Guest post by Annette Taylor
This week’s post comes from writer Annette Taylor who originally submitted this as an article to Fabula Argentea magazine. It was an excellent article, but FA only publishes stories. It gave me an idea for a series of articles for the blog, so I contracted Annette about letting us use her article as the opening for that series, which I’m calling “From Idea to Story.”
I recall from a workshop many years ago the instructor saying that she could teach craft from could not teach imagination. We may not be able to teach imagination, but we can certainly stimulate it with ideas for stories. Annette gives excellent advice on where to find ideas along with suggestions on how to turn those into stories.
I especially like her point #5: Real Life. I have written or started to write several stories suggested real life experiences either mine or that of others. I included a couple of my own experiences in my first novel as part of those of my main character. As you saw in Part 1 of this series, the story I’m using to illustrate the story creation process began as a personal experience. Sometimes something as simple as sign or newspaper headline can spark our imagination. My first published short story came from a title that popped into my head one night in bed: “So, You Want To Be A Vampire.”
But I will disagree with Annette’s opening line. This article by her proves that she’s an excellent giver of advice on where to find story ideas.
Although I have written thirty-nine short stories, I am probably the last person in the world who should advise other writers on how to find ideas. Eventually many writers reach a point when they wonder where the next idea is coming from. I did. So where does a writer look when stumped for ideas?
(1) Favorite Stories
A favorite short story or novel can spark an idea. After all, what writer wouldn’t want to write a version of some old story or novel? Someone must have wished to have written a sea-faring adventure like Moby Dick or Treasure Island. How about a twenty-first century version of Jane Eyre, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “A Rose for Emily,” or “The Most Dangerous Game”?
Here is an example. I had been reading a short story collection of older works and thought “The Lady or the Tiger” by Frank Stockton could be written from the viewpoint of the princess. I’m fairly sure I let her pick the door with the tiger behind it and she committed suicide shortly after. It was rejected because an editor said it contained too much narrative and not enough action. It did and I learned that modern stories have more action and dialog than older stories. If I try doing it again, I know the story should be told in the modern way. It’s still a good idea though.
(2) Plot Database
Another way to find ideas is to create a plot database, which requires a lot of reading—either short stories or novels, maybe both if you’re ambitious. I read long before I decided to become a writer. What I learned from all this reading is that no matter what idea you come up with, another writer has already written a version of that idea long before you were born. Here is one example: Percival Everett’s “For Her Dark Skin” is a variation of Euripides’ play Medea. Another example pair is Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Monsieur Motte by Grace King. Phyllis Whitney’s novel The Winter People is similar to A Cry in the Knight by Mary Higgins Clark.
So read as much as you can to compile your database. This seems like a lot of reading just to write a story, and I suppose reading summaries is easier on the brain and eyes than reading countless stories, but sometimes you need to learn different writing techniques. With that in mind, here are a few more ideas for your database. The Group [Mary McCarthy], Superior Women [Alice Adams], and The Prodigal Women [Nancy Hale], which follows the lives of several women through decades.
Movies can also serve as inspiration for stories. There is a movie version of any plot you come up with in every genre and are as full of technique as any short story or novel. One movie must have made a writer think the story worth using. I needed an idea for a story as practice for a writing workshop. I chose Autumn Leaves which I’d seen years before on television. I found a summary online and studied it. The thing that remained the same was a parent who had co-opted a child’s love interest. Mr. Hansen became Mrs. Pickering. Bud became Altomease and Milly Weatherby became a man. Other changes were setting, race, and the treatment in a sanitarium. Think about how short stories, novels, and plays inspired directors. Consider Romeo and Juliet. What springs to mind? Westside Story of course. That was a different take on Shakespeare’s play set in 1950’s New York. The Tempest inspired the sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet. Akira Kurosawa’s movies inspired Star Wars (The Hidden Fortress), The Magnificent Seven (The Seven Samurai), Fistful of Dollars (Yojimbo). Shakespeare’s King Lear in turn inspired Kurosawa’s movie, Ran. Phaedra, Euripides’ play was also a movie by the same name, same story, a woman in love with her stepson. The setting changed as did the boy’s age and accepting stepmom’s advances rather than rebuffing them.
What movie would you turn into a short story or novel?
(4) Advice Columns, Newspapers, Magazines
Advice columns can also provide material for fiction. Try Dear Abby, Annie’s Mailbox, Carolyn Hax or any other column you want to use. Find an idea you like, clip the column and file it for future use. Use only the column’s main problem. For instance, in one column a woman found a letter written to her deceased mother-in-law. There was a family secret in that letter and the woman destroyed it rather than show it to her husband. That was a good idea for a story. What was the secret and why decide to destroy the letter rather than show it to her husband. What would have happened if she had?
Newspapers and magazines are good sources too. I found many stories that would make good mysteries. Mysterious poisonings, a private nurse who hid her patient’s body in a freezer for ten years to collect his monthly pension checks, a woman who murdered her sister and assumed her identity. That last article reminded me of a Bette Davis movie and the canceled series Ringer.
I clipped articles about art. Stolen art, found art, the stolen art registry (IFAR), art forgers, artists with new techniques, an artist painting in cemeteries after the murder of a friend, a diner with painted ceiling tiles contributed by patrons, a painter of modern celebrities in the style of Old Masters. I stumbled across a short story collection on art and life: The Matisse Stories by A. S. Byatt. I cut out articles that simply felt story worthy. A police recruit whose mother was also a police officer, an Italian baron selling his title, an article about mail-order brides, a young waitress whose elderly male customer left her $500,000. People who dress up as animals (an episode of CSI addressed this story line). I have articles about people who own submarines, a man who sailed around the world alone, a cruise ship that sails year-round and passengers own their cabins and live onboard.
While searching through my files, I looked for stories that exemplified those clippings and found enough for my first short story collection.
(5) Real Life
Real life inspires story ideas, too. Herman Melville turned an account of a whale that attacked a whaling vessel into the novel Moby Dick. Alexander Selkirk’s stranding on an uninhabited archipelago off the coast of Chile for four years became Robinson Crusoe. Edgar Allen Poe based his story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” on the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers. The murder of Colonel Solomon Sharpe by the husband of a woman he seduced produced both a fictionalized account and a variation by William Gilmore Sims and one by Edgar Allen Poe set in Rome. I had an idea of turning the life of Henry VIII into a novel influenced by a British series I had seen years ago. Henry was to have been a CEO because there are no kings in America, only kings of industry in America. The idea never evolved because such a complicated story was beyond my skill then and currently still is.
I do follow my own advice. My story “Ask and You Shall Receive” was accepted, but it might have been coincidence. I studied three O. Henry stories for tone and studied my favorite among them during revision. Repetition of my process and more successes will prove if this is the right track for me.
I hope this article helps someone with a project even though I struggle with mine. Until then, keep fingers crossed for me. Mine are crossed for you.