Please consider a donation to help fund Vision: A Resource for Writers

Lazette Gifford,
Publisher and Editor

Margaret McGaffey Fisk,
Senior Associate Editor

J.A. Marlow,
Assoicate Editor

Issue # 57
May/June 2010

Table of Contents

Idea Farming

By Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2010, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

I can get a story idea at just about at any time -- and that is a problem when you can't possibly keep up with them. They pop up when I least need them, but I try to jot the good ones down. Those are the ones that stay with me for a day or two. Just this week, ideas came from two different sources. One involves the ghost of a long dead dog. If you read my LJ, you'll know that started out as a joke. But there he is, wagging his tail and thinking he might be a great character for a story. Born on a journey to a new land? Adventures in the wilderness?

The other idea that came to me this week really hit me oddly and I didn't know why at first. It had to do with Queen Victoria, a change in her personality, something that Disraeli said . . . .

And then I realized that it might be the missing piece to another story idea I've been working on for a while. I had already set Foundling: The Story of Tom Luck in the Victorian Age. Now I think I might be able to warp it a little more with a new historical fantasy element.

My husband once told me that I could get story ideas from street signs. He meant it as a joke. Four blocks later I had three street signs and a trilogy idea. It went something like this: Children at Play about a young boy who wants more than his lower class life and the start of a path that will take him out of the life he knew, but cost him more than he realizes. No Passing Zone about his unrelenting climb to the top of the corporate ladder and all the enemies he made on the way. Dead End Street is about his final years and the realization of everything he'd lost, and his fight to do something right in the end.

On a trip Russ and I made a few years ago, we passed through an odd little town in Nebraska and I thought about being a writer, living in that town. I got the idea for Muse there. I worked out much of the Vita's Vengeance on a trip to and from the Rockies. Trips have generally been good to me.

Nonfiction books are even better for generating ideas, though, because they don't require anything more than a few hours of reading. My personal library is filled with several thousand history books, and that is a repository of ideas waiting to be found. I read more nonfiction than fiction, in fact, because I love learning new things. New things lead to new ideas. Sure, I can get ideas for stories from other people's fiction writing -- but I would rather go 'to the source' so to speak, rather than base something on someone else's imagination. Not that ideas don't happen that way anyway, but I'm not looking for them the way I do when I read history or science books.

So, what does this mean for people who have trouble finding new ideas?

Be open to finding ideas.

This is the hardest part. It requires that you train yourself to see things and exploit them. You can get ideas from the most mundane places if you let your imagination play with them. Everyday things (like street signs) can lead to stories. Is there an abandoned factory that you pass on your way to work? I can think of four or five stories from it straight out:

1. A real world story about the people who had worked there, and how they had to rebuild their lives when the factory shut down. Was there treachery and greed involved? How about fraud and murder? There might be an old mystery in the shell of that building.

2. Or how about a futuristic story about the fall of civilization? There stands the building representing the old world, crumbling away while people scavenge through it looking for anything useful. Who are they, born a couple generations past the fall? What do they hope to find, and who is opposed to them trying to resurrect the old technologies?

3. There is a pure science fiction story here, one set on a new world where the factory represents the loss of technology as well as the link to the rest of humanity. What have they lost when they lost the tie to the rest of the human colonies? Why is the factory failing? What technology or raw materials can't they supply from their own world? What choices do they have to make to survive?

4. Want to write a fantasy story instead? Then maybe this isn't a factory at all. Perhaps it is an enclave of human exiles, living in the fey world, trying to hold on but losing a battle against the very magic in the air. Why are they there? Who are their allies and enemies? Are they half-blood rather than human or fey? Is it impossible for them to fit into either world? Is there someone famous with them? Merlin is too common and Arthur rather over-used. It might be time to look through some history books and find someone less well-known.
Each of those ideas could make a good short story or could be expanded into epic novels. The point is that you have to start with something as a focal point when you are looking for ideas. Don't just see abandoned buildings -- see what they could have been in whatever your chosen genre might be.

How about finding ideas in nonfiction books? That's even easier. Those writers who start with an event-idea and build a story around them are going to find all kinds of things in history books that can spark a story. And characters -- there are characters everywhere in history books. No, you are not restricted to writing historical fiction with them. A book on Disraeli sparked a fantasy trilogy for me while an eight book history of World War I became the starting point for an epic space opera; there we have person and events leading to something entirely different than the history they represent.

How can you take a specific history piece and use it to stimulate your imagination? Well, first you need to actually read some history. Don't wince. This isn't history class and you aren't going to be graded on the material. You aren't going to be forced to read American History when your love is Japanese History. You get to choose what to read, and even how much of it to read.

For this article, I grabbed something I keep on a shelf nearby -- The Timetables of History by Bernard Grum. It is nothing more than a list of things that have happened at certain times. No entry is more than 30 or so words. Can't possibly be much help, right?

Page 86, Year 797 under History and Politics:

The Byzantine Empress Irene overthrows her son Constantine, blinds him, assumes sole power and reportedly proposes to marry Charlemagne ( the Greek Church canonized her)
I'll be really surprised if some of you are not already seeing the basics of a fantasy story. There are a number of possibilities there, with Irene as an evil, demon-courting sorceress, to a powerful queen who had to take the rule before her son ruined the land. What about the son? This is not the Constantine, but a descendant of the famous man by the same name. What had he done? What could he do now? Don't think in terms of real history here -- think. Perhaps, of a young man spirited away after the attack of his mother (blinded or not). Historical fantasy using the real people? Pure epic fantasy set in a new world?

How about science fiction, with an alien race and a human at their court, caught up in the trouble? Maybe he's even the unwilling catalyst between two groups, one that doesn't want anything to do with the humans, and one that is pro-human. But even so, the ambassador has reason not to trust the pro-human Queen and helps the son, even if the son won't give the humans what they want.

Twist things. Turn things. Look at them from the opposite side.

There is probably more than one historical fiction novel about Irene, but that doesn't mean you can't write one, too, if her story appeals to you. That does mean a considerable amount of research, though.

What about something set in the modern world? Is Irene the widow of a corporate magnate who is anxious to get her equally ambitious son out of the way so she can take over?

In these few pages I've come up with the basics of at least seven or eight stories. Any of them would be a viable tale if I let myself expand them. Finding the mechanism to start the idea rolling isn't difficult once you open your mind to them. I came up with all these ideas within one hour writing this article. I thought about one abandoned building I've seen, and read an entire 25 words that gave me several more ideas.

If you are stuck on a story, try doing basically the same thing. Look through books or imagine a place and decide what your characters would be doing there. How did they get there? What is the trouble they have found, or the trouble they're escaping? Let your mind explore ideas completely outside the box of the story you have created. If you are already stuck, what have you got to lose? I listed one idea here that has helped me flesh out another book I'd been writing on, but hadn't quite clicked. Now I have another piece of the background just because of a single paragraph from a book.

There are ideas out there waiting for you. All you have to do is start gathering a few seeds, planting them in the garden of your mind, and choose the blooms that best suit your work. Farming ideas is not difficult once you learn the technique and let your imagination do the rest.

Lazette Gifford is the author of over twenty published novels and nearly fifty published short stories. She is the owner of Forward Motion for Writers, and the publisher and editor of Vision: A Resource for Writers.
Her website is

The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
~Sylvia Plath