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Monday, February 21, 2011

THE "WHAT-IF" GAME--IDEAS AND WHAT WE DO WITH THEM


Have you ever been asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" Ever thought
about that question?

Where do your ideas for writing fiction come from, and what makes them
worthy of the time, effort, and creative energy we expend to bring that
idea to full fruition--to craft a well-written story from it?

One source of story ideas is from real-life experience. Whether we are
retelling a chapter of our own life, or something that happened to
someone else, we must have come to the conclusion that that idea was
worthwhile and that others would be interested in it, as well.

I want to talk a little bit about why we have to be careful when we
glean ideas from actual happenings. For many years, I taught a series
of classes on "writing your life story." You can't imagine how popular
those classes have remained, especially with the older generation. The
idea that one's life is unique or different suddenly takes on new
meaning when others say, "You should write that down!" It comes to
mean, "Your life has been fantastic!" It may well have been fantastic
but when you stop to think about it, many, many people have had unusual,
one-of-a-kind experiences at one time or another. What would make a
person believe that their life story would be the one people would rush
to Barnes and Noble to pluck from the shelves and lay down a twenty
dollar bill to buy?

Many times, we as writers can draw from our life experiences as a bank
of ideas for our fiction, but to write our own life story in full
would generally prove to be a project that might prove to be a
disappointing failure in the end.

Characters we've met in our lives also give us ideas for the characters
we create. Although we might not think of our sourpuss Aunt Betty as
a "character" in real life, once we begin to write the fictional story
we've been plotting, we might see one of the secondary characters begin
to take on attributes of Aunt Betty--someone we haven't been around for
the past five years. People we've met casually, or known in a family
context, can firmly insert themselves into our stories--much to our surprise.

Books, poetry or movies that might have influenced our thinking during our
lives also can have an impact on our ideas. I once read a book based
on a song that was popular in the early 1970s about a young woman who
was in love with a sea captain.

Other forms of mass media can also add to our treasure trove of ideas.
Articles we've read in magazines or newspapers spark ideas. True
stories that are fictionalized have become one of the most popular genres
ever created. Truman Capote's best seller "In Cold Blood" was the book that
was the catalyst and set the standard for this type of fictionalized
reality.

Historical events from the past can also provide us with ideas that can
either stay fairly true to history or take a wide turn around the actual
events. Alternate history is a new up-and-coming genre that encompasses all types
of fiction writing, from science fiction to historicals,
including certain genres of romance, mainstream, and political fiction.

Now that we've talked a bit about where some of our ideas might come from,
we need to look at how we know whether an idea is "story-worthy" or not.
Have you ever started writing on a manuscript that you loved the idea
for, but suddenly the plot fizzles? Maybe you get to a certain point
and don't know where to go next. Does that mean your idea is no good?
Or does it mean you are just in need of some brainstorming to re-direct
your plot, punch it up, and keep the middle from "sagging"?

Someone once said, you can wash garbage, but it's still garbage. Learning
what is garbage and what is salvageable is the most important thing you need
to know. If you begin with an idea that you love, chances are, there'll
be someone else out there who'll love it, too! Your readers! If you
have an idea that's "sort of" good, the question is, will you care enough,
as a writer, to see it through to the end?

Of course, everyone who has ever written anything for pleasure has had
self-doubt. Remember Miss Smith's third grade class? If the assignment
was to write an essay, or a short story, you didn't dare let that smirk
of anticipation cross your face. What would your friends think of you
if they knew you were looking forward to actually writing a paper? While
everyone else wrote a paragraph, you couldn't help yourself: you wrote
two whole pages! And the secret was out. Self-doubt set in the very moment one of your
classmates asked, "Gosh, why'd you write so much?"

So, you see, self-doubt has been instilled in us since we were in Miss
Smith's class. It will never leave us. We have to practice introducing
ourselves in the bathroom mirror: "Hi. I'm (insert your name here.) I'm
a writer."

One of the best idea-getters is the "what-if" game (one of my favorites.)
What if there was a man and he had a beautiful daughter. What if
he fell in love with a woman who had two daughters of her own. What if
they married. But, what if the woman wasn't what the man had believed
her to be? What if she hated his daughter and was jealous of her?
CINDERELLA!!!

I love this game because it leads to all sorts of possibilities. Our
stories can take flight in directions we never imagined, becoming a
joyous surprise even to ourselves, the authors!

