Sunday, September 18, 2011


 So you want to write a story? About what? Any ideas? Pardon my impertinence, but get used to the question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Every novelist, story writer, playwright, songwriter, or screenwriter has to answer that question at some point.
I have three sources to suggest.
First let me suggest a premise: all good fiction is, at least in part, autobiographical. And by the way, that goes for historical novels, westerns, science fiction, and gritty police professionals. What may seem like flights of fancy usually have some source within our own experience, or our own dreams of glory and nightmares of disaster.
Well, perhaps this is a  conversation for another time. Meanwhile, let’s just accept that your own life is a rich source of fictional stories. Flannery O’Connor is said to have said, “Any writer who survived childhood has enough material to last his whole career.” She may not really have said that, because I’ve never seen a primary source for the quotation, and it’s been quoted so differently by different secondary sources that it may be apocryphal. But that doesn’t make the statement any less true.
I would add that the rich mine of materials isn’t limited to memories of childhood. Life is full of turning points, changes, choices, and consequences, and they’re all waiting to be exploited.
Where do we find them?

The Junk Drawer of Your Memory.
Every home has at least one junk drawer. Opening memory’s junk drawer is like opening a jar of insects, some beautiful, some with stingers or teeth. Where did this key come from? Who do I know who drives a Porsche? Why did I save this snapshot of my ex-husband trying to politely carve the birthday cake I made from scratch, when we both knew he didn’t want to be reminded he was turning forty? One joker card from the MGM Grand? As I remember, the joke was on me. My first report card. All A’s except for citizenship. Ticket stubs from My Fair Lady. I still have a Gene McCarthy button? I still have my draft card?
Every one of these keepsakes has a story, and the drawer is bottomless.
Historical novelists may want to explore that trunk in the attic. Horror writers will find Steve King lurking in the basement, sorting his bone collection and tasting Amontillado.

Rites of Passage.
Rites of passage are life-changing events common to many within any culture. Some of them are experienced in childhood: toilet training, learning to ride a bicycle, losing teeth, first day of school, being disabused of the myth of Santa Claus. Some come in puberty and adolescence: the driver’s license, the first kiss, the first heartbreak, the first drink. Some are the business of young adulthood: moving out and moving on, military service, college, first job, marriage, parenthood, traffic tickets, debts, and finding a career. Then come later life and what comes later than later life: grandchildren, arthritis, a crummy gold watch, funerals, and the chance to write your memories down for future generations. Some rites of passage are reserved for boys becoming men: learning to shave. Some for girls becoming women: buying a bra. Some rites of passage happen mainly to rich people, some to poor people; some to religious people, others to skeptics. So we don’t all experience all the same rites, but chances are that within any culture, we know people who have gone through experiences like these.
How to make a story out of a rite of passage you’ve passed through? First, it’s important to describe the passage in such a way that all readers (who share your culture) will relate to the experience. Second, and more important, it’s the goal of the story to show how your own experience of this rite was special, your own to claim, and how it changed you and made you a different person from the one you were before you went through that creaking door, that stretch of whitewater rapids, that midterm exam.

In any culture, there are stories we all know. Not only do we know them well because we learned them as children, but we’ve heard them over and over in varied and different retellings.
In the American/WASP/Judeo-Christian culture, to pick only one segment of our multicultural society (but the one I know best), most of us know a few common religious myths, such as the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and the Prodigal Son. A lot of us know the same Greek myths, like the Myth of Sisyphus, the Complex of Oedipus, the Midas Touch, or Pandora’s Box. Then there are the fairy tales we grew up on: Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, Little Red Riding Hood.
These stories get shamefully recycled, to great effect. East of Eden is a retelling of Cain and Abel. Pretty Woman is a combination of Pygmalion and Cinderella. The Ugly Duckling? It’s the basis of Dumbo, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and dozens of other heartwarming stories.
And you’ll no doubt find your own personal versions of archetypical stories that you can exploit for fiction, taking these stories we all know and making them into stories you alone could write.

