We fiction writers love to write. That’s why we do it. (And I bet you thought it was for the money!) But sometimes, after finishing a novel, novella, or short story, we suddenly find ourselves short of ideas for the next big writing project. It’s a dilemma that reminds me of the Coleridge poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
We writers live in a world filled with all sorts of sights, sounds, and emotions to inspire us. They surround us every waking minute and even haunt our dreams. How could we possibly run out of ideas?
But we do. It happens to many of us, if not all of us, and that just indicates that our minds are either too distracted to think about fiction ideas or so focused on coming up with the next one that we can’t see the needle for the haystack. (Yes, I know, I mixed my metaphors there, but it’s all for a good cause, so bear with me.) We are so bombarded by stimuli that we become overwhelmed and neglect to note the little gems of ideas just waiting to be discovered and embellished.
But truly, story ideas can come, bidden or otherwise, from literally anywhere. I have a mental file of vignettes that I’ve stored in my brain for future reference. One of them, which refused to remain stowed away, resulted in my award-winning novel, A Bit of Sun.
The vignette? A young man on a boat with a silly grin on his face holding the antenna of a shortwave radio to keep the signal coming in clearly while the Beatles sang “Eight Days a Week.” Doesn’t sound like much of a story, does it? But then you have to ask, who is this young man? Where did he come from, where is he going, and why? What adventures has he had along the way? What awaits him when he gets to his destination? And so on.
It’s almost like you have to unravel the sweater so that you’ll have the yarn available to knit the sweater back whole again, only it won’t be the same sweater when you’ve finished. But that’s as it should be. You’re writing fiction here, not a biography. What matters is that the essence of the first sweater, the emotional impact you received from this vignette, is somehow transferred to your readers through the pages of your book.
Other story ideas have come to me from my own life adventures, personal stories others have told me, current events, settings I especially like, and brainstorming with my husband. But they could just as easily have come from a song, a line of poetry, a photograph or painting, or even a snippet of dialogue overheard in a public restroom.
Keep your eyes, ears, and heart open while stilling the ever-turning wheels in your brain (what should I cook for dinner tonight? I wonder if my sister is over the flu yet? I hope the dog doesn’t chew up the furniture while I’m gone…) and let the ideas creep stealthily in.
Just relax and float on the water; don’t try to swim through it. And when the rains do come, drink freely.