Though we must battle our self-doubt on two fronts (a, will the story idea be interesting and good and b, will I be able to write it, finish it, bring it to
fruition through publication) reminding ourselves every day that we are
professional writers and that our ideas are worthy is one way to combat
that doubt. I'm not a fan of critique groups normally, but finding
other writers who are supportive through other venues is a great
confidence booster.

Something to think about: The greatest "what-if"? What if I wasn't a
writer? My story would never be written!

I’m so glad that my first published novel, FIRE EYES, was made possible by a combination of my imagination and a wonderful editor who had the patience of Job with me. That novel has led to all kinds of amazing “what-ifs” and fantastic possibilities in my writing career! I'd love to hear from you about your "what ifs" and what they've meant to you--in life or in your writing.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from FIRE EYES.

THE SET UP:
After US Marshal Kaed Turner has been brought to her, wounded and beaten, Jessica Monroe nurses him back to health only to have him leave her in pursuit of the gang that has terrorized the Arkansas/Indian Territory border since the Civil War ended. When his fellow marshals show up hot on the trail of Andrew Fallon's gang, Kaed leaves with them to track down Fallon and save the hostages the gang has kidnapped. Jessica is left alone with her thoughts, and the greatest "what if" of all--wondering if he will make it back to her again.

FROM FIRE EYES:

The night had seemed unending, the hours slipping by in a cool shower of rain. The misty air that followed was chilly, and Jessica, wide awake, had risen around midnight to build up the fire.

A restless uneasiness surrounded her, and she was unable to quell it. She put two logs on the dying fire, sparking it back to life, then pulled the rocking chair over to sit in front of the hearth, hoping the heat would soak into her stiff limbs. Would she ever be warm again?

Sleeping alone was quite different now than it had been before Kaedon Turner had come into her life. She missed the intricate tangling of their bodies, the soft silk of her skin entwined with the rough warmth of his as they made love, and later, when they fell asleep, the steady rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, pain-free at last, and the way he pulled her close to him, even as he slept.

She watched the leaping flames, mesmerized, not really seeing them as she remembered the crisp feel of Kaed’s dark hair beneath her fingers, the almost boyish glint in his eyes as he teased her, the easy smile, and the secure feeling of safety that he wrapped about her and Lexi like a cloak, protecting them.

Jessica pushed her hair away from her face as another thought forced its way into her consciousness. She was late. A week late. She sighed, thinking of her conversation with Kaed before he’d left. She closed her eyes, just for a moment, seeing the flames outlined against the inside of her eyelids.

Maybe it didn’t mean anything. It was probably just the worry, the stress she’d been going through. She’d been late for her monthly before. But she found herself wishing, hoping, that this was the real thing.

Foolish. Anything could happen. He might be killed out there, and then how would she ever survive? A woman alone with two babies and no man. She shuddered, thinking of the way the Choctaw brave had looked at her, his dark eyes keen with lust. She had no desire to wed him, or anyone, other than Kaed Turner.

Yet, if she were carrying Kaed’s baby, what could she do? Return to Fort Smith with the marshals? Surely, they’d come to tell her if Kaed… She would not think of that. She stood, unable to make peace with her restless thoughts. Worst of all was the ambiguous feeling she knew Kaed harbored toward having a family. Would it always be so with him, even after they had children together?

Slowly, she crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed. The side where Kaed slept. Her hand went to the pillow and she caressed the spot where his head had lain. She imagined the way he looked at her when he had first opened his eyes, when he’d been barely able to slit them open at all.

He wasn’t ready yet. Shouldn’t be out there riding with the others. Didn’t he realize how badly he’d been hurt? Jessica shook her head helplessly. She couldn’t have stopped him. Stubborn, stubborn man.

But oh, how she loved him! Damnable stubbornness and all. Now, all she could do was continue to love him, to wait for him, and to hope he would accept the family life they’d create together.She wanted that life. Much as she had dreaded it with Billy, she anticipated it with Kaed. She stared at the pillow with unseeing eyes. As tired as she was, she knew she would not sleep if she lay down. Her heart was full of unanswered questions, her mind coiled tightly, unable to relax.

31 comments:

Tina Donahue said...

All the time I'm asked where I get my ideas! Mine mainly come from real life experience and what I observe on TV. There's a wealth of story ideas there, especially in the news and reality shows. :)

Redameter said...

A lot of times my ideas just pop into my head and are there, wandering around until I do something with them. Then sometimes I'm watching the news and something sparks, or an old movie, the what if's kick in.

