Friday, April 8, 2011

Where'd You Get that Idea?

One of the most frequent questions authors field is “where’d you get the idea for your story?” Most of us have a head (and a file drawer) full of them and we confront the problem of which one(s) to use for any given story. We amass ideas like junk mail…lots and lots of junk mail…and we find them nearly everywhere.

My favorite idea spots are bookstores. As a writer of historical romance, the non-fiction sections draw me. Local history sections are gold mines, as are museum gift shops and stores in tourist towns. I can spend hours browsing titles, looking for unusual topics or histories of events. I’ve discovered books about gold rushes, frontier medicine, Indian life, women telegraphers, and beer brewers (among others). I’ve found information on famous people and completely unknown people in unusual situations. Suffice to say, I buy a lot of books.

But, one should not forget magazines. For historical writers, there are an abundant number of periodicals with articles on everything from the history of ice skating to medicine healers to undertaking. I subscribe to at least one history magazine at any given time. I’ve also found intriguing character, plot, and setting ideas in travel magazines, women’s magazines, and Readers’ Digest. If something strikes my imagination, it goes to my idea file. This is usually in the form of the torn out pages of the article but can be handwritten or computer-generated notes.

Visits to places can also prompt ideas. Sometimes, it is the setting itself that might conjure up a situation. This means ideas can come from the beach, a vineyard, or a mountain road. It might be the entire setting or it could be something that occurs there (such as a burro ride as opposed to the Grand Canyon). Museums can inspire with displays or an off-hand comment by a tour guide. I particularly love historic home tours with their wealth of information on period lifestyle, the inhabitants, and events of the era.

News items can offer more ideas. Natural disasters, crimes, and human interest features can launch a myriad of stories. Just think about it: one evening’s news might include spots on a hurricane, an autistic child, a crooked home-repair business, and a freak accident. Hmmmm…all sorts of stories there if one combined them.

And, of course, there’s people-watching. Traits, whether physical or behavioral, can be fodder for creating characters that are vivid but believable. Looking around, it’s easy to spot the outlandish things people do or say. Sometimes, it might be a mannerism. Other times, it might be how someone looks. Noting real-life situations can springboard ideas for how characters might respond or how conflict might be increased.

Ideas? They abound. All the writer need do is remain aware, take notes, and start tossing settings, characters, situations, and conflicts together.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Pam,

Great article on sources of inspiration! I've been busy working on a WIP, a very different sort of mystery.

Like you, I love both reading and writing historical romance and part of the enjoyment is researching the nonfiction aspects by reading books and magazines, many that are off-beat.

Pamela Nowak said...

The off-beat are definitely more fun. Take something that stretches the imagination a bit, but is still believable, and you've got me every time.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

What I do like about publishing with Five Star/Gale is that we can write off-beat fiction, particularly in the romance area where so many other publishers insist on formula categories of romance.