Where do you get your ideas for stories?
“I would love to be an author, but I have no idea where to find ideas to write about. You authors must be extra smart to be able to write books.” At least inwardly, that brings a chuckle. Me? Extra smart? There is a serious disconnect here somewhere.
But where do we get our ideas? After all, to be a writer and create worlds, characters, situations, and lives, one must be at least somewhat god-like. Therefore, we must be pretty special, to be able to accomplish such feats, right?
The truth is, no, we are not extra smart, or special, or even gifted. Most of us don’t even have all that great of an imagination. What we do have are questions.
What if . . . ?
In my soon-to-be-published novella, Rotund Roland, I started out with the question, “What if . . . ?” regarding a young man who is afflicted (blessed?) with acromegaly, a disease that caused him to grow much faster and larger than anyone else. Because of this disease, while in the first grade, Roland was bigger than any of the third graders. By his senior year, he was 7’ 4” tall, and he weighed 485 lbs. His father had left the picture when he was a baby. His mother taught him not to fight because he was bigger than everyone else—besides, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” (A bigger lie has never been told.) He was bullied, belittled, and mocked, and he had no friends until his sophomore year in high school.
My novel Stranded at Romson’s Lodge started with the same question, but this time: “What if two Christian teens are abandoned in a remote location with no knowledge of when or if they would be rescued? Could they survive, even thrive, in such a situation, and in doing so, could they maintain the core values of their faith?”
What then . . . ?
Once we come up with the “What if?,” there is the question “What then?” that must be answered.
In Stranded at Romson’s Lodge, after Jed and Lizzie have been left at the lodge, and their kidnapper crashes the plane, they are faced with “What do we do now?” Jed and Lizzie have to come up with some serious answers. Jed has some experience in the woods, but Lizzie has never been out of the city nor away from her widowed father except for the previous ten days spent on her senior class trip to Europe. She’s homesick, terrified, and without a clue as to what to do or how to survive in the wild. She can’t even light the wood stove. She comes up with:
“I know one thing that will be a problem!”
“Oh? What?” Jed replies.
Everyone faces problems in life. Yes, I know, people read to get away from their problems, but in so doing, they see how others face and overcome problems. It is the overcoming that makes a story interesting, grabbing the reader’s attention.
Who cares . . . ?
To me, this is the fun question! “What if?” gives the setting. “What then?” allows you to develop the problem, but “Who cares?” is the place where you get to develop the characters.
I’m not one who can develop characters out of “whole cloth” and make them real. I decide who the character is, what he/she is like, and then I think of a person or people I have known over the years and develop my character’s personality, based on what those people are like. Normally, my characters are made up of a composite of two or three individuals’ persona.
Everyone has good points, and everyone has flaws. In Stranded at Romson’s Lodge, even the kidnapper has a sympathetic side. Yes, we despise him for what he does, but there is reason behind his actions. Jed and Lizzie are, of course, the main characters, but James and Mary Romson, Jed’s parents, and Charles Sitton, Lizzie’s widowed father play large roles. Charles, for example, ends up in the hospital with a panic attack and meets a divorced nurse whose son had been kidnapped by her ex. What then develops between them gives reason to care for them.
The most important thing when writing your characters is first to get to know them. One author I know goes to a coffee shop and sits at a table with two cups of coffee and a note pad on which she jots down information she gets from “interviewing” her character, whom she imagines is sitting across the table from her drinking the other cup of coffee. I don’t go that far, but my characters become so real to me as I write them I let them tell me what happens next.
Someone said, and I cannot remember who, that there are two kinds of people who have and talk to imaginary friends. One kind takes medication, and the other writes books. I think that comes pretty close. A speaker at a writing seminar I attended said that our characters ought to be so real we want to send them Christmas cards. The author’s daughter got a good laugh at her expense when she had one of her character’s name on her shopping list one year.
Jed and Lizzie became very real to me as I wrote Stranded at Romson’s Lodge, but the one I identified with most in the story was actually Charles. I’m old enough now that I no longer identified directly with an 18-year-old young man, but I did identify closely with a father who thought he had lost his only daughter and was now all alone.
The conclusion of the matter . . . .
Writing is not such a mysterious undertaking. If you will answer the three questions and have fun with your story, your reader will have fun with your story, too. You finally will reach that point every writer longs for when you type, “The End.” But you will feel a sense of loss overwhelm you as you close the chapter on friendships you have developed with people you will never meet but have made a huge impact on your life.
I wonder, will Charles like that Shakespeare fishing rod I bought for his birthday next week?