Guest blogger Erica Hildebrand writes about where her story ideas come from.
There’s this episode of The Brady Bunch where Jan, trying to save herself some embarrassment while coping with her status as second fiddle to Marcia, invents a fake boyfriend. She gushes about how groovy he is, and when pressed for his name, she has to make something up. “Uh, George…” she looks around desperately for inspiration and sees a water glass on the bedside table: “…Glass! George Glass.” Boom, instant fake boyfriend.
I wish inspiration worked like that for me.
I’ve had stories that hinge on a crucial element to make them work – what is the antagonist’s motivation here, or what’s the inciting incident that will push the hero on the path of plot – and I’ve looked all over my room and begged for an idea to come from the lamp, the stapler, the bookcase; hours of begging the coffee mug and the chess board to give me some sort of sign. They give back nothing but hair-pulling gridlock.
George Glasses can be born in the real world. I’ve seen people come up with story outlines on the spot, whether prompted by someone else or just out of the blue. Later, I’ve cornered those people in coat rooms and threatened them with butter knives to tell me just how the hell they came up with ideas so quickly. (I might be exaggerating the part about coat rooms and butter knives.)
It’s one of the most difficult aspects of writing: how do you mold an idea into a story? How do you come up with it in the first place and then force it to congeal into something solid and workable? And most importantly, how do you make it your own unique tale?
Stories can come from anywhere, and it’s not from some abstract Muse…it’s from the writer. There’s this compost bin in your brain where every movie, book, play, conversation, thesis, relationship, song, betrayal, anecdote, and other miscellany get tossed. It’s always adding to itself and mixing and churning into the single experience that makes someone’s perspective unique. It’s common to hear the adage that there are no new ideas under the sun, yet writers keep writing, which tells me that plenty of ideas are still fresh and new; the trick is in the writer’s perspective and in the combination (there are stories about trombones and stories about Tyrannosaurs, but mix the two together and it gets interesting).
When I just started out, one of the pieces of advice I heard (and a lot of you have heard it too) is “write what you know.” What it means is you should create work within a sphere of your own knowledge base so your writing resonates with authenticity, authority, and honesty. How it translated for me was, “you’re too boring to be a writer.”
I like to make things up. I don’t want to write about what I know, because what I know is comfortable and familiar to me and sometimes a little tedious. What’s interesting is what I don’t know. What’s interesting is what I can go out and learn. I try not to worry so much about what I know anymore (hint: it’s very little). If I don’t know about an experience, I go out and try to have that experience for myself. If I can’t, I talk to people who can give me perspective, and there’s always libraries and the Internet to help with research.
Ideas come and go. Some are usable; the majority of them aren’t. Sometimes it’ll hit you like a freight train, stark and painful in its clarity, and beg you to hammer the keyboard until the draft is complete. Sometimes it comes in fits and starts, scraps of words here or a “what if” scenario there, and won’t congeal until it’s had time to marinate deep in the basement of your brain for days, months, or even years. Sometimes it fights you every word of the way, and you can’t help but think it’s going to be a waste of time, but somewhere deep down you know the story has merit, and you can shape it into something if you just keep going.
And on rare, special occasions, you’ll meet your George Glass.
Erica Hildebrand works on illustrated projects in addition to her writing. She has a soft spot in her heart for superheroes, dinosaurs, and the conquerors of antiquity. A graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, her stories have appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and half a dozen other places. Her tweet handle is @Hildebabble. Come say hi.