Wrestling with Mental Whiteout: Fumbling around for that next story idea


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Story ideas, where do they come from? Many times they’re elusive things we catch glimpses of yet dash out of when we try to focus on them, not unlike the little, squiggly line that floats into your field of vision but darts away when you try to look at it. Others come flying in at you sideways while zoning out munching on the morning english muffin. So what’s one to do? Sitting and struggling aimlessly through a mental whiteout won’t do. And waiting for the next epiphany to saddle up and say, “HI!”, isn’t something one can place too much stock in either.

So what are the tricks? I had a fiction writing professor tell us once to go to coffee shops or a bar with a notepad and just sit and eavesdrop. Listen to the conversations around you. Sometimes what may seem mundane at first will spur ideas as the mind mixes and churns those conversations around and around taking them on different paths and in alternate directions. This also works great for dialogue. Also, sit outside or at a window and watch those out on the street. Some of the most interesting characters will walk by given enough time. An idea or two may well pass right by. A character may appear to center a plot around or someone may stroll past that may offer a unique lead in to draw the reader into a new story.

I found this one recently, written on a napkin saved from a few years ago while living in Flagstaff, Arizona;

“An air blast from the passing Escort stole the cardboard sign from his hand. Flurried panic surrounded him as he chased the tumbling square. One arm outstretched with straining fingers leading the pursuit, his right arm tensed around a weak, crumpled copypaper box, no lid.
His sign came to rest sliding against a curb. Placing the box down on the sidewalk he gingerly picks up the abducted cardboard with thumb and forefinger. Then with practiced precision he positions it back into his left hand carefully following a self-imposed set of procedures. He picks up the box, raises the sign back into the air and continues on his path.

For Sale
One side guaranteed to brown”

This could be someone who leads the reader to the main character of the story or is involved in an event pivotal to the story or could simply keep popping up in street scenes throughout the tale. Who knows? If it doesn’t spur something immediately then it may well down the road.

Another is to ask yourself, “What if?” Think about a time in your life when an important decision was made, the right fork in the road was taken, then ask, “What if” the decision would have led down the left path instead. Imagine where life might have gone. See if that leads to an interesting story idea. Imagine the people who reside in that life, what events transpire there and how did, or will, they impact one another. There’s also those big, historical What if’s. What if Rome never fell? What if the Spanish Armada made it to England? What if the Industrial Revolution began in in ancient Greece? What if Russia won the space race? What if Al Gore beat George W Bush? The possibilities are endless! The stories do not have to take on the vast consequences of those changes but can just use them as a backdrop for the story to take place in.

These are a few ideas that I’ve tried. They’ve worked at times but were fruitless at others. I’m sure others who read this have their own tools and strategies for rattling loose the inattentive muses to prod them into doing what they’re paid for.

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