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Gathering Ideas for your Short Stories and Poems

March 4, 2009

Where do you gather your ideas for your stories and poems? Do they leap out at you during dinner time or gently creep up on you when you are relaxing – or do you purposely go searching for them?

Ideas and prompts for our writing are everywhere most of them just waiting for us to pick them up to give life to. They can be found in newspapers, magazines, websites, your email inbox, in photographs, in the art gallery, by listening to people, or just by thinking about the things you have experienced.

For writers who are either starting out – or have come against a blockage of some kind, a gentle way to build your confidence in writing, whilst exploring your style and genre is to draw on your own experiences – both good and bad. Having spoken to a number of authors on this subject, the consensus seems to be that real life can be as far fetched, bizarre and unpredictable as another’s wildest imagination.

Start with the daily things that have happened to you, with your interpretation and view on it. You may discover that you have quite a wit with your insights, or that you can find an amusing or different way of seeing an event. Julia Cameron from the Artists Way suggests that all artists begin their day with a free flowing journal to capture ideas, thoughts, dreams and snatches of things that are drifting past your awareness. Perhaps out of this exercise, you will uncover a story or characters waiting for their turn on your pages.

There are writers who pen under an assumed name and go as far as write as a completely different character than themselves. While others don’t go to that extreme; but like to distance themselves and their writing. Neither of these are an issue, if that is what you have consciously chosen to do. However bear in mind that it is a battle for many to commit words to a page or screen which rings true and authentic, enough without having to fight against who you are. Dig deep and get to know yourself, and write from your own point of view. Why be someone else ? Again, not an issue if it’s a conscious one.

Here are some prompts you might like to incorporate if you are stuck for your next short story idea.

  • Carry a small notebook and pen wherever you go so that you’re prepared to write down fleeting flashes of inspiration.
  • Peruse the newspapers as real-life sagas make compelling short stories. Obviously change details to protect those involved and remember that its fiction, so feel free to change the ending to gain the impact you are after.
  • People watch and make notes as you go. Have a folder of character sketches about people you meet who interest you, and read them when you need inspiration.
  • Chose some of your interesting characters and allow them to interact in your head – or as one of Dales Friday Fiction Posts suggested – invite them to a talk show and see what happens.
  • Grab the phone directory from a major city. An interesting name or occupation can spark a story idea.
  • Sometimes new words can suggest entirely new directions for your writing. Open a dictionary to a random page and chose a word to explore.

Jack el Hai in his ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing. says that ideas are the raw materials for our industry. It doesn’t matter if you are a write by the seat of your pants writer or a meticulous planner, it is vital for a writer to be able to generate new and fresh takes on situations and events. To be a success as a poet or fiction writer you need to know how to find, develop and eventually sell your ideas which have by then been turned into masterpieces by your lyrical hand.

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  1. March 4, 2009 6:23 am

    I agree that behind every story there is something autobiographical and that our own lived experience is a rich and vibrant source on which to draw from. I’m glad in many ways I lead a rather ‘colourful’ life before meeting my partner and having a child.

    I find personal experiences is great for creating emotional impact in a story. Another favourite is to take something from my past and swing it 180 degrees. This was where my short story “Evie” came from (and it’s 100 incarnations since!)

    An idea that I’ve been brewing for an extended work came from a high school crush coming back into my life – and opening up a can of ‘what if’ worms from 1989 … imagine having the chance to do it all over again – in fiction? But with a twist? And as writers – we can.

  2. March 4, 2009 9:33 am

    Great post! I use many of the suggestions when I’m composing a new short story or character study.

  3. March 5, 2009 1:22 am

    I have my own little writers notebook that I jot notes and such down in. I think I get the bulk of my ideas from either the newspaper or researching material for one of my blogs. It’s amazing what you find when you go looking for it.

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