Where do stories come from (part three zillion)

by Alex

I’m at LCC in Denver this weekend, along with what seems like a  staggering number of ‘Rati, really fun, although I’m shocked and bummed that Rae isn’t here – your name is being tossed around all over the place.

This afternoon I’m on a panel on "Where do stories come from?" with the interestingly diverse group of Donna Andrews, Jane Cleland, Penny Warner and Mike Sherer.   I never get tired of this question (and apparently neither do conferencers) so I’m thrilled to be able to indulge in this conversation with some of my favorite authors.

The thing is,there are so many answers to the question, and I suspect we all have different answers to the question depending on who’s asking, and on how much sleep we have had, or, you know, other variables.  And call me humorless, but I don’t really find it funny when authors answer glibly, "At Walmart" or something similar, although it’s true that you can always pick up a character or two for the storage bin cheap in line at one of those places.

I think, in no particular order, that sometimes there’s a particular aspect of ourselves that we want to explore, or a fantasy we want to work out (possibly instead of destroying our lives and everyone around us by doing it for real.  And don’t ask me why I would want to live out fantasies as dark as what I write.

Sometimes a character will work itself into my consciousness first and start nagging to be written about, but for me that’s usually after I start with an overall story idea or thematic thread, like "I want to do a story that’s an erotic triangle between a woman with a troubled past, a cop who thinks she’s an indulgent prima donna, and a very, very bad man… and then the characters will start to grow out of the situation.

I have said before that I think authors are generally working just a handful, maybe as few as a half dozen, personal themes – over and over and over again (as I wrote about a few weeks ago, THE PRICE is only one of my deal with the devil stories.).   I also keep working out themes of violence and gender and how men and women react differently to violence, or force the pairing of an unlikely man and woman in a crime-solving situation and have them have to use specifically gender-related skills to the solving of the case.   The soul-crime of sexual abuse and sexual violence is another big theme for me, and so is the more supernaturla theme of opening doors that shouldn’t be opened and having to deal with the consequences of that opening.

Sometimes an idea presents that is just obviously a story, like my third book, which is actually such a great idea that I’m reluctant to talk about it on the Internet – public domain and all.   But at the time that story seed presented itself to me, I had already done years of research on the overall subject, so maybe (or apparently) I was more ripe to recognize the idea as a terrific story than someone just casually reading about it for the first time.

But I’m not entirely sure that when people ask authors – "Where do you get your ideas?" that they’re not really asking THAT so much as "How the hell do you ever put a story together?"

Because yeah, you can sometimes identify a seed idea that acts like the grain of sand that irritates an oyster enough that it starts the process of adding layers that become a pearl.   That’s one metaphor for it all.   But I also think that writers keep vast warehouses of story ideas, snippets of character, dialogue, themes, locations, professions, character quirks, sexual dyanmics – that are not just sitting passively on these warehouse shelves, but that are actually constantly shifting and turning and rubbing against each other and sometimes they stick and magnetize and suddenly you have a premise or subplot.   At any given moment I’ll have half a dozen to a dozen story ideas in various stages, and occasionally I can feel ideas collide in that warehouse and become a greater magnetizing force that will attract other elements and eventually snowball (to now hopelessly mix about seven metaphors, but that’s what the process feels like.)

But no matter how much I talk about story being my first motivator, writing is ultimately ALL = about the people for me – the characters.   At a certain point I get invested in the people I am idly fantasizing about and that’s when a story shifts into high gear.   Because from then on, no matter how hard writing can be, you need to bring those people into the world – the sense of responsibility is enormous, some shadow of what parents must feel.   You’re solely responsible for their existence and that’s what keeps you going, keeps you writing to the end and through all the subsequent revisions, that responsibility.

Or that’s just me.

I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone else has to say.

What’s it for you?-

5 thoughts on “Where do stories come from (part three zillion)

  1. Rae

    Hi Alex! I wish I were there….stinkin’ work is curtailing my opportunities for fun this year.

    As a reader and conferencer (love that word 😉 I’m always fascinated to hear how story ideas germinate. And I agree with you that most writers deal with a limited number of themes. It seems to me that you’d have to feel pretty strongly about something to devote to it the energy and angst required to create a whole book.

    I think it also goes to the old idea (Evelyn Waugh, maybe?) that there’s a finite number of stories to tell, and that where you see differences in writers’ work is in the way they tell those stories.

  2. Zoe Sharp

    Hi Alex – hope you all had a great time in Denver. Sorry I couldn’t make it over to the US for that one.

    I know you find the Walmart answer glib, but I really feel that if you open yourself to ideas, they just … come.

    I think we’re back to this left-brain, right-brain thing. One half is the creative centre that’s always being told to be sensible by the more practical half. If you can distract the sensible half somehow, you let you creative side flourish.

    Anyway, it’s not Walmart, it’s http://www.Plots-R-Us.com … 😉

  3. R.J. Mangahas

    Great post Alex.

    I find my ideas coming all over the place. Sometimes it’s a dream. Sometimes an article that I read. A picture can be good for ideas too. Or maybe another writer’s garbage. (Okay, that was bad too, but I still think the Wal-mart thing is worse).

    Part of my problem sometimes though is that I have too many ideas kicking around and may have a hard time focusing on one. Although, carrying around a little notebook has been pretty good because sometimes an idea will just come to me and I know that if I don’t write it down, I’ll probably forget it later.

    By the way, I finished with The Price. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Good stuff.


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