So this week’s challenge: Write a story using an artifact from the junk drawer of your memory. Make the plot a rite of passage that you experienced, and base it loosely on a classic, archetypical story.
Warning: don’t make the parallels too obvious, and remember that a good memory is a good thing, but it’s nowhere near as good or important as a good imagination.



I will be gone next week. This post will remain up till I return.


Preview of coming attraction

Here is an excerpt from my novel Behind the Redwood Door, which will be published in November.

            In the early afternoon on the fifth of March, 1867, the Golden Harp sailed into a sheltered cove on the wild, rocky coast of far northern California. It was a clear, sunny day, the first pleasant weather these Irish sailors had seen in weeks. They had been at sea for five days, sailing from their last port through choppy waters and a cold, drizzly wind; but now, as the ship sailed into the bay, the air felt warm on their faces and the clear, green water was calm as a lake in summer. Tall stones rose out of the bay and stood like ancient, weathered statues, and curious otters and seals swam to the sides of the ship as if to welcome the sailors home.
            One young man reached for a rifle, but the captain stopped him. “We’re going ashore, and we’re going in unannounced,” the captain told his brother. “Right, then, lads. Tie up to that big stone there and we’ll go have us a look around.”
            The Irish sailors and the sailor’s wives and young ones all cheered. There were fifty-four of them, and every one of them was named Connolly. Captain Brian Boru Connolly and his five brothers, Patrick, Dennis, Kevin, and the twins, Bill and Bob. And their half-wit sister, Katie, who could haul a rope as hard as any of them. Three of the brothers had wives, and all three of the wives had little ones. And there were Connolly cousins, too, with wives and children, and the whole lot of them worshipped Brian Connolly and obeyed his command to the letter.
            “Quiet down, you dogsbodies!” Brian shouted. “I said we’re going in quietly. Unannounced. Now every heathen savage in California is going to know we’re here.”
            “I hope they’re friendly,” one of the women said.
            “Oh, they’ll be friendly, all right,” Patrick said. He shouldered his rifle and pointed at the shore. “They’d bleeding well better be. Oh Jaysus, there they are.”
            Brian pulled out his spyglass and looked over his brother’s shoulder at the crowd of brown-skinned pagans gathering on the stony shore. Their expressions revealed nothing. “Put down the gun, Paddy,” he said. “We don’t want to frighten the bastards.”
            “Why not? They need to know we mean business, don’t they?”
            “Pull your head out of your arse, lad. We want to be able to use these sods.” Brian turned to Dennis and Kevin, who were standing behind him. “Get four cases of whiskey out of the hold. We’re going ashore. With whisky. And guns,” he added.
            The whole boatload of Connollys let out a cheer that echoed off the cliffs on either side of the cove. And still the benighted savages stood stone-faced and waited.


  1. I look forward to reading the book, John. As for story ideas in general they find me rather than the other way around - of course each prod or promt or comment that opens the "What If" door in my brain - a newspaper article that makes me think about one of the people mentioned, or a photo to make me wonder how it came to be or a story told by a friend that makes me wonder why I like (or don't like) it.

    Or I'll reframe a story as you've mentioned above. The last novel I wrote (still under the bed) is a retelling of Rickard III set in 1934 about a hunchback who wants to run away from his family's carnival to join real life.

    Of the things about us I like our imaginations the best. And I still have my McGovern button pinned to my bulletin board.

  2. What a wonderful prompt. As I read your description of the items in the drawer, my mind searched through the drawer I own of half-baked memories, experiences I longed for and items hidden for safe keeping. The rites of passage I lay claim to are swirling through my thoughts. This was great fun and more.

  3. Cynthia, I agree that the imagination is a writer's greatest asset. And stories assail us every day, or flutter close to the net. Grab 'em.

    Thanks for commenting, Theresa. It's good that some of your memories are half-baked, so you can finish them in a new and creative way.

  4. Wonderful post! Particularly like your examination of archetypes. Archetypes make fantastic scaffolding to build your own story.

