How to Get Ideas for Stories

Here’s the lesson about reading: read inside your genre to perfect your style, outside of it for new ideas.

I told my wife a while back that I had finally hit the turning point in my second novel, Fracture, coming out at the end of this month. My first novel starts out with a whip-crack (the lead character falling out of an 8th floor window) and only slows down to take a breath in a few places. With Fracture, I wanted to work on a slower build that gradually increased in tempo like a lit fuse nearing the first stick of dynamite in a chain of explosions.

When I explained this to my wife, she said, “I wouldn’t know where to begin writing a novel.”
“It all starts with an idea,” I said, “usually a ‘what-if?’.”

That’s why de-cluttering your space, schedule, and mind is so important to an author. When you’re stuck in routines or harried by to-do lists, your mind doesn’t have time to wander.

  • You need time to read. Books are great. They shape your perception and your style as an author. Books aren’t the only places where authors get ideas, though. Pick up magazines, news articles, slip through an encyclopedia or a national geographic. Here’s the lesson about reading: read inside your genre to perfect your style, outside of it for new ideas. So if you’re looking for something fresh, get outside your genre for that brilliant “what-if?” that sets your pants on fire.
  • You need time to wander too. Set aside 30 minutes to go for a walk at the end of the day. Go alone if you can or with a friend who likes to talk about things outside of conventional conversation. Maybe just sitting on the same bench in the same park is what you need. Whatever it is, clear your mind of all the tasks you have to do and give yourself time to dream on whatever takes your interest.
  • People-watch. There is no better place to find drama than laundro-mats and all-night diners. Go places where people talk loudly. Bring a pen and paper or your phone and a note-taking app. Capture moments of dialogue that hook your attention, life’s ironic twists, physical descriptions and tics, and the multiple facets of the human psyche.

These are just a few ideas to get you going. How about you, though? How do you find your stories?

To Write Authentic Dialogue, Write Backstory First

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Last week I told you about a conversation my wife and I started having about writing.
“I wouldn’t know where to start writing a novel,” she said.
“It all starts with an idea, a ‘what if?’.” I answered. So, last week we talked about where you get your ideas. That wasn’t enough for my wife, though.
“Yeah, but all that dialogue,” she said, “where do you begin writing that?”
“Backstory, I guess,” I said. “I start by figuring out who my characters are. I don’t try to write anything until I’ve got that sorted.”
Backstory is, perhaps, the most critical step in the creation of a novel for me. To write a character, I have to feel like I know them well enough to invite them to a birthday party. That’s actually a great way to get to know your characters.

If you’re having trouble getting a handle on someone in your novel, imagine that you are out on a double date with them, or that you’ve invited them over to your house for a party.¬†

Ask them the typical questions that you get asked at a party. How would they respond? What questions would they ask you? Who would they get along with? If you want to make things interesting, imagine a crisis: a motorcycle drives through your fence, you find out your sister has been sleeping with that character, you ran out of dip. What does that character do?

After I nail down the backstory of my characters complete with at least a few childhood memories and the track of their life decisions, then I pen that down on an index card. From that point on, all I have to do is put that character in the room with another character and a subject to talk about. They do the rest.
“When you know your characters, you don’t have to worry about dialogue,” I told my wife. “You just let them talk. If you start hearing words come out of their mouths and thinking, ‘that doesn’t sound like Shirley,’ then you know that you’re taking over and putting those words in there.”
Sure, writing this way may lead to some rambling conversations about trivialities, but that’s often what makes the dialogue interesting. It’s the details that tell the story. And, if you’ve got twelve pages of blathering nonsense at the end of your writing, you know two things. First, you know a little more about your character. Second, you know that you can always tighten that dialogue up when editing time comes around.

How about you? What part does backstory play in your writing process? Are there any characters who have become immortalized in your mind because of the amount of detail that the author put into their backstory?