Are you are writer who has lots of ideas? Do you sometimes have more ideas for novels, short stories, poems, memoir, creative non-fiction pieces or blog posts than you can use? Do you have trouble sleeping because of all of the ideas flying like flocks of swallows though your mind?
Many writers would be envious of your endless ability to conceptualize and create complete works seemingly from nothing. Sonja is one of those writers who would be envious. Let me tell you her story. For weeks she hiked in a barren land in search of story ideas. The skies that looked down upon her were the colour of slate, while the rocky terrain beneath her hiking boots was tinted in shades of the same colour. When she reached out her hands for inspiration, she felt only the harsh sting of the wind that whistled between her fingers, leaving her hands empty and cold.
But one day, after weeks of walking, Sonja descended below the treeline and found herself in a leafy grove. Near the centre, a stream of mountain water made tinkling sounds as it trickled down rocks and fell into a deep pool. The ground around the pool was lush with ferns and she was drawn to a magical tree that grew in a clearing beside the water – a tall Story Tree covered not only in leaves, but with story fruit. Our wanderer couldn’t believe her eyes. She walked towards the tree, her arms outstretched and plucked one of the fruit.
As she held the rosy flesh between her palms, it quivered and became transparent. Inside the fruit she “saw” the image of an old trunk. She wondered who had owned the trunk, and what voyages it had taken. The image of a young girl dressed in white came into focus, then Sonja saw a ship. Soon she was rummaging in her satchel for a pen and some paper. She crouched down and began to capture her ideas, as a story started to unfold in her mind. Then she returned to the tree and filled her satchel with story fruit, before beginning the walk back to her home, knowing her inspiration had returned. She also knew she could return to this place at any time in the future.
Wouldn’t you love a Story Tree in your neighbourhood – a big healthy one the size of a hundred year old maple, with bright green leaves and covered in story fruit just waiting to be plucked? We’re often told that stories are all around us and that it’s just a matter of looking. But sometimes we need some help to know where to go looking for the fruit. The following are some lighthearted, fun ways to help you find and harvest your own story fruit.
Freewriting can be a great source of ideas. If you do Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” or write regularly in response to prompts, you will already have a rich source of ideas. Revisit some of your past writing with a coloured marker in hand. Highlight phrases or key words that stand out resonate for you. You may find the words suggest situations, characters, or settings you could expand upon.
Clustering, brainstorming, branching, mind mapping (a term first coined by Tony Buzan) all involve writing a central word or phrase in the centre of a page, then free associating and adding words connected by lines, branching out as new associations are made. Try opening a dictionary at random and placing your finger on the page. Use the word that appears beneath your finger as the prompt. When the resulting map feels complete, mine it for intriguing connections or word combinations that might suggest a story.
Songs often evoke a strong emotional response. Choose one that you know has an
impact on you, then take time when you are alone to deeply listen to the music and allow yourself to sink into that emotion. You don’t necessarily need to draw your inspiration from the words of the song, but while you are immersed in that deep emotional state, you may sense the glimmer of a storyline.
Newspaper headlines provide a ready source of inspiration. Sit down with a copy of a newspaper and clip intriguing headlines. Paste each heading in the centre of a blank piece of paper, and brainstorm on the page everything suggested to you by the title – such as characters, plot, and setting.
News features can spark ideas. The other day on CBC radio I learned about the opening of the Minus5 ice bar at the New York Hilton in midtown Manhattan. The temperature is kept at 23 degrees Fahrenheit (or minus 5 Celsius). The walls, chairs, glasses, even the lights are all made of ice. The admission price of $20 and includes gloves and a parka. What an intriguing setting for a story! Read more about the ice bar HERE.
Visual images are powerful triggers for story ideas as they take us out of the realm of linear thinking. Assemble a number of different types of magazines. Flip through them and clip images that appeal to you. Move the images around until you find ones that seem to belong together, then past the images onto a blank piece of paper to create a collage to inspire your writing.
Dreams can provide inspiration. Keep a notebook by your bedside. In the morning, record what you remember of your dreams. The purpose is not to analyze your dreams, but to capture intriguing details, symbols, metaphors that you may be able to use, especially in poetry.
Wander with your notebook. Go to places where people gather – an airport, train or bus station, subway, café, restaurant, bar, park, beach. Observe people and (discreetly) record what you observe. Consider what people are wearing, their mannerisms, how they express emotion. Record snippets of conversation. Ask yourself questions. What would happen if……..? Why does that person look so……? Who would do something like that? What did she mean when she said….? Reread your notes at home looking for story seeds.
Prompts can be great story generators. You can sign up to receive daily prompts from author Sarah Selecky. Click HERE to be taken to Sarah’s website.
If you’re intrigued by these suggestions, and would like to delve into some more in-depth resources, here are two recommendations:
- Where Do You Get Your Ideas? – A Writer’s Guide to Transforming Notions Into Narratives by Fred White, and published by Writers Digest, 2012. Part 1 (Strategies) begins by offering suggestions for finding ideas, followed by chapters devoted to fleshing out your ideas using mapping, profiling, and collages, then developing your ideas through research, writing a first draft and revising a first draft. Part 2 (Applications) includes chapters on creating a short story from a newspaper report, a memoir based on family memorabilia, and novel structured around a symbol or event.
- Naming the World and other Exercises for the Creative Writer, Edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, Random House, New York, 2007. This book is a compendium of essays and exercises on getting started, character, point of view and tone, plot and narrative, dialogue and voice, descriptive language and setting revisions and daily warm-ups.
So grab your basket, and head out to find your own Story Tree. Happy picking and happy writing!
Until next time,
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Our blog posts will continue over the summer, but we won’t be offering any more writing retreats until the autumn. We hope you’ll consider joining us for a Day Away to Write on October 6, 2013. The leaves will be just starting to turn – a perfect time for a country drive. We’ve also posted our 2014 retreat dates on our home page.