Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Idea Store

“Where do you get your ideas?” All writers recognize that question. I always want to answer, “At the Idea Store.” This sounds snarky, but there actually is such a thing. It’s called Conversation.

It’s dangerous to talk to a writer. All my friends and family now know this. You never can tell when something you say off-the-cuff, some insignificant little remark, might set off a creative spark in the writer’s mind, and woof! Off they go into Creator-Land, and you’ll find your throwaway sentence suddenly transformed into something wild and wooly and utterly different than you intended.

Writers must be on guard for those glittery images that zip past you and run off down the road, never to return, if you’re not listening. Some of your best writing topics might be lurking in the meandering blabber of your neighbor, your Aunt Matilda, or the snarky office gossip-monger.

My favorite example of this phenomenon is a short story I wrote over 20 years ago. It’s called "Miss Maud and the Three Bears" and is the tale of an irascible old lady who hated people but loved bears, so much that she lived a secret life as a bear. (There’s a lot more to the story, but I don’t want to spoil it for you, in case you want to read it.)

I’m not that interested in bears, or in crabby old ladies either. I certainly never thought about writing a story about them. But one day I went on a first date with a rather tedious young man whose favorite subject was himself. In the midst of his ramblings, most of which I was not listening to, he mentioned that on a fishing trip he had seen two bears swimming, or rather being swept along by the current, in the rapids of the Skykomish River, high in the Cascade Mountains. One of the bears was holding a wiggling salmon in its paws as it rode the water downstream. As it passed him standing on the bank, the salmon made a last frantic leap for freedom but was caught by the bear’s enormous claw.

There was something about the image of those bears that captured me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. For weeks I dreamed about bears swimming in mountain rivers, salmon thrashing between their paws. Finally, with just that one image to guide me, I wrote my short story, which, although there is a scene with bears swimming in the river, is not actually about that at all. Go figure. After I wrote the story, the dreams stopped, and there was no second date with the boring guy, so he never knew how he had inspired me. But to this day, "Miss Maud and the Three Bears" is one of my favorite stories, and when I read it, I see those swimming bears, river water sparkling on their fur as they are swept by me.

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit

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  1. Love the post, Kim, and you are so right about how we need to be aware of where stories can come from. Conversations are one of the best places. I was talking with a friend not long ago whose name is Mary Smith. She commented how some of her other friends have asked her if she is in the witness relocation plan because of that name. That got me to thinking about a story line that is now in my folder of story ideas. Hope I get to it one day. LOL

  2. Yes, so right on. Conversation creates that spark - most certainly.

    I also people watch. And gather ideas. From those I know and those I don't know.

  3. Kim: Great post. It is getting to the point that when my family members tell me a story, they add: "But don't write about it!" I even used the line as dialogue in my last novel, spoken by a choreographer after a dance critic showed up for a private showing. The dance critic replied, "You can't control that."

  4. I couldn't even begin to tell where my story ideas come from ... well, I could tell you, but I might get sued for plagiarism.

  5. I watched a film yesterday, and I was convinced the story would turn out a certain way. It ended up being totally different, so I got to keep my original thought as a possible story idea :)

  6. You are so right, Kim. Stories lurk everwhere -- on the newscast, in the park, at work, in the library, on the sidewalk, at the daycare center, and in every conversation we have, as you pointed out. We often hear this admonition: "Writer, beware!" Perhaps it might also be appropriate to say, "Friends and family beware! A writer is listening." :-)

  7. I almost lost a dear, longtime friend this year because I assumed I could write about something she told me, something I thought was an "everyman experience," but this friend disagreed and made me remove it from my blog so we could "move forward." Ouch. I learned my lesson, that with this particular friend, her ideas/comments are off-limits even if I use a pseudonym. (Kathryn C: It turned out she COULD "control that," under penalty of losing a friend.)

  8. Wow, Meredith, so sorry about what happened with your friend and thanks for sharing that. Really points out how important it is that we are careful about what we share on a public forum like a blog or Twitter or Facebook.

    I think what Kim and the rest of us mean is to use snippets of what people say to give a character an interesting line in a story. Or take a real incident and let it inspire us for a fiction story.

  9. Wow from me too, Meredith -- what a painful experience. Maryann is correct; what I listen for are memorable turns of phrase or vibrant images that I can weave a story around. I am careful if I want to write about someone else's actual experience, depending on the experience and the person. (I have some great stories about me and my ex-husband, but many of them alas may never be told -- one must be particularly wary of exes.)

  10. I agree that ideas can come from just about anywhere. And I liked the comment about how talking to a writer can be dangerous. I’ve had this happen to me before where a person backed out of a conversation when I mentioned that I wrote books.

  11. I enjoyed this vivid depiction of transformation. Deliverance from boredom through the imagination. Next time I am listening to someone go on and on, I'll listen for the sparkling image--or make one up!


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