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Susan Staneslow Olesen: The Idea Factory

“I want to write, but where do you get your ideas?”

It’s hard for me to answer such a question because I’ve never had to think about it; ideas were just there. Writing is in my blood—my grandfather published a few books, my grandmother wrote poetry, my great-great-grandfather collected folktales, and my dad has articles published in magazines. I’ve been writing seriously since I was ten years old. I didn’t pursue writing as a career because it was something I already did well; there were other things I wanted to learn. Give me a class with a term paper and I knew I’d get a good grade.

Now, that’s not to say I never get writer’s block, or sometimes have no idea what to write. I belonged to a writer’s group for ten years, with monthly topics. Often I whipped off a piece that night or the next day, and goofed off the rest of the month. Sometimes I wrote three. Sometimes I started out with the topic in mind, but it took such a tangent you never saw it coming. Presented with the topic of “Hands,” I wrote about a magician’s assistant. For a theme of “Water,” I wrote a Greek-style myth inspired by a line of Pete Townshend’s song Hiding Out—“a waterfall of women weeping”—what an image! And yes, most certainly, I get overwhelmed when starting a new novel—even now, when I’ve written ten of them.

So, where does a writer get ideas?

The answer is: look around you. There isn’t a thing under the sun that isn’t an inspiration. Ants in the grass. A cat hugging himself in his sleep. A moth beating against a window. The fading sunlight creeping across a carpet. Every one of those has a story behind it. When? Where? Why? I needed a name for a lawyer, so I looked around me. Larry Lamp didn’t cut it. Marcus Driskin was named for a bottle of—you got it—dry skin lotion.

My first novel series, Best Intentions, arose from a short story I read in the back of a women’s magazine when I was about nine years old. It involved parents who abandon their five children at the side of the road, and how the oldest child—eight or nine herself—tries to make a home for her siblings in the woods. Using that theme of children abandoned, I invented a story of a large family whose mother dies unexpectedly, and when the father is sent to prison, they are legally abandoned into the custody of the eldest child (an overwhelmed 22-year-old in my story). That one small concept—children alone—turned into a five-volume sociological study of abandonment, depression, abuse, and the power of love and forgiveness. I joke it’s my Ph.D. in psychology. The two stories have as much in common as apples and oranges, but they came from the same concept.

In my second novel series, there is a simple line in Conflicts of Interest that says, “My second wife died of a medical condition.” It was only on editing that I wondered, what if the condition was suicide? Why? My head then exploded with possibilities, and a 40-page outline evolved almost overnight.

The best thing for a writer, the very best thing you can do to advance your writing career, is get outside and OBSERVE. Take notes if you have to, but your goal is to leave your abode and go feel the entire world with every one of your senses. Walk through your town, whether it’s New York City or a small village in the Punjab. See it with a child’s eyes, a child’s sense of wonder. What does it smell like, not just here, but there, too? Breathe in: smell the dirt, the pavement, the trees, the garbage rotting by the roadside, the skunk in the distance, fresh paint. How does the sun feel on your skin? Is the air humid, damp, sticky, dry, cold, hot, is the wind blowing? Is the sun hot but the air cold? Hot like a lamp, or hot like cayenne at a Mexican fiesta? How does the air change after it rains? What does the pavement smell like after rain, awash in the metallic smell of writhing earthworms? Listen as you walk. What music do you hear leaking from cars or windows? What is it saying? Is there a busker on the steps of city hall, blowing a trumpet or sawing a violin?

Everything tells a story.

James Baldwin called it Experience. A writer needs to experience everything they can, and then write what they know. That’s true, but you can’t always experience something—not everyone will be an astronaut; no one knows what it feels like to travel to Mars; a woman (random, average) cannot know what it’s like to be a man, and a man won’t ever experience childbirth. We don’t know if an elephant feels sadness; we can’t all climb Everest; we don’t all have a twin; we may never undergo divorce or have a child kidnapped or find an evil clown in the sewer drain—but we can observe, ask people, read biographies and science books, and we can use those observations to project a sense of experience, remembering a time when we felt profound fear, and write what we know. Read. Read everything you can get your eyes on, even shampoo bottles. What comes into your head?

A short video on Japanese cooking I saw inspired a short story of a child getting expelled from school for using a similar method to cheat students out of money. Completely unrelated, but inspired by nonetheless. Knowing old glass has a tendency to slide downward over the millennia led to the scene in Best of Everything where newcomer Sarah gets off on the wrong foot, informing Grandmama that her expensive and rare artwork is being mistreated and starting to slide off the canvas. When the cat died of liver cancer, I turned the feeling of loss into a poem about two children playing in a real forest. You can read it here. A horrific nightmare I had in college became a character’s nightmare in a story.

