Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Story Origins

Here's a question for my fellow writers.

How do you get your ideas for your stories?

Post a comment with your answer to my writing question. I'm curious to know what other writers use as the seeds for coming up with a story idea.

I went to an author event with Meg Waite Clayton last night. She talked about writing her book The Wednesday Sisters, sitting outside Tressider on the Stanford campus, having a "pity party" for herself, feeling like she'd never be able to write another word. A woman in a red baseball cap with a blonde braid sticking out the back walked by. And suddenly Meg started writing about a character in a red cap and blonde braid. And an hour or two later, by the time she was ready to leave, she already had a story outline and set of characters for what became her novel. Bam. Just like that.

The muse has never graced me so profoundly as it did Meg, though one of my short stories started with just a title: Imagining the Moon. I was in a writing class; we were told to come up with a story title, write it on a small piece of paper folded up and put in the center of the table. We each drew out someone else's story title, and had to develop a synopsis to fit that title. Imagining the Moon was the title I wrote on my piece of paper. The classmate who drew it had it all wrong; something about aliens and goofy stuff like that. I took my prize title home with me and wrote a story that I still love to this day. (There are no aliens in my story, just a single mother and her 4-year-old daughter who wants to go to the moon.)

Another story started with a friend's photograph of red rock country. You can read an excerpt from that story in my previous post. The story I'm currently working on came from yet another writing class exercise: a 1-sentence plot description. The plot description I drew: a man lives in Montana, 150 miles from the nearest body of water, and is building a sailboat in his backyard. I'll let you know how it turns out. If you're in the Kepler's writing group, you might get to read the draft this summer. We'll see.

Don't forget to post a comment with an answer to my question. I could always use some more great ideas!


  1. This summer, I was given the exercise of writing fifty first sentences. They don't have to be about anything in particular, just 50 sentences for starting from. I've only written about 15 and have already cannibalized two for stories, which makes me think that I'll never have a nice stack of 50 gleaming, unused first lines.

  2. Bobbie, I love this post - and thanks for coming to the reading! I do want to say, though, that the moral of that "bam" story was supposed to be that I would not have been there for the "bam" to happen if I waited for inspiration BEFORE I started writing, rather than MAKING myself write everyday even when I think my writing sucks.

    And I, too, love the title "Imagining the Moon." So evocative!

    - Meg

  3. You really need to get that story "Imagining the Moon" up for more to see. It's one of the loveliest parenting stories I've read.
    For my own story origins, I still draw much from non-fiction with a twist, or perhaps with a wry perspective. There's so much in life that seems odd, funny or bizarre that I want to capture and share it. The oft-cited phrase says it well: "you can't make this stuff up!" It can be Dick Cheney shooting a lawyer and then making him apologize, or me just trying to install low-flow toilets in a sequential comedy of errors.
    I am starting to wander into fiction as I try to extend past the boundaries of reality, like adding spices to a basic meal I'm cooking. Even then, I'm starting with the colorful, ironic and very human world around me. I fetch a rag doll toy from my dog and the idea of a rag doll rebellion surfaces, a hoard of stuffed and rubber animals chasing a startled poodle out of the room.
    Stories are everywhere, just waiting to be uncovered, understood and told ... with a bit of craft.
    Then there's getting the time to do all this uncovering. Ah, well.