I like to take the improbable and make it probable. And I don't know why. When I went to write The Far Side of Lonesome, I decided that I would create a what if in history. After all, it was bound to have happened at least once in real life back then. Why not tell that story because it needs telling.

Jeb and Hoot are Christian black men who stumble upon a white woman in a tribe of friendly Indians. Now what are two black men gonna do with a white woman that has a Indian baby? Forced by thier own set of life rules they must take her back to her real people. Seems simple enough, except that a black man riding with a white woman back then was unheard of, but the biggest question is how will she be recieved by her family and friends.

Not only is she captured by Indians, she's rescued by black men.

That is a what if story. And sometimes, they are the best, because it gives the writer the freedom to resort to her own conclusions. Life really isn't blue printed to be lived just one way, a writer knows this. And sometimes a writer choses to take a different route...the what if route.

Great article Cheryl. As one of the best writers I know, Cheryl always comes up with some good ones. I don't have to wish you good luck with your writing, you're a great writer!

Delaney Diamond said...

My ideas come from so many places: life, movies, books, TV, etc. I like the idea of "what if." It's a great way to brainstorm to get ideas and help you think outside the box. Some interesting twists can come out of "what if." Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hey Tina!
You are so right! Not to even MENTION JERRY SPRINGER!!! LOL Sometimes things that happen in real life are weirder than anything we could ever make up. But they sure make great stories! Thanks for commenting.
Hugs,
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Rita,
You are a dear friend and I surely do appreciate all the kind words. You have come up with some great "what ifs" yourself! Loved The Far Side of Lonesome. That was really a conundrum but it all worked out in the end.
Hugs,
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Delaney,
You sound like me! How could we write without the "what if" game? I'm so glad you came by and commented.
Hugs,
Cheryl

Celia Yeary said...

Cheryl--probably all authors are asked "where do you get yours ideas?" I know I have, many times, usually in the form of "How do you think all that up?" And yes, others wonder is so-and-so in a novel is anyone I know.
Wonderful teaching post today, Cheryl--Thanks!

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Wonderful blog, Chery--full of meaty tidbits and food for thought. I get most of my ideas from real life and carry a tiny writer's journal with me at all times just I don't miss anything. Playing the "what-if" game is an excellent way to establish the story line.
I have to tell you I loved Fire Eyes. The villain was exquisitely dark and evil. It takes a hero of Kaed's caliber to defeat such a villain.
Loved your blog.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I left the L out of Cheryl. God.

Rebecca J Vickery said...

Hi Cheryl and SNSDs,
What if was probably the greatest tool in all my novels and shorts. It really is funny where it will take you at times. Loved Fire Eyes!
But then I love all your writing.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Like Rebecca, I'm a huge Chreyl Pierson fan! You have a way of writing, cheyrl, that reads off the page and grabs me. Love it.

Ideas come from all around, but the best ideas of mine come in that margin between waking and sleeping. I have to take a lot of naps to reach this level of creative indulgence, but those ideas are always solid gold.

A bad idea came from using a caustic personality to generate conflict in a book. No one like this character. The thing that got me was that I modeled it after a real life person who acts like this all the time. That was a huge lesson for me. Life can be stranger than fiction, but you have to stay within likeable bounds for your main characters. Either that or have more skill with the written word than I possess!

Enjoyed the topic and the post.

Maggie
www.maggietoussaint.com

Maggie Toussaint said...

okay. I really know how to spell Cheryl, but my keyboard is possessed today. Sorry for the typos.

Maggie

Fiona McGier said...

I have been a people-watcher for as long as I can remember. I also read a lot of psychology and anthropology books, because people's behavior is endlessly fascinating to me. That being said, most of my best ideas have begun as dreams. I've learned to cherish the story arcs I wake up with, let them germinate, then write when I feel ready. It's like a gift from my subconscious to me! Very interesting, thought-provoking post.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Celia,
I am always amazed when I start teaching a new writing class at the people who show up and say,"How do you get an idea to write about?" It takes a lot of restraint to keep from asking, "HOW DO YOU NOT????" LOL

Thanks so much for coming over and commenting today!

