Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ripped from Today's Headlines

Remember this expression? The TV show, “Law and Order”, right? I often think of that show when people who don’t write fiction ask me where I get my ideas for stories. Where don’t I get ideas???

The stories push themselves into my consciousness as I notice a mom and recalcitrant toddler at the grocery store, when I see the woman facing away from the man in the car at the traffic light beside me, when I read a “Dear Abby” entry. I am unable to escape the stories. I often respond that I feel as if I am downloading life into my computer and won’t come close to living long enough to complete the task.

To those who don’t write fiction professionally, it must seem like magic of some sort that we see stories all around us. That the hard part of writing is not the story idea, but in bringing life to the idea with characters the readers care about.

But, for those who might be reading this who are not bombarded with stories, let me share some other things I do on a regular basis to keep the story well filled with water. My sons would say that saving this stuff is just further evidence of my OCD problem, but, in the interest of art, I’ll put up with their abuse.

Decades ago I began collecting Chinese fortune cookies slips. Sometimes these are fortunes, sometimes they are aphorisms, but either way, they are story topics. I have hundreds of these, and have even strung some of them together in a story outline about my best friend, Pat, and I who meet together every year for Chinese food and then the intervening chapters tell about how our cookie fortunes play out between our yearly dinners.

Another source is the newspaper. I have stacks of feature articles (typically feel-good stories about locals who overcome obstacles) and piles of advice columns. These provide a structure for your story way beyond the kernel of fortunes. Who hasn’t imagined what the letter writer did after getting the professional’s advice about whether she should dump the chump she wrote in about?

I practice describing settings and characters while traveling. It’s something to do to while away the time. The airport and plane are filled with opportunities to bring what you see to life. Sometimes you need a background character for a scene and having a set handy can help. Even if you don’t ever use them, just paying attention and describing is a good writing exercise.

I collect overheard conversation bits as I am walking down the street, in a meeting, or buying pickles. People talk on their phones as if they are in the phone booths of long ago. Hello! We all can hear that conversation! Another great source of conversation bits is in restaurants. Again, people carry on the most intimate of conversations in the most crowded locations! Always keep a notebook at the ready.

The world is stories. Keep an eye and ear out for all those you happen upon every hour of every day.

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