Susan S Oleson kitty

You’ve lived on this planet for decades. What have you experienced? What facts do you know? Think of a fact, any fact, and use it to formulate a story. Monarch butterflies migrate. Chewbacca walks through the Death Star naked, and no one thinks twice. It takes, on average, twelve minutes for pasta to cook. Murders can happen in less time. (Okay, so now I have a picture in my head of a naked Wookie boiling water for pasta, but s/he is murdered, and a butterfly flies past the window. See how ideas multiply?)

Experience. Observe. Examine everything, as if you just landed from another planet and were trying to figure everything out. Everything you can see, smell, touch, taste, hear—grab it with both hands, let it sift through your fingers. How would you describe it?  Observe everything. Observance = experience. If you’re writing about Greece and you’ve never been there, take a trip if you can. If not, find a Greek festival. Watch the people. Listen to the language. Note the colors of the costumes and the dances and the rhythm of the music. Taste the food, or at least just look at it, noting the way a grape leaf looks rolled and stuffed and cooked, or the shine on a triangle of baklava, the way the walnuts spill between the layers of dough. Taste the sweetness of Ravani. At worst, find a travel DVD at your local library and take in what you can. Observe, observe, observe. It doesn’t have to cost anything. Take notes if you have to. Many foreign cities have webcams; view the landscape in realtime. See the buildings, note the colors. What does it make you think of?

As a writer, your job is to convey your story, to transmit the movie from your head to that of the reader. A successful story pulls the reader inside, connects with them not just visually with a painted scene, but emotionally, retrieving the smell of Grandma’s peach pie, the gold flaky crust with the tips of the edges just starting to burn, the way she twisted the peaches in the pan just so to make it look like a swirl when set on the table, with a dollop of whipped cream perched in the center, rivaling the onion domes of Moscow. To build up that illusion, to pull those memories from people’s heads that make your writing alive for them, you have to pull their emotions, and you reach those emotions by pulling out those details that trigger their memories, and those details come with observational experience. A good story takes place more in the reader’s head than on the printed page. Hair the color of rusted chains, bouncing in a confident rhythm as she trekked up the walkway, paints a dynamic picture that sticks in readers’ heads, lights their imagination, and connects in a personal way. Roan may not be a word everyone understands, but most people have seen rusted swings in a schoolyard, brownish-red. Shared experience. In The Shining, Stephen King mentions the way someone blows their nose, peaks into the hanky, then puts it away. You’ve seen people do this. A little detail, incidental to the story, but it makes the character pop from the page. You know people just like that. You’ve seen passing motorists pick their nose while driving. Perhaps you have a friend with an eye that has a tic; it twitches when they speak. Slide that fact into a character; instant association. Use that fact as the basis of a story. Perhaps the tic is a fatal flaw, giving away a secret.

Observe. Observe. Observe. The distant clang of church bells, tolling the hour. The rush of wind through pine trees. The headline of a newspaper; a magazine article on solar-powered cars. Listen to the conversation behind you in the restaurant. Teri’s husband blew another paycheck gambling, and Hope’s offered to front her $40 for groceries. Every one of these situations is a story. Writing dragons? Visit a pet store and watch lizards.

Go. Write. Write with passion. Use all that knowledge you spent a day, a week, a lifetime accumulating, and put it into your writing. Write with authority, knowing that your words are truth. Everything you see or hear is a potential character, a potential story, a potential detail to help bring your story alive. If one idea isn’t enough, list several: a blue car, falling acorns, the wedding ring, Billy the Exterminator, the sound of geese honking. The more ideas you list, the more your story writes itself. First day of school, shadows on the wall, grandpa’s missing teeth, misty rain, fireman. All that knowledge is in your head—or at least in your notes. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

Don’t overthink it, just let your story go where it wants. You’ll be surprised where you wind up.

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Susan S Oleson   

Susan Staneslow Olesen is an exhausted novelist and blogger for the Cheshire Public Library, where she also runs a writer’s group. A graduate of Wells College and The Chase Collegiate School, she has been a fruit picker, dial press operator, special education teacher, crisis intervention specialist, Disc Media Wizard, fostered 50 kittens, and is a 30-year foster parent to six children plus three of her own. She runs in circles and tears her hair out with her husband in Connecticut.