Mining Ideas from the Strangest of Places
Whenever one reveals oneself to others as a writer, inevitably the question arises: Where do you get your ideas?
Me? From lying to other people.
This is how my first manuscript began.
I was part of a women’s choir at my undergraduate college. One year we kicked off the new school year with a retreat weekend. The Friday night games were to begin with an icebreaker designed to introduce the old and new members to one another.
This involved pre-retreat prep. We were to write down one thing about ourselves that wasn’t well known and turn that item in to the choir president (Melody – no pun intended) prior to the weekend. Melody made a list of all these traits and passed it out sans names. We were then to go around the room asking only one question of each person until we could match up every item on the list to its owner.
I could not think of a single applicable trait. There were things that no one knew about me, but that was deliberate. All safe options failed to seem pithy enough for submission. Frustrated with my delay, Melody finally ordered me to make one up.
On the night in question, I avoided the whole matter by hiding in the kitchen helping Melody cook an Italian dinner that had ended up being delayed and overly involved. (Quick tip: never deny promised food to a group of hungry women. Not. Pretty.) We cooked and sweated and laughed a lot that night, no small bit of which was Melody needling me about my fib. This inevitably bit us in the butt when our friend and fellow kitchen helper, Heidi, posed a genuine question.
What exactly had I written down?
Melody was no help, suspiciously hiding her face in the fumes of a saucepot, and I finally had to admit that I had spent the previous summer hitch-hiking cross-country, hanging out with various bikers and truckers along the way. In the fall of 1991, as a conservatively raised 19-year-old sophomore (oh, so long ago), anyone who knew me would know that this was a patently absurd notion. Melody (who did know me) snorted from her position at the stove. Heidi, always ready to believe the best of people, took my blatant fiction as truth.
“Wow,” she said. “I bet you met a lot of really interesting people.” I remember pausing to check that she was serious. How could she not know I was making it up? When I realized that she was indeed sincere, I had a quick second to decide whether to confess my creative license or just go with it.
I went with it.
Me: Yeah, I did. There are real people underneath all that leather and tattoos. It really taught me not to judge a book by its cover. (I kid you not the “book…cover” cliché is a direct quote.)
Heidi: I can totally see that.
At this point, Melody stuck a plate in Heidi’s hands and sent her out of the kitchen.
Melody (to me): You are very bad.
Me: I can’t believe she bought that.
Melody: Are you going to tell her the truth?
Me: Where’s the fun in that?
Melody: You are going to hell.
Thing is, the more I thought on it, the better an idea it became for a short story. But since I never wrote anything short in my life it wound up being more of a novella. I submitted it to the literary magazine at school and they rejected it (my first rejection!) as they should because it was terrible. But I kept at it – mostly when I should have been studying – and it evolved into a novel and about ten years later I finally finished it.
It was still terrible.
Now I’ve returned to that first, earnest manuscript to reshape and redevelop it into a viable story. My 1991 self may be long gone but that initial idea is still valid and has served as a starting point for characters whose stories still plague me to tell. I also feel a faint wobbly obligation to Heidi to make something real from her naïve belief in my deception. It helps that today’s me writes better than my younger incarnation, though I have become, over the years, much better at lying. Which is bad; lying is bad, BAD I say.
Ideas can come from all kinds of different places. I can’t always rely on a handy icebreaker to clue me in, so I keep a folder of interesting news items that strike a chord with me. Reading wedding announcements and obits can offer good hooks, too as I’ve only recently learned. I look around at my world and mine ideas from it. The eccentric admin at work, the woman trudging up a short driveway with a large, blue, overfilled cloth bag hooked over her shoulder that I drove past on the way to work, that absurd trip to buy a Christmas tree; all those things that you just can’t make up. Make something up from them instead. Keep a notebook in your purse or pocket and jot down the things or events that linger. Life offers all kinds of launching points for writers.
Dive on in.
By the way – something not too many people know about me?
I alphabetize my cash money.
Kiersten Hallie Krum is a pre-published writer of romantic suspense fiction. During the daylight hours, her secret identity works as a pharmaceutical advertising editor and a back cover copy writer of romantic fiction. She anxiously awaits the right agent/editor to make her dreams come true. Read more of Kiersten’s thoughts on writing and the world around her at www.twolftshoes.blogspot.com.