Time and time again I've heard the statement, "I don't know where to start. I don't know where to get ideas." The person could be talking about writing a novel, a short story, an article, or even a research paper. Let's discuss some places to start finding ideas.
I read an article from the May 2007, The Writer, "Steal from Life" by April Henry, that caught my attention completely. The title certainly wasn't something a reader would expect as a writing tip since plagiarism is a "no-no."
However, Henry didn't mean for us to steal another's writing, another's work, but she brought out good ideas for discovering ideas to use in writing. In fact many of her suggestions are ones I've used for many years. I'm going to use her topic areas and add my thoughts with some of hers:
* Steal from strangers: The idea is NOT to take things that belong to others, but to use their mannerisms, way of dressing, characteristics. I take notes when I see people on the street, in stores, in schools, at ball games if I notice something that could fit a character. I may not have a story in mind at the time, but I know that sooner or later, I'll be able to use some of my notes. This point is closely connected to the next one.
* Pilfer real people: In my "tween" book that I wrote, the coach of one baseball team is loud, over-bearing, and sometimes verbally abusive to his players, even his own son. I developed this character after observing a few coaches at youth baseball games over the years. I took their traits and actions and created one of the "villains" in the story. Remember, a novel is just a story that didn't quit soon enough to be a "short" story. In fact often a short story will "grow up" to be a novel some day. Delight
I have a vast file of characters ready to be used from watching and learning about real people.
* Eavesdrop on exchanges: One way to create believable and memorable dialogue is to "steal" what you hear when eavesdropping. I jot down interesting bits and pieces I hear and work them into stories when appropriate.
* Take from news stories: I have boxes of articles clipped from newspapers and magazines. One story I plan on writing some day is the fictional account of a person who lost a close friend in the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City. I have piles of articles, not only presenting the facts, but also giving much of the emotional impact on survivors and the family and friends of those lost.
I have a file of articles about the murder of one of my nieces, the capture of her killer, his trial, and then his death. That will add to my personal memories to create a book some day. Her death has already been the basis of two stories or articles, "I Don't Want to Know" and "The Case of the Missing Cheerleader" . In time, I'll have a fictional story.
Henry tells about a news clipping that tells about people committing suicide by jumping from high places. The article says they take off their glasses before they leap. Therefore, if a body is found with smashed glasses close by, foul play should be considered.
* Filch from your fears: The author suggestions that if you, the writer, has a fear of enclosed spaces or spiders, then give that fear to one of your characters. This would be one way of writing what you know, too.
Personally, I fear heights. I can give that fear to someone who must climb on a roof to escape a killer or to someone who must climb up a tree to rescue a child.
* Walk away with the Web: Googling is a great way to find the information about a subject or sub-topic that could bring your writing to life. Don't be afraid to use search engines, especially to find first person accounts of a theme in your story.
If I were writing a story about an on-line predator, I could search for accounts of young people who were the prey of such "people."
* Take a technique: Read, attend classes and workshops, go to conferences. When you find a technique that interests you, try it. If it works, great. If it doesn't work, try something else.
* Snatch the source: Find experts in a field, religion, culture, or area that you use in your story. Henry uses the example of an author interviewing a family about their religious beliefs, as she visited them in their home. She discovered details that made a character in her story stronger and more in-depth.
All those suggestions give a wealth of material to be used in finding where to start a story. Writers should have files of ideas simply from observations and study of the world around them.
I use many, in fact all, of the preceding tips for finding ideas and material to use in my stories and novels. To find more about my short stories, check Hidden Lies and Other Stories for a collection of stories by me and by Holly Jahangiri. My historical fiction, Prairie Dog Cowboy, has its own web site, as does my mystery/suspense novel Midnight Hours.
Most of my books are through 4RV Publishing.