Looking at the title you wouldn’t guess this was an article about writing, would you? Well, I recently had a conversation with one of my aunts, who loves to read, about how an author gets ideas for pretty much everything that goes into their books. Titles, characters, character names, and more prominently, plotline.
At one point in the conversation I put forth that one could get story ideas from anything, even something as simple as a fork. To prove this, I then picked up one of the forks in the kitchen and commenced brainstorming. The result? An intriguing mystery story about what appeared to be a straightforward murder except for one inexplicable object in the room: a fork. The main character proceeds to search for the reason that fork was present, which eventually leads him to solving the case and apprehending the murderer.
This strange method of getting ideas from the most unlikely objects is something I have found common in the writers I have had contact with. However, it appears that most of the time it is an unplanned occurrence; the result of sudden inspiration that causes said authors to make a mad dash for their notebooks, much to the surprise of those present. This happens to me, as well. Especially in the middle of a conversation, while I’m writing, or just before I fall asleep at night. If you know an author, you know this is true.
But that kind of inspiration, although loads of fun, is unreliable and limited. The moment one sits down to write it out in more detail than just a scribbling in the notebook to remember the general concept, the full color surround sound moving picture you had in your mind fades in the wake of the hundreds of little details that must be pinned down before the idea can become a story. More inspiration is needed. “I write when I am inspired, and I see to it I am inspired every morning at nine ‘o’ clock.” That quote by Peter De Vries is an excellent example of what I mean. This is when we ring the alarm clock bell in Inspie’s ear and make him wake up and start working. This is when we sit down and just start writing, churning the gears until they get up and running smoothly. This is what I call planned inspiration. Pretty much everyone else calls it really hard work.
So what’s the deal with the fork? What I did with the fork is on the fly inspiration. For me this comes easily. I can look at any object and come up with some sort of idea for it. I have never had an extended amount of trouble with book titles, or character names, much to the annoyance of some of my friends, who are also writers. When one of them asked me to explain why that was, I got to thinking about what plays into being able to take any object, phrase, song, word, you name it, and come up with a story for it.
• Vision. Your surround sound HD moving picture ideas are going to be a disappointment, to varying degrees, when you put it to paper. Fact of writing life. But just because it doesn’t look good in black and white doesn’t mean it never will. Keep that blu-ray vision in your sights, and have faith in the magic of hard work. Oh, and those mediocre ideas you came up with can be digitally remastered. Just sayin’.
• Confidence. This is the ability to admit when an idea stinks, but not be embarrassed because of it. Two thirds of every writer’s ideas are dumb. It’s the ones who don’t feel bad about this fact that actually keep going and cone up with the stories that turned into the awesome novel you read last week.
• Angles. Those two thirds of dumb ideas I just mentioned? Don’t throw them away! The rest of the world is savvy about recycling, you should be, too. Every single idea can be looked at from about a thousand different angles. Never scrap an idea until you’re sure you’ve explored every element. Like as not you only have to tweak a few elements, context, or placement of the idea to make it work. This also plays into the confidence. Once you realize you can make pretty much any idea good, you are more willing to allow them to flow.
Okay, so back to the quack… First thing’s first, think of all the various meanings of that word. Obviously it’s the sound ducks make, but it’s also used as an insult (“What were you thinking, you quack!”). It could also be used as a descriptor for someone’s voice, if it was particularly high and nasally. So there are three choices, but to make it difficult, I’m going to use the duck sound one.
No, don’t laugh, give me a minute. Assuming I want to turn it into a thriller, not a children’s book or a book on waterfowl, how could I possibly fit that title as a key element in said thriller without making it completely dorky? My working goal is to take quack from funny, to dreadful. (Me? Ambitious? Nonsense.)
Let’s say the main character, who I am going to name Joe, had an uncle in the city die, leaving him all his possessions. Over the course of going through his uncle’s stuff, Joe finds an old antique wooden duck….that actually turns out to be a poison dispenser!
Okay, yeah, that’s pretty lame. Time for an angle! Poison dispenser… Perhaps Joe’s uncle was a taxidermist, and he stole a vial of poison from this one crime gang in the city and hid it in this stuffed duck (scrap the antique idea). Joe, being an odd person, names the duck Quack. (Title!) Over the course of a few weeks, however, Jose is hunted by these crime gang members as they try to find out from him where this duck went. (Dread!) Being noble on top of odd, Joe, once he finds out what they want and why, must try to escape the inner city to reach the police station with this stuffed duck. Tada! Thriller named Quack! The dark atmosphere can be easily inserted during the writing process, and to add to the waterfowl theme, add a villainous character named Drake and make the badguy headquarters right near a pond frequented by geese and ducks.
Yes, I made that all up just now. That is what on the fly inspiration looks like, and any writer can do it.
With a little practice, of course. But hey, we’re writers, right? “Try, try again” is about five million tries too short.
After reading this over, my Mother suggested I make it something valuable inside of Quack instead of poison. This is the part where the writer takes into consideration the input of others, and decides whether or not it would, in fact, improve their story. But that’s a whole other topic…
[image credit: Duckling]