Finding Stories Everywhere Part 1

DSCF1860Where do you get your ideas?

Writers are often stumped by this question. The usual answer is “everywhere,” which is pretty much unsatisfactory for all concerned.

But it’s the truth. You can find an idea — or at least the germ of an idea — anywhere and everywhere. The key is to start noticing them. ]

Some of my favorite ways to do this:

People watching (look for the unexpected): A year or so ago, I was walking up Madison Avenue. As I approached a rather formal, marble building, I saw a man standing in a doorway. He was perhaps 60 years old, with an austere face and hair cut close to his skull, like a monk. He was wearing an elegant black topcoat and expensive-looking gray scarf. He was smoking and staring off into space, seemingly lost in thought. As I walked past him, I saw another detail that I could only see close-up: A large red rhinestone brooch was pinned to his lapel. That was an interesting character note!

Was he wearing the brooch in honor of his beloved grandmother, who loved gaudy rhinestone brooches and who died on this day thirty years ago? Had he pinned it on this morning after a lifetime of presenting himself to the world as an austere, elegant, monkish man — a sudden (or long planned) rebellion? Who knows the truth — not knowing is where the fun starts.

Eavesdropping (listen for character tells): Once I was sitting in an airport, waiting to board a plane. It was during the summer of an airline pilots’ threatened strike so, of course, there had been a flight delay. (I traveled a lot that summer and spent many hours waiting in airports and listening to people. For a time, I wanted to write a play called “Flight Delay” that would include only dialogue that I had overheard.)

A young woman sitting near me had just gotten engaged and was telling her story (to two people she had just met) of how she and her fiance met at a cousin’s wedding, how he called her a week later, how they started dating, etc.. It was a fairly common story, but she was telling it with great exuberance. She kept saying the same thing over and over: “My life is a saga! It’s a soap opera!”The line seemed to tell me so much about who she was — someone who saw herself living within, and starring in, a grand epic, even if the actual facts were more mundane. I wrote the lines down and later put them in a play.

Following the news (use it as a springboard): Whether you read newspapers or magazines in print or online, whether you follow blogs or subscribe to RSS feeds to keep up-to-date, every day delivers kernels of ideas for situations, characters, lines of dialogue or plot twists. Here’s an intriguing example from Dan Lewis’ excellent e-mail newsletter, Now I Know:

The Human Library aims to reduce stigma and prejudice through the power of storytelling. According to Williams University, the Library “was founded in 2001 in Denmark to promote human rights and social cohesion.” People volunteer to be “human books,” which, in the words of Poets and Writers magazine, are “members of the local community with uncommon stories to share, ‘on loan’ for the public to listen.” The books — all unpaid volunteers — are often selected because they’ve been “subjected to stereotyping and prejudices [and] are open about who they are and prepared to share their experiences.”  For thirty minutes at a time, patrons of the regular library can meet with these human books, listen to their stories, and share in their experiences.

This made me think: What happens when the human book gets tired of telling his or her story over and over again and starts embellishing the story? Making it come out a different way? What happens if the human books start competing for readers — that could be funny story or one that turns deadly serious. What if a human book is telling a story that others want to keep quiet? The possibilities are endless…

I’m planning to post a story starter every week — a photo, observation, news story, etc. that could serve as a launching pad for a story. Let me know if you find them helpful (and feel free to add your own to the mix!).

Finding Stories Everywhere Part 1

How Ian McEwan Tricks Himself into Writing

DTS_Writer4“Sometimes I experimentally write out a first paragraph – or middle paragraph, even – of a novel which I feel no obligation to write. Those kind of dabblings I always set down in a green, ring-bound A4 notebook. It’s full of paragraphs from novels I will never complete, or hardly start. But sooner or later, one of those paragraphs will snag my attention, and I’ll come back to it asking: why does that interest me so much, why does that seem to offer a peculiar kind of mental freedom? And so I might find myself adding a page or two. It was with a complete free hand, for example, that I once wrote what turned out to be the opening of Atonement – with no clear sense that I was committed to anything at all, I was just playing with narrative positions, with tone of voice, with a certain descriptive moment. Or I might decide that what I’ve written belongs to the middle of a novel, and then I’ll spend some idle time tracing out a beginning. Then abandoning it. It’s a way of tricking myself into writing novels.”

Interview with Ian McEwan on

How Ian McEwan Tricks Himself into Writing

The Study (and Fun!) of Storytelling

We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.

                                Albert Einstein


I’ve been studying the craft of storytelling since I was 7 years old.

I’m only one sentence into this blog and I’m already going on a tangent, but here’s a quick story: I decided to be a writer after reading a Bobbsey Twins book straight through, completely absorbed from the first page to the last. I distinctly remember closing the book and thinking, “I want to do that.” So I try not to sneer at any book that captures a child’s attention. After all, a completely commercial book — probably produced by a ghost writer in two weeks or less — changed my life. (Here’s a great article about a writer for the Hardy Boys series with one of my favorite endings ever.)

Okay, back to the study of storytelling. The word “study” doesn’t accurately reflect just how interesting it is to think about how stories get made. Here’s what my study has looked like so far:

First, the formal part:

  • I earned undergraduate degrees in journalism and English from the University of Texas-Austin, and a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Southern California. Six years of reading, writing and learning. Priceless.

Next, the professional practice:

  • I’m a professional editor and writer (most of my career has been in magazines). Wrangling words on a consistent basis — while facing deadlines —  taught me that a blank page should be respected, but not feared.

Finally, the fun:

  • I’ve taken classes in playwriting and screenwriting to learn more about developing character through action and creating propulsive plots. It’s thrilling, terrifying and unbelievably educational to listen to an audience’s response in real time.
  • I like to read screenplays — it’s a great way to learn about defining characters quickly through action and dialogue. Go Into the Story offers hundreds (maybe thousands) of writing tips as well as scripts that are free and legal to download.
  • Watching or listening to behind-the-scenes bonus features on DVDs can be fascinating (especially if the director and screenwriter sit in a room together and talk about how the story morphed as the move was made).
  • I’ve read dozens of “how to write” books, but most of the best tips come from the writers themselves, so I glean everything I can from author profiles, podcasts, radio interviews, and speeches.
  • And I read. Mostly, I read for the sheer joy of the story. But now I find that I’m taking mental notes as I turn the pages — observations about how other authors have created fictions that delight and surprise.

My plan is to share some of the random tidbits I’ve gathered (with a tip of the hat to the Bobbsey twins!)  I hope that others will add their discoveries as well!