Welcome to Teach Write! This column draws on my 20 years’ experience teaching writing to kids, university students, and adult learners. It includes ideas and exercises that teachers and students can use in the classroom, and creative writers can use to level up their process.
When asked where we get our ideas, writers often joke “The idea store.” In an age where we can type “writing prompts” into Google and return literally thousands of starting points for our next masterpieces, it’s actually not that far off. Ideas are everywhere: in one of his Discworld books, Terry Pratchett describes them as whizzing through the air, searching for a receptive brain to bump into. Often ideas arrive piecemeal, building over time, until a lot of things we’ve been thinking about suddenly coalescence into a unified whole.
None of which is actually helpful to the person who asked the question! So today, I thought I’d share the origin stories of several of my manuscripts, in hopes they give fiction writers a practical place to begin. Several of these stories can be read for free on this website!
Memories are a great source of ideas, particularly for children’s writers who need to recall what it’s actually like to be a kid. Grandma’s Teacups is based on one of my earliest memories. We’d gone to visit my great-grandmother, who lived in a gloomy house with old-fashioned metal heating grates – the fancy filigreed kind with large open holes. Great Grandma gave me permission to play with her doll’s teacups, provided that I was very careful not to drop one down the grate. You can guess what happened, and how terrified I was to confess… The plot of Grandma’s Teacups doesn’t bear much resemblance to my memory, but Kaylee’s emotions definitely do!
What stories does your family tell over and over again? Those tales persist for a reason, and they are a great starting place for original fiction. After all, why make stuff up if we don’t have to?
The time my Mom saved two kids from a tornado, earning enough the money to buy a coveted Barbie doll, is the stuff of legend in my clan. I coveted that very-same Barbie doll as a child, and it came to me after my Mom passed. I wrote Tornado Alley to honour that connection to my Mom, as well as to record a formative moment in her life.
Mining Social Media
Yup, I am fully aware that social media can be a cesspit of negativity and despair, but it’s also an endlessly-refreshing stockpile of articles, quotes, perspectives, and images that can be mined for ideas. Helaine Becker and I co-wrote an entire middle grade fantasy novel based on a single photograph – we’re working on a sequel while the first manuscript makes the rounds of potential publishing houses. This is the second time (that I know of) that Helaine has turned a social media post into a manuscript. Ironically, both ideas came from photos that I had shared! Which just goes to show that even professional writers don’t always recognize a good idea when it stares them in the face.
If you’re really struggling, try making a “story kit.” On a piece of paper, write a list of 20 random nouns, and a list of 20 random verbs. Cut the words out and put them into a box or baggie. Shake it up and pull one out. What memories, associations, or ideas does that word spark for you? Write down as many ideas as you can. If you’re drawing a blank, pull out a second word (or two), make a new list of ideas, and look for connections between the two.
This method can produce some surprising results, like my short story French Braid, which started from a single word: brush. “Brush” reminded me of how much I loved having my hair brushed and styled as a child, and of a friend who was an absolute genius with French and Dutch braids (she could make pony tails and zig zags and crowns…). French Braid is entirely fictional, but this same prompt could easily have led me in a more biographical direction – towards the time that my Mom was working the day of school pictures and my Dad (bless him!) wielded the crimping iron with great success.
Don’t judge me – it was the 80s.
Where do you get YOUR ideas from? Share your favourite story-generating techniques in the comments!
Hey, did you know I teach writing workshops? It’s true – I work with adult writers, teachers, and students of all ages. Contact me to learn more.