  5. Imagination might be the key to it all, but I agree with John, imagination only processes what's already deep inside. I can barely remember what I had for dinner last week, but I remember the moment I realized I could swim, my first breakup, and the first time I developed a roll of black & white film. Each of those moments shaped my imagination.


    And I have an actual Spiro Agnew watch!

  6. Thanks, Bill and Bill. Bill S, I like your image of "scaffolding" to build a story. Writing is a lot like architecture. Bill D, I agree that imagination and experience are a great team. Does that Agnew watch still tell time? Did it ever?

  7. You've provided enough prompts for stories here we shouldn't even need to crack open our own memory drawers for a while.
    I'm enjoying the previews of the novel. Good stuff.

  8. Thanks, John. I'm having fun posting these "trailers."

  9. I loved your excerpt, John, and I'm definitely looking forward to reading the whole book. I like stories written by inventive, intelligent people and I know I'm going to love your book.

    You reminded me of when my mother had to be moved from Sun City, AZ to Chicago, where I lived when she was diagnosed with Altzheimers disease. I was trying to do all the necessary things, sell the house, take care of her bills, whatever had to be done. I also had to go to court to gain access to her safety deposit box in her bank. After a month's waiting, I finally got permission to access it and went to the bank. Imagine my surprise when we opened it only to find three I Like Ike buttons and that was it for the safety deposit box. We finally located her other vitally important papers in her house and in her desk, mixed in with everything else. I kept those buttons and when she passed away five years later and we had her cremated, I put one of the buttons in with her, and kept the other two on top of the box of her ashes. I still have those buttons. Memories. You're right, we all have them, don't we. Some good, some bad. All in all, they make us what we are.

    Very interesting blog. I love your writing.

  10. Great post, great prompt.

    I'd suggest one other source for stories, maybe not as universal as the ones you explored: Things we thought of too late. Anything from the perfect remark to the right decision coming after you're irredeemably committed to the wrong one. Two questions always arise when I think of this: How would I be different I were the kind of person who has those instincts, and how would things have been different if I had acted on them?

    This musing has led me to several stories and characters, and the books went pretty well, probably because I was tapping into something unexpressed and maybe even repressed and under pressure to escape.

  11. I really enjoyed this post, John. Maybe we should all print it out and carry it with us so that we'd have an answer at hand when someone asks the inevitable question, "Where do you get your ideas?"

  12. Thanks a lot, Tim and Patricia. Tim, I quite agree that afterthoughts provide fine inspiration. Many of my stories are based on lost opportunities, and a few of them imagine how bad it might have been if I'd made the wrong choice.

    Patricia, I suggest you come up with a snappy one-liner to use when you're faced with the question. Something like, "I use a ouija board."

  13. Beth, thanks for your comment, too. I Like Ike buttons! They were all over the house when I was a kid ten years old in 1952. It never occurred to me to save those buttons. It also never occurred to me to admire Adlai Stevenson. I had to figure that one out much later, once I'd moved out. Thanks for the memory.

  14. Loved your term, "the junk drawer of your mind." You have described my entire mind! Especially today.

    Great post.

    I'm posting as Anonymous, because Blogspot hates me. Maybe it's my red hair.

    Jackie King

    Jackie King

  15. Jackie, maybe Blogspot will be nice to you if you wear a blonde wig. I hear they're a bit kinky...

  16. Some good ways to dig into your memory banks. Also, don't forget to just look around you at your everyday life and the people who inhabit it. Sitting here reading the post, I had a family drive up outside my apartment and the girl in the back seat was being a brat. I watched the dad get out, go around and smack her butt a couple times. Couldn't somebody get a story idea from that?
    Stephen Brayton

  17. Stephen I agree with you. In fact, I believe it's in our nature as writers to always be "taking notes" as we observe the goings on of people around us.

  18. I love the image of "the junk drawer of your mind." It describes me too. I keep a note book by the bed for dreams or ideas that come at night. I also have a notebook with me at work and anythere else ideas hits or bits of conversations may be heard. Great post.