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Finding Your Story Ideas


Catherine Castle

 When I first started writing my biggest problem wasn’t grammar, or punctuation, or even the fact that I was a terrible typist (thank goodness for computers!). My biggest problem was finding something to write about. I’d read a story in the newspaper, smack myself on the forehead, and think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Then I went to a writer’s conference and heard Dennis Hensley speak. He talked about finding ideas, and said he had so many ideas that even if he wrote 24 hours a day, for the rest of his life, he’d never exhaust his supply. Since then I’ve been collecting idea tips. Here’s a few things that help me keep my idea pump primed.

 Keep an idea file.

I actually have several of these files. One is in a notebook I keep next to the bed. It has first drafts of poems, outlines of dreams that I’ve turned into story ideas, one-liners for greeting cards, dialogue for the interactive Back To Bethlehem drama that my husband and I wrote for our church, and snatches of song lyrics. All these things came to me in the middle of the night and I jumped up, ran into the bathroom and jotted them down.

I also have a similar notebook file in my purse. I take this little notebook and a pencil with me wherever I go. It’s been handy to jot down ideas from the preacher’s sermon, bits of conversation I overhear, a striking piece of scenery, or a person’s posture or looks that might come in handy. Anything that strikes me as interesting, unusual, or malleable goes into my little notebooks.

The other idea files I have are file folders crammed with bits of information. I’ve filed, articles I’ve ripped from newspapers and magazines, and copies of bibliography pages from the backs of books that have interested me. Tidbits of interesting information are scribbled on scraps of paper – info like the fact that Quakers didn’t trust either side in the Revolutionary War (believe it or not, but I’ve got a story idea from that one little nugget). I’ve got Arabian fairytales and an 89-cent book about Haunted Places (good for spinning ghost stories). I even have a side of a Cheerios cereal box with a list of Great Discoveries like the first roller coaster, the first skateboard, and the first yo-yo.

Look for the Interest Factor

Chances are if you find it interesting or have never heard it, then an editor, or your targeted reader, may find interesting too. Here are a few tidbits, from newspaper articles, I found particularly interesting:

*Blacks owning Blacks – Census records in Charleston show that there were 122 free blacks who owned slaves

*WWI enemies called a Christmas truce the first Christmas of the war, the soldiers sang carols to each other, exchanged gifts of food from home, played soccer between the shell holes and barbed wire and paid mutual foxhole visits

*There’s a nudist colony in Colerain Township

*Cincinnati’s Race Street was the place to drag race your horse and carriage in the 1880s, illegal because it endangered pedestrians, but done nonetheless. 

Did you know these tidbits? Got any ideas yet? I know I do!

Go To Children’s Programs

 Children’s programs are great places to get ideas, especially for children’s articles or stories. Like children’s books the information if pared down so you can easily digest it, and best of all, it’s always interesting! Even if you write for adults you can often find a great nugget of an idea that with a little digging can net you an adult-oriented story.

Don’t Throw Away The Junk Mail

 I know this is contrary to anything you’ve ever heard the organizer kings and queens say, but junk mail has interesting information sometimes. Some of the junk mail I’ve dropped in my idea file are letters from Private Islands Unlimited (where you can buy your own island); the Association of American Indians Affairs and other Indian junk mail (I’m interested in Indian culture and needs); and history book club circulars (they have unusual history book titles that pique my curiosity).

Read Widely

 I subscribe to a lot of magazines and I buy and read a lot of books. (Too many in fact, according to my husband and the credit card bill). Some reading is for personal enjoyment, some is writing related, and some is just meant as a place from which to glean ideas. Because I write for children, I choose a different kid magazine every year. I look for articles (or nuggets from articles) that I can translate into stories, or do my own interview and write a new story about the same subject. Stretch your boundaries and get a reading material that’s outside your normal interest. You might find some really interesting things to write about where you least expect it.

Look For Trivia and Anniversaries

 The annual Children’s Writer Guide, published by Children’s Writer, is a great source for anniversary and trivia information. Each issue has a full section of 200 idea starters dealing with facts, statistics, and little known information. For example, the richest pet in Hollywood was Ava Gardner’s corgi Morgan. Ava left him a monthly salary, his own limousine, and a maid. (Does that give you any ideas for a cute After School TV Special? – Dog against maid?) Do you know when the 100th anniversary or the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade is? If you do, you’ve got the beginning of an article you can sell. The comic book was invented in the 20th century. Do you know when its 100th anniversary is? NASA was created in 1958 and is coming up on its 50th anniversary in 2006. In 1952, the world’s first nuclear accident took place in Canada – 50 years ago this year. Got any ideas yet?

Steal a Plot and Make It Your Own

 I’ve heard it said that there are only seven basic story lines (or plots) in the world: man (or woman) against man, man against nature, man against himself, man against evil, man against time … Don’t ask me to name the rest of them because I can’t. The point here, however, is not to name them, but to tell you that the twists and turns, that you create in your story, make a plot new and fresh. Learn to ask, “What if?” Change the characters around. Change their challenges, the goals, internal and external conflicts. Change the setting.

Take the classic story of “Cinderella” – a story of true love where Prince Charming meets his true love, the “enslaved” and mistreated Cinderella. The plot was twisted when a male (Jerry Lewis) played the cinder-sweeping lead in “Cinderfella” and Princess Charming meets her true love. Make the fairly god mother a ditz whose spells go comically awry and you could have a Cinderella comedy– an entirely different story. Put in a bunch of mice, who help Cinderelly sew her dress and slip the key under the locked door to Cinderella at the last minute, and you have a Disney movie. Turn Prince Charming a scam artist pretending to be a prince from another country and you have another story still. Set your story in Transylvania, make Prince Charming a Prince Alarming and have Cinderella’s love for him (not his love for her) free him from his vampire bondage. One different element, or a combination of elements, can change a well-know story line into something uniquely yours.

Use your idea file creatively

 Everything you put in your idea file may not end up as a story or article. Sometimes just reading through what you’ve saved serves as a mental pump primer. You might not want to write another non-fiction article about the high-jumping forest firefighter, but he’d make a great hero. A story about the South might not focus on the black owning blacks idea, but it would make a great sub plot and possibly increase the story tension. You might not want to visit the little town in Paris that’s described in your idea file, but it might be a great place to set a story. Think “What if?” when you review your clips. Learn how to turn those ideas upside down and create something new.

 Ideas are all around you. The hard part is learning to tune into them. However, once you’ve figured it out, you’ll never stare at a blank screen wondering, “What can I write about?” Just open your idea file and prime the mental pump.

 Where do you find your story ideas and what have you created using them?

Finding Your Story Ideas© 2002  was previously published in under the name of Catherine Hershberger in the February 2002 Inspired newsletter and the May Undercover 2002