown Literary Society "Goldie" Awards 2005
Distributed by: Starcrossed Productions
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