Starting your first novel is exciting—imagine world building, creating characters from thin air or based on people you’ve known or have encountered on the street. It seems that character building comes easily for some; we’re surrounded by character all the time, right? But what about the story? The theme? The very idea you want to write about?
How do you write 300 pages out of nothing? That white screen and flashing cursor are an unexplored frontier, and you are its pilgrim (or its gold digger—I won’t judge).
There are tools that you can download that will help you come up with story ideas—fiction idea generators. Or you can use writing prompts and story starters that you can find on this site. These are all useful to get you started so you can pump out the first few hundred words until your juices truly start to flow. Beware not to get too fixated on software though—you can waste a lot of time looking for the perfect software to help you with any stage of your writing practice. I’ve talked about them here. The best software is the least intrusive and doesn’t take a month to learn, especially when you’re trying to hash out the story concept.
Regarless how you write, you still need soemthing to write about. Along the way, there are a few steps that could make the slog towards completing your novel just that bit easier, and will help keep you from getting lost.
Ideas may drift into other minds, but they do not drift my way. I have to go and fetch them. I know no work
manual or mental to equal the appalling heart-breaking anguish of fetching an idea from nowhere. ~A. A. Milne
First things first: you need the seed of an idea.
1. Where to find Novel Ideas
“Where do your ideas come from?” That’s a common question writers ask and are asked. How do they weave fantastic tales from seemingly ordinary and even disparate situations. Hugo and Nebula award winning writer, Orson Scott Card, says “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”
Best-selling fantasy author Neil Gaiman says it best: “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”
Here are some ways to find ideas for your next story:
1. Look around you—it pays to be observant of your surroundings; you can get ideas from anywhere.
· Go out on walks and listen to conversations coming from back yards or open front doors;
· Meet with friends and listen to their stories;
· Eavesdrop on conversations in your local café;
· Visit historical places and wonder about the ghosts that might be there still;
· Read a lot and read widely—if you don’t normally read historical romance, give it a try. The same applies to urban fantasy. You never know what ideas a different genre might incite.Stephen King got his inspiration for his series The Dark Tower from the poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came as well as his love of spaghetti westerns;
· Stroll through the park. If you’re observant, you’ll catch something that will spark your interest;
· Listen to people at work—it’s amazing what people talk about in an open environment; even snippets of conversations can be a story starter—the TV show The Office is all about the boring old goings on in a pretty ordinary office; the writers have mined it to find the gold;
· Go to the library and look through newspapers and magazines for headlines that pop out at you. If you’re lucky enough to have a bigger, older library near you, see if you can look at the digitised copies of old newspapers. The advertising alone will get your mind going.
2. Look behind you—you don’t even have to look far to find worthwhile stories. Search your memories for interesting events in your past. Talk to your grandparents or their relatives. My parents are crazy storytellers and have excellent memories. Mum loves to recount the story of dad’s proposals, first when she was 13, then when she was 17 and, finally, at 24.
Investigate your family history. I believe there’s a story in every family. Even stories that you wouldn’t consider “epic” can be crafted into bittersweet tales—think of Anne Tyler, with her moving tales about seemingly ordinary families. Frank McCourt based his book, Angela’s Ashes, on his young life in Ireland and New York.
If your family is just way too perfect, ask yourself, “What if?” What if there’s more to that seeming perfection?
What if you’re looking through an old stack of photos, and you see a wedding photo. The bride is your mum, but you’ve never seen the groom before. Strange, because your parents have never been married before, or so you think.
What if nobody in your family knew how to drive, making getting around a real drag. Can’t you imagine the arguments and the laughs? It may not be the entire story, but it’s back story, right?
What if your family doesn’t even exist and they’re just holographic projections? Sure, there are tonnes of holes in the idea (like, how do they hug or eat or sit down?) but you could work that out.
3. Look within you—Write what you know. New writers hear this all the time. It’s a well-worn cliché, but it’s no less true. There’s a wealth of subject matter from your job, your hobbies, your interests, your social circle, even the kind of shoes you wear. Again, you can mine yourself for story threads or for background information and character details. Build from what you know well.
John Grisham drew from his own experience as a lawyer to write great legal thrillers such as The Firm and The Pelican Brief. Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs has developed memorable characters and creepy thrillers (and a much loved TV spinoff, Bones) thanks to her job.
Try these ideas next time you’re short of ideas:
1. Talk to a family member and ask them to tell you their most memorable story. Take detailed notes, including dialogue and the way the story is related to you. Be perceptive.
Turn this into a story of any length—flash fiction or short story, you decide.
2. Sit in a park, café, or at work and write a full page of anything you hear and see.
Is there a story on the page? Write it and see what happens.