Saturday, May 6, 2017


John M. Daniel’s Blog
May 7, 2017


Greetings, friends and celebrators of the joy to be found in stories—writing them, reading them, telling them, or hearing them. If you enjoy a good story, this weekly blog is for you.



Essays on
Writing Fiction


Chapter 3
Where Do Stories Come From?

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 Amon-tillado.

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.


Call for submissions:
Your 99-Word Stories

The deadline for June’s 99-word story submissions is June 1, 2017. The stories will appear on my blog post for June 10, and will stay posted for a week.

note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.

Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:

1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to:

THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: What was the most important life-changing decision you ever made? Tell it in a story 99 words long.


Calling all published authors—

I try to feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at


Thank you for visiting. Please drop by next week!

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