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!).