A Writer’s Dozen: Eleven Ways to Get Story Ideas

This summer, I went to an SF writing workshop where we had to force out one short story per week for six weeks. Someone told us that by the final week we would reach deep into our [ASTRONOMIES] for ideas only to discover that there was nothing there, not even [SHIATSU MASSAGES]. I found, however, that the ideas kept flowing, that all I lacked was a little something that I like to call “words.” But [FORKLIFT] that, in this post I’m going to focus just on story ideas, so that you too can avoid the pain of reaching into your [ASHCANS] for fresh material.

1. Inflict your fears on others:

It’s sadistic, I know, but this is one of the joys of being a writer! Edgar Allen Poe was deathly afraid of being buried alive–a fear shared by many of his contemporary readers. Instead of dumping on his therapist, he shared this phobia with his audience by writing not one, not two, but four unforgettable stories about premature burial.

2. Share your favorite music:

Make like Ricardo Montablan’s Khan and inject your readers with earworms! Write stories inspired by your favorite or most dreaded songs. MTV published a collection of short stories inspired by top hits. Songs like Tom Waits’ “And the Earth Died Screaming” and The Beatles’ “I am the Walrus” and Muse’s “Neutron Star Collision” are just waiting for stories to be written about them. And I blame fellow inkpunk Erika for introducing me to System of a Down’s Sugar–the phrase “The Kombucha Mushroom People” plagued me until I wrote a story about a mushroom person. Named Kombucha. It’s a romance. Don’t ask.

3. Mash it up:

We live in the age of mashups, and this applies as much to speculative fiction as it does to YouTube. You like steampunk and zombies? Mash ’em up, the way Cherie Priest did in Boneshaker. Charlie Stross mixed the James Bond style spy thriller with the Cthulhu Mythos in his highly entertaining On Her Majesty’s Occult Service novels. My most recent story was a mashup of spy novels and steampunk and had Mormon polygamous wives has the main characters. Find two or more great flavors that taste great together and make your own Reeses Peanut Butter Cup of the literary SF world.

4. Get some exercise:

Some writers don tiny nylon shorts, subject their exposed bodies to hypothermia or heat exhaustion, and move their feet in rapid succession until pain shoots through their heart and limbs. There are some, perhaps even among the Inkpunks, who call this “fun.” They swear that it “gets the creative juices flowing.” For other writers, the mere mention of such torture can be used to spark desperate inspiration. The the pain of jogging, or worse, The StairMaster, can be threatened as punishment if the story ideas do not flow.

5. Drink a lot:

Sometimes this helps with ideas. When it doesn’t, you don’t care, so it’s a win either way.

6. Look at Pictures:

Yes. Even those NSFW ones. It’s ok, go on. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Welcome back! So, the cool thing about looking at pictures is you can look at anything on the Internet and call it “research” or “ideation.” Keep these words on hand for when your boss or SO surprises you with 50 tabs of graphic wombat love open in FireFox (note: this is not based on personal experience).

For one of my workshop stories, I spent a few days looking at ukiyo-e and the Spectrum 16 fantastic art collection, and this spawned a steampunk story set in Edo Japan about a copyfighting octopod and her hentai painter friend. Graham Joyce suggested I turn it into a romance. Don’t ask.

7. Retell a myth:

Hey, if it worked for God and James Joyce and the Coen Brothers, it can work for you. C. S. Lewis turned Adam and Eve into science fiction in Perelandra and Cupid and Psyche into fantasy in Till We Have Faces. Bonus: no copyright concerns.

8. Mix up your environment:

About this time last year my daughter and I spontaneously reorganized our books to look like this:

Rainbow of Books (Explore #93).

Sure, we couldn’t find books anymore, but it was a small price to pay for the inspiration we feel when we walk into the living room and the schadenfreude we enjoy every time a librarian friend walks into our home and goes into shock. Plus, there are hundreds of stories to be found simply  by reading the sequences of titles! Color schemes bring together books that would otherwise never be seen together. Consider: Lionboy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Fast Food Nation. Or: Romantic California Getaways, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bad Habits, Purified by Fire.

9. Append IN SPACE to a NOUN or TITLE.

EVERYTHING is better IN SPACE, from PIGS to JAWS to LOST to DANCES WITH SMURFS. Hint: It’s more fun if you use Announcer Voice.

10. Pick random seeds. Also, crowd-source:

Kij Johnson wrote her Hugo and Nebula-nominated, World Fantasy Award-winning short story 26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss based on a friend’s ad hoc selection of “macaques” and “looking into the abyss” from her LiveJournal interests list. This is the verbal equivalent of turning a raisin and a piece of chewed on gristle into a full Thanksgiving spread. We can learn two things from Kij: 1. Writers are magical. 2. You can never lose with monkeys. Especially in romances.

11. Run with your obsessions:

Don’t write what you know. Write what you obsess. Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Philip K. Dick–they all followed their obsessions. As for me, I fancy myself a foodie. I can spend hours salivating over online food pr0n. When the opportunity came for me to submit a story to Rigor Amortis, I wrote about two zombie foodies. It’s a romance. Don’t ask.

Now it’s your turn! Where do you find your story ideas? What do you do avoid painful experiences in your [ASTROPHYSICS]? Don’t hold back!

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  1. G
    15/10/2010 at 5:53 pm Permalink

    ooh, great list! (weird fact: these things works for visual artists as well! who knew?):P

    (oh, and I DO apologize about that wombat porn thing… [/cough*NOT*cough/])

  2. Andy
    15/10/2010 at 6:16 pm Permalink

    Awesome list!

  3. Sandra Wickham
    15/10/2010 at 9:51 pm Permalink

    Fantastic list!!

    I *really* like #4. (tee hee)

    My favourites are #1 (I definitely do that when I write) and #3. I’m excited to put some of the others into practice.


  4. Crystal
    16/10/2010 at 11:10 pm Permalink

    That’s a wonderful list.

    But as a visual artist, that bookcase is a thing of beauty. Just incredible.