Love,
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Sarah!
Boy you know how to make a gal's head swell! LOL Thank you so much for all your kind words and your unflagging support! I appreciate you, and I'm so glad you loved Fire Eyes so much. I wish I could bring Kaed home with me...
Love,
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Rebecca,
You are a great "WHAT-IFFER"!!!!Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy day to come over and read and comment. I appreciate you, my dear friend! So glad you enjoyed Fire Eyes, and thanks for the kind words about my writing!
Love,
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

MAGGIE! Good to see you here, my friend! I can't thank you enough for all your staunch support. I'm so glad that you are such a fan--you know the feeling is mutual. I think we could all have a "mutual admiration society" right here--because I have loved everyone's writing I've read that's come to comment today.

Oh, I envy you and your naps! If I lie down and sleep, I'm not worth shooting the rest of the day. I'm really just slow witted after that, not creative in the least. But it obviously works for you with the way you are churning out the hits.

Thanks again for coming by and commenting!
Love,
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Fiona, you are a girl after my own heart! I love to people watch, and have done it forever, just like you. I think I got that from my mom, because she did it too. That is truly a wonderful "gift" you give yourself about letting the idea germinate and then writing it when it's "ready." I'm so glad to see you hear today--thanks for coming by and commenting. Glad you enjoyed the post!
Hugs,
Cheryl

Anne Patrick said...

Awesome post, Cheryl. "What if is a very powerful question. I love the journey it takes you on. And I, too, am a people watcher. My friends really get a kick out of me when we go to the mall or out to eat. They're all yacking away and I'm sitting there brainstorming, wondering it that guy over there sitting by himself is a serial killer looking for his next victim :-).

StephB said...

Great post, Cheryl. I think for me I wrote "Destination: Berlin" as my personal story. From there, I found unique places for inspiration. Soap Operas, my passion for Russian history, my passion for historicals, my passions for the paranormal. Certainly, inspiration has broadened out. I do a lot more research now.

Great topic!
Fire Eyes was a great read.I love you engage the reader. Your writing has always been very strong in that aspect and it's one of the reasons I enjoy your writing so much!

Smiles
steph

Laurean Brooks said...

Cheryl, I was the one in fourth grade who almost squealed at a writing assignment while the rest of the class groaned. LOL. How did you know?

I loved this post. Gets my muse to revving. Enjoyed your excerpt of "Fire Eyes" too.

May God continue to bless the works of your hands.

Cheryl Pierson said...

Anne, that cracks me up! I wonder the same thing about those people sitting alone looking all innocent. LOL Thanks so much for coming by and commenting. I appreciate it--I know you have a lot going on right now, too!
Hugs,
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Steph,
You are a dynamo, girl! I don't know how you do everything you do, especially with your little ones at the ages they are. Thank you so much for coming by and commenting. I appreciate that wonderful review you did for Fire Eyes. I am so pleased that you enjoyed it so much. Your love for research shows in your writing, too.
Hugs,
Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Oh Laurean! I wish you and I had been in the same class together. LOL I was the "Lone Ranger" when it came to loving my writing assignments. LOL I think all of us were probably that way--too bad we didn't ALL live in the same town and go to school at the same place. Then we would have had others to be able to talk with about our "weird" love of writing. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks so much for coming by and reading and commenting. I appreciate you!
Hugs,
Cheryl

Stacey Joy Netzel said...

I love looking at newspaper headlines, or in the local events listings. There's some great what-if's in those. :)

Great excerpt!

Janice said...

All my stories are "what happens next." I do like your "what if" story.

Good luck with the book and congratulations on having a very patient editor.

Janice~

Cheryl Pierson said...

hi Stacey,

Yes, especially in small town newspapers. You never know what you'll find in those! LOL

Cheryl

Cheryl Pierson said...

Hi Janice,

What happens next is great, too! Thanks so much for the congrats. Yes, I was very lucky with my editor for Fire Eyes!

Cheryl

Rawiya said...

What a great post.

I also gather inspiration from things I see, hear, and read. As authors, we need to grasp onto those ideas and never let go.

I know I have at least 4 stories that I left because I didn't know where to do next but I do plan to revisit them.

Congrats on the first book!

Tanya Hanson said...

hi Cheryl, I so agree...how can one NOT have tons of ideas swimming in their brain all the time. Inspiration can hit at any time. A real life person, a snippet from the newspaper...

My personal life is as boring as a blank page, but I am related to so many nutballs that I have a wealth of info at hand LOL. Right now I've got a March 20--I better go check the family tree.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Cheryl, great blog, very informative. I find that in everyday living and socialising I can always find interesting events and people to weave into a story.

Regards

Margaret