Jump-starting a story
People have wanted to know where I get my fiction ideas, especially for short stories.
The answer’s complex.
Sometimes I write from frustration or anger when an egregious injustice or bureaucratic absurdity is featured in the news. Or a dangerous societal trend will set me off, like the increasing widespread dependence on a whole spectrum of prescription drugs with their myriad detrimental side effects. The subtle inadvertent or deliberate damage we do to one another, such as our propensity to talk behind each other’s backs, has resulted in stories—one titled “The Garden Club,” for example, wherein gossip turns lethal. Sometimes it’s fun trying to emulate, on my modest level, the style and tone of some famous author, like the late hard-boiled Mickey Spillane. I’ve read and re-read many thousands of novels and short stories over the decades, so snippets and tendrils from the finest of those have become so deeply embedded they’re part of me now.
Sometimes a yarn will slew sideways quite on its own, it seems. This occurs most often when I try to tackle an unfamiliar genre for the hell of it. One attempt at writing romance mysteriously morphed into a faked-crime yarn. A few forays into science fiction, just to test those waters, also took on criminal aspects entirely by themselves.
On rare occasions, I have no idea whatsoever where a story comes from. No conscious idea, that is. I’m probably one of those afflicted with a not-quite-grownup overactive subconscious mind, wherein all sorts of creatures crawl and devious demons cavort and delightful fantasies play out. Sometimes those mysterious scenarios steal through a fragile membrane into my conscious mind and result in a new short story that appears to have been born of purest magic.
Or, as an occasional challenge, I’ll put up a blank page on my computer screen, type some random strong word in boldface, crank up my excellent Bose speakers with appropriate selections chosen from my Amazon Cloud Player, and attempt to build an entire short tale from that single word. One titled “Rage” came out pretty well. There’s a list of potential title words and phrases I hope to hang stories on some day. Titles that intrigue me include “Too Late” and “Depthless” and “Why?”
Broader ideas for novels are more difficult. Some years ago a friend who had covert experience in naval intelligence in remote parts of the world enlightened me about the brisk global trade in light weaponry, which continues to help fuel never-ending violence in numerous hot spots. That led me into some further research, which in turn laid a foundation for Guns, the first novel in a trilogy. A fourth novel in that series is in progress, with 84,000 words in the bank and closing in on the climactic scenes.
It can be helpful to learn how the top writers come up with their story ideas; they all have their secrets and they’ll sometimes share. Stephen Hunter (Pulitzer Prize winner, former film critic for The Washington Post, and acclaimed author of the Earl Swagger series) confessed in the foreword for one of his novels that he’d blatantly borrowed several of his plots from other successful novelists, with only the settings and characters changed, and with the imposition of his own writing style, as disguises.
That’s not a bad idea for any of us.