Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Discovering New Ideas by Pam Nowak

One of the most frequent questions authors field is “where’d you get the idea for your story?” Personally, I have a head (and a file drawer) full of them. I amass ideas like junk mail…lots and lots of junk mail…and I find them nearly everywhere. But, since not all of us do things the same, I thought I would share a bit this month on where I discover story ideas.

My favorite idea spots are bookstores—actual bookstores where one can wander the aisles. Used bookstores are often especially fruitful because they house unusual topics that may not be “current” enough for inclusion in new book stores. As a writer of historical romance, the nonfiction 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.

And then there are 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 (usually in the form of the torn out pages of the article but sometimes via 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). And don’t forget museums—especially historic home tours with their wealth of information on period lifestyle, the inhabitants, and events of the era. Museums can inspire with displays or an off-hand comment by a tour guide. Displays contain information and within the information are often tidbits that have the potential to blossom into stories—not to mention that almost every museum has a gift shop with books.

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 peoplewatching. 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.


Pamela Nowak was the 2010 RMFW Writer of the Year. Chances was the recipient of the 2009 HOLT Medallion for Best First Book, a WILLA Award Finalist for Historical Fiction, and was named to Booklist's Top Ten Romances of 2008. Choices, received a 2010 HOLT Award of Merit in historical romance.

This article was reprinted from the Rocky Mountain Writer, RMFW's newsletter, with permission of the author.


Dean K Miller said...

It is amazing how one small observation will manifest itself into an idea and possibly a story. I write some of mine down, but some I have to let drift away, otherwised I'd have a list several pages long, and that certainly won't get published. Picking the few really good ones is the challenge.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I've never understood folks who want to write but say they don't have any ideas. As Pam said so well, ideas are everywhere. I even dream a new idea from time to time, and those are really fun to play with.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Ideas really are everywhere, aren't they? It's only a matter of deciding which one to go with!

Mario said...

What's funny to me as a writer is when a wannabe says, "I don't want anyone to steal my ideas." As if the rest of us don't have a head crowded with plot lines and crazy characters.