Where do story ideas come from? Do they drop like rain out of the sky, or sprout beneath our feet like crack-in-the-sidewalk weeds? Do they barrel into us like a runaway train, or slip into our consciousness like a movie’s product placement? Fact is, all of the above are correct. You just never know when a great story idea is going to hit you. But it’s also true you can’t wait for the Book Pixies to drop one into you lap. Great ideas have to be mined, and there are several places where you can start digging. For instance…
1. Look to History – This method is the easiest of all. Just pick up any history book, open a page and point, and there’s guaranteed to be a story in it. How many bestsellers have been written about World War II? The Civil War? (A certain radish-hurling Southern belle springs to mind.) Or the Napoleonic Wars and hello! the Regency period in England? Honesty, how many United States history books ever even mentioned the Prince Regent, “Prinny,” yet his era spawned a wildly popular American subgenre of romantic fiction. Imagine today forty years from now. Meet-cute on Tinder? Love it!
2. News Stories, slightly libeled – There used to be a popular movie trailer come-on that went, Ripped from today’s headlines! Which nowadays has been slightly altered to read, BASED ON A TRUE STORY. It’s the same thing, but honestly, that CNN home page or local newspaper (newspapers–remember them?) is still a great source for plots. In a further variation on the above history theme, don’t discount headlines of yesteryear, either. Writer Peter Benchley got an idea for his book, Jaws, from the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks that started on Long Beach Island. Who could argue with that success?
3. Family – Oh, yes, the original source of embarrassment and inspiration. How many of you have a weird Uncle Albert or Aunt Ada, the hoochie dancer, your father the war hero, your mother the self-made CEO of a multinational conglomerate (if you’re the latter, have her buy you a publishing company, and never worry about plot again). As for my own family, I have an original ‘49er, a nightclub singer, and a somewhat tenuous relation to Wyatt Earp’s brother, Virgil. Trust me, you never know.
4. Steal From Someone Else’s Story – Seriously, this is a viable option. Now, I’m not talking about opening up some New York Times bestseller and jacking right from the page. What I’m suggesting is taking a book in the public domain, and tell the story behind the story, what happens before or after, or from another character’s point of view. Jean Rhys prequeled Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre with Wide Sargasso Sea, and more recently, March, by Geraldine Brooks, tells the story of the absent father gone-to-war of the March girls of Little Women. Who hasn’t read a book and thought about an unexplored secondary character and wondered what their story was? Now’s your chance to clear it up.
5. Take a Walk – Any walk, anywhere, from your own street to a street far, far away. Take in the sights, the sounds, the buildings and the people, sit on a bench in a park, in a cafe, on a bus, at a museum, on a beach, by a lake, on an observation deck. If you can, do it alone to keep distractions at a minimum, allowing yourself to absorb everything that floats, waltzes or rolls past you. Leave the phone turned off and the ear buds in your pocket, and let the milieu do the talking. You’ll be amazed at what it tells you.