Have you ever been asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" Ever thought
about that question?
Where do your ideas for writing fiction come from, and what makes them
worthy of the time, effort, and creative energy we expend to bring that
idea to full fruition--to craft a well-written story from it?
One source of story ideas is from real-life experience. Whether we are
retelling a chapter of our own life, or something that happened to
someone else, we must have come to the conclusion that that idea was
worthwhile and that others would be interested in it, as well.
I want to talk a little bit about why we have to be careful when we
glean ideas from actual happenings. For many years, I taught a series
of classes on "writing your life story." You can't imagine how popular
those classes have remained, especially with the older generation. The
idea that one's life is unique or different suddenly takes on new
meaning when others say, "You should write that down!" It comes to
mean, "Your life has been fantastic!" It may well have been fantastic
but when you stop to think about it, many, many people have had unusual,
one-of-a-kind experiences at one time or another. What would make a
person believe that their life story would be the one people would rush
to Barnes and Noble to pluck from the shelves and lay down a twenty
dollar bill to buy?
Many times, we as writers can draw from our life experiences as a bank
of ideas for our fiction, but to write our own life story in full
would generally prove to be a project that might prove to be a
disappointing failure in the end.
Characters we've met in our lives also give us ideas for the characters
we create. Although we might not think of our sourpuss Aunt Betty as
a "character" in real life, once we begin to write the fictional story
we've been plotting, we might see one of the secondary characters begin
to take on attributes of Aunt Betty--someone we haven't been around for
the past five years. People we've met casually, or known in a family
context, can firmly insert themselves into our stories--much to our surprise.
Books, poetry or movies that might have influenced our thinking during our
lives also can have an impact on our ideas. I once read a book based
on a song that was popular in the early 1970s about a young woman who
was in love with a sea captain.
Other forms of mass media can also add to our treasure trove of ideas.
Articles we've read in magazines or newspapers spark ideas. True
stories that are fictionalized have become one of the most popular genres
ever created. Truman Capote's best seller "In Cold Blood" was the book that
was the catalyst and set the standard for this type of fictionalized
Historical events from the past can also provide us with ideas that can
either stay fairly true to history or take a wide turn around the actual
events. Alternate history is a new up-and-coming genre that encompasses all types
of fiction writing, from science fiction to historicals,
including certain genres of romance, mainstream, and political fiction.
Now that we've talked a bit about where some of our ideas might come from,
we need to look at how we know whether an idea is "story-worthy" or not.
Have you ever started writing on a manuscript that you loved the idea
for, but suddenly the plot fizzles? Maybe you get to a certain point
and don't know where to go next. Does that mean your idea is no good?
Or does it mean you are just in need of some brainstorming to re-direct
your plot, punch it up, and keep the middle from "sagging"?
Someone once said, you can wash garbage, but it's still garbage. Learning
what is garbage and what is salvageable is the most important thing you need
to know. If you begin with an idea that you love, chances are, there'll
be someone else out there who'll love it, too! Your readers! If you
have an idea that's "sort of" good, the question is, will you care enough,
as a writer, to see it through to the end?
Of course, everyone who has ever written anything for pleasure has had
self-doubt. Remember Miss Smith's third grade class? If the assignment
was to write an essay, or a short story, you didn't dare let that smirk
of anticipation cross your face. What would your friends think of you
if they knew you were looking forward to actually writing a paper? While
everyone else wrote a paragraph, you couldn't help yourself: you wrote
two whole pages! And the secret was out. Self-doubt set in the very moment one of your
classmates asked, "Gosh, why'd you write so much?"
So, you see, self-doubt has been instilled in us since we were in Miss
Smith's class. It will never leave us. We have to practice introducing
ourselves in the bathroom mirror: "Hi. I'm (insert your name here.) I'm
One of the best idea-getters is the "what-if" game (one of my favorites.)
What if there was a man and he had a beautiful daughter. What if
he fell in love with a woman who had two daughters of her own. What if
they married. But, what if the woman wasn't what the man had believed
her to be? What if she hated his daughter and was jealous of her?
I love this game because it leads to all sorts of possibilities. Our
stories can take flight in directions we never imagined, becoming a
joyous surprise even to ourselves, the authors!
