Ideas That Light That Spark

Life Is Funny! Write It Down
by Stacey Wiedower


Stories are everywhere.

That’s an obvious statement for a writer to make, right? But before the urge to write fiction hit me, I managed to wander through most days without examining every person I met or everything I saw for a story or book idea. Now, though, it’s as if ideas are floating around in the air, just waiting for me to notice them, pluck them out of the blue clear sky and shape them into something compelling.

That moment when an idea takes hold is super exciting. I know it’s different for every writer, but for me it’s usually something small – some little kernel of something I witnessed or heard – that lights a spark that might explode instantly or might smolder for days or weeks before it grows into a flame I can’t put out. That’s when I move the idea to my official “books yet to be written” list (which is actually just in my head). I think about these ideas all the time. I also have a journal – a good, old-fashioned, spiral-bound notebook – that serves as my idea catch-all. Little snippets of a scene here, thoughts on a character there. They’re all jumbled up in this one book that’d probably be the first thing I’d grab if my house were on fire (yes, I know … there’s a cloud out there that can’t catch on fire. I use that, too).

Almost always, my ideas are driven by people. For me, the character is the story, and when I try to work from a detailed plot it’s usually derailed by unexpected decisions my characters make. People are totally, ridiculously fascinating, and one reason is because we so often say (or even believe) the opposite of what we’re thinking or feeling. It’s like constant self-preservation – or self-sabotage – and it’s just so human. It’s also what creates the miscommunication, internal conflict and humor that underlies a good story. It’s so serious that we have to laugh at it to stay sane! That’s why I write romantic comedy.

I’ve spent years telling people’s stories as a features writer for newspapers and magazines. With fiction, though, I get to make the stories up – and that’s a fascinating concept for a journalist who’s used to substantiating or attributing every single fact. It’s also where the fun lies in plucking these ideas out of the air and shaping them into something new. And a side effect of this phenomenon for me is creating stories in my head around people I meet in real life.

Like, I’ll spot someone who looks interesting in the grocery store and wonder, “What’s his story?” Then I’ll walk around tossing items in my cart and working it out in my head. “He’s the type of guy who lives _____, drives _____, probably does/doesn’t/doesn’t want to have kids, cheats/doesn’t cheat on his wife, only eats meat, doesn’t eat meat, yada, yada, yada.”


I’m probably completely wrong, but that’s the beauty of it – it doesn’t matter. That person gave an impression, instigated an idea, and that idea was the launch pad for a story. And some of those stories stick. They’re the ones that spark a flame that lights up my mental list. Others get fleeting play in my head, then forgotten. Or lost in translation … sometimes an idea that seems amazing in the moment loses its impact on the page. And sometimes it’s the littlest things that trigger an idea – not a person or a situation, but a phrase that jumps out at me, a song. I have a few random book titles scribbled in my journal, no plotlines or characters attached, just titles.

For future use.

I often wonder, now that this writing bug has stung me, how it stings other people. If you’re a writer, did you always know you wanted to write? Is it something you decided, like, as a career choice? Did you have an idea first and chew on it for a while before you started putting words on the page? Or did you sit and stare at a screen and brainstorm ideas for the Next Great Novel? Is it people who inspire you? Situations? What-if questions?

This topic is kind of a dangerous one, right? I’ve read lots of blog posts and tweets from writers complaining about the fact that their neighbors/friends/relatives fear they might someday, somehow turn up as a character in a book. So is it true? Is anyone with the fortune or misfortune of living with or around a writer at risk of being fictionalized and put on public display? Of. Course. Not.

And yeah, maybe. Not that they’d ever know it.

The truth of the matter is, real life is strange, but fiction is stranger. And making stuff up is way more fun than telling the truth.

Stacey Wiedower is an author, freelance writer and interior designer based in Memphis, Tennessee. Her second novel, Now a Major Motion Picture, is out next month.

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