Though we must battle our self-doubt on two fronts (a, will the story idea be interesting and good, and (b, will I be able to write it, finish it, bring it to
fruition through publication) reminding ourselves every day that we are
professional writers and that our ideas are worthy is one way to combat
that doubt. I'm not a fan of critique groups normally, but finding
other writers who are supportive through other venues is a great
Something to think about: The greatest "what-if"? What if I wasn't a
writer? My story would never be written!
There are a lot of "what ifs" in my novel, Fire Eyes. Below is an excerpt of my villain, Andrew Fallon, speaking with his brother. In the course of the conversation, Fallon learns a piece of information that had come up in casual conversation between his brother, Dave, and my heroine, Jessica. It's enough to turn the entire purpose of his character, since revenge is his great motivator where Kaed Turner is concerned. Here's what happens:
FROM FIRE EYES:
Dave Fallon shuddered. “Yes, I’ve heard all about Fallon’s Brigade. You made quite a reputation for yourself. Not a good one, either.” He shook his head. “After Pa died, we heard some awful hard things about what you done, Drew. It broke Mama’s heart. I promised her I’d make it right again.”
“Just how do you intend to do that, brother?”
“I promised Mama I’d see you came home to Texas to make a new start. You keep goin’ like you are, you’re gonna die young. You’ve got a passel of lawmen after you, boy, an’ I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout amateurs.”
Fallon’s brows shot up. “Really, dear brother? Do tell.”
Dave Fallon leaned over the pommel of his saddle, a scowl on his face. “You take this lightly. That’s pure arrogance outta you. Just like everything.”
“Who are they, Dave? That’s all I need from you.”
Dave sighed. “Tom Sellers, for one. He’s a tough one, and he hates you after, after what happened at Honey Springs.”
“Heard about that, did you?”
“Yes, I heard, dammit! And so did Mama and Pa and Eddie. Seemed like ever’body in Fort Worth heard about it.”
Drew Fallon lowered his eyes for a moment, a smile touching his lips. “Ah, yes. Eddie. How is our middle brother?”
“Dead.” Dave said succinctly. “Shot in the back by a man who’s son and grandson you killed.”
“Hmm. I’m afraid I don’t remember them.”
Fallon cut him off. “You said there were others, besides Tom Sellers. How do you know?”
Dave’s features were grim. “I stopped off in Fort Smith to see Jack Eaton.”
“Why in God’s name would you do that?”
“He and I served together for a short time in the War, before what happened at Honey Springs. I thought maybe he might’ve heard—well, Christ, we didn’t know if you were dead or alive.”
“Alive, brother. Very much…alive.”
Tom Sellers wouldn’t be alone, Fallon knew, and he’d be out for blood after Turner’s murder. “Who’s after me, Dave, besides Sellers?”
“Eaton, Harv Jenkins, and two young ones, Morgan and Hayes, according to the office there in Fort Smith. But Kaed Turner’s leading the pack.”
At that, Fallon’s pulse leapt. “Turner? You sure about that?”
Dave smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Yeah. I’m sure.”
Fallon slapped his gloved hand against his thigh with a curse. “Turner. I was sure he wouldn’t make it. I beat him bloody.” He turned to look at his brother. “What makes you so certain?”
“I talked to his wife. Pretty little thing. She claimed she didn’t know where they were headed, but I’d already found that out for myself in Ft. Smith.”
“Yeah. Jessica Turner. Lives just off the west branch of Clear Boggy Creek. Got a nice little cabin there.”
Andrew Fallon began to laugh. His body shook until finally he dabbed a corner of his gloved finger to first one eye, then the other. “This is so rich.”
“Enlighten me,” Dave said dryly.
“I killed that woman’s first husband, Billy Monroe.” He smiled. “We needed to commandeer supplies and he was most uncooperative. A traitor, you might say. He cried like a baby before we finished with him. Yelled for her to come save him.” He gave a snort of laughter. “Course, we was miles from that cabin by then. Wasn’t no way she coulda heard him bawlin’, even loud as he was. We went back the next day where we’d left him. Thought maybe we oughtta do the right thing, drop him at her doorstep. But someone else already beat us to it. That damn Standing Bear, I figure.” He sniffed. “Kaed Turner would be dead right now, too, if that damned Injun hadn’t interfered, again.” He shook his head. “Evidently, Turner’s got more grit than Mr. Monroe had. But that woman, Jessica, she’s the one I should’ve gotten rid of. Once that’s done, I can take any of the benefits of the land that we need for our army.” He laughed again. “Mrs. Kaedon Turner, huh? Well. I can fix that.”