Posted by: Trisha Leigh | March 21, 2011

Native Americans, Dead Presidents, and Axe Murderers

“Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear.”

That quote is from Empire Records, one of my all time favorite movies, and I think it applies to story ideas as well as thoughts in general. One of the questions I get asked most often is “how do you come up with your ideas?”

Ideas are not the hard part, at least not for me. I’ve got pages and pages of ideas, some fleshed out, others with main characters names, a concept, and little else. I get them everywhere, anywhere. The problem is living long enough to write them all into novels.

The idea for In the Autumn germinated from a tweet. I don’t recall who tweeted it, so if it was you, I owe you thanks. The tweet said “my friend’s daughter woke up in the middle of the night terrified that she didn’t exist.”

Now, I didn’t know exactly what struck me about that tweet, but something caught my attention so I wrote it down. Over the next week, the plot and characters began to show up. Five weeks later, I had a 70k first draft.

Weird, right?

This past weekend I visited Rapid City, SD with my friend and her children. There were story ideas popping up like prairie dogs out of their holes: the tragic, but brave tales of the Lakota Sioux, the journals of Louis and Clark as they surveyed the land for the first time, the man who took a commission from Crazy Horse’s friends to carve a monument of their slain leader, the man who brought passion to Mount Rushmore, the amazing story of Wild Bill Hicock’s death in Deadwood, and even a long unsolved mass ax murder in small town Iowa a full century ago.

Think about that. I just gave you like, a bazillion story ideas.

Then there’s spinoffs from those stories. An idea is like a spark at the end of a string of fireworks, the first setting off fifty more if you just let the fire burn. One Native American or settler story reminds me of something like Roanoke, and how no one knows exactly what happened to those people. The man who conceptualized Mount Rushmore insisted there be an inscription, because without it people in 500, or 1000, or 5000 years wouldn’t understand the importance of those faces. I enjoy dystopias, so of course I thought – there is no inscription, it was never completed. What would someone think about those faces with no context?

The point? Stories are everywhere, and nowhere. They’re in history, in the extraordinary and ordinary actions of the people who changed our world long before we lived in it, but they’re also in a turn of phrase that hits our ears just right, and in a person who inspires a quirk in a character we never thought of until that moment.

If you’re a writer, you see the potential in each moment, each passerby, each experience. I know my journal feels fatter after a week away from my comfort zone.

Where do you find your stories and characters? In the past? In your mind? Somewhere mysterious, like in a muse? I’d love to know!

What I’m watching right this second: Seinfeld. Yup, again.

 

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Responses

  1. As you’ve pointed out so nicely, ideas are everywhere. The two books my agent just sold for me started when I saw a name on a license plate, and a series concept just popped into my head. It’s like the character was always there, just waiting for her cue to appear.

    • Wow, that’s so interesting! Isn’t it funny the things that snag claws into our minds and don’t let go? I can’t wait to read your book.

  2. I get that question a lot, too, and I always feel like I give the lamest answers. Honestly, ideas don’t come all that easily to me. I usually start out thinking, “I want to write about a funeral home” and start building a story around that. Silly, right?

    I love the idea of a tweet inspiring your book. That’s totally cool and makes me want to read it even more!

    Tawna

    • That’s how it always starts, though – one simple idea that grows into a tangled jungle. Thanks for wanting to read my book. One day!

  3. “What would someone think about those faces with no context?” Oh heck yeah. I love this. Reminds me of Ozymandias.

    I have always had ideas. Not necessarily GOOD ideas, if you know what I’m saying. I guess they come from everywhere. The best ones always grow out of characters who just sort of arrive, and I follow up with them, wanting to know more about them. Sometimes I see a person who looks intriguing and that can spark a character who’s probably nothing like the person I started with!

    • It’s funny how different people see stories in different things. Some in places, some in history, some in characters – they all work!

  4. I’m with Beth on this… I think the best ideas are the ones that spark great characters. As for ideas themselves, I don’t know if I have very many. I usually feel as if I’m searching out my next idea. I typically reject them unless I feel strong vibes from characters. I guess I need to know ‘who’ the story is about more than ‘what’ it’s about.

    • See the comment I left for Beth – it’s so weird how we all consider different starting places to be the most important. I hear you on rejecting weak ideas, though. Only the strong survive!

  5. I agree, like the overlooked story of disrespect, insult and desecration of the Black Hills, which is a sacred place for the Lakota Sioux, not to mention that this is a desecration of a natural feature of the land. It’s like graffiti on nature! The Black Hills is also home of Wounded Knee where U.S. Troops massacred unarmed Sioux women, children and men. How’s that for terrorism? Now, back to this story of “so-called” Mt. Rushmore (A.K.A. The Black Hills). This monument to European hubris was build on stolen lands. A theft which require the massacre of thousands, if not millions! I could say more, but this monument is a shameful reminder of the true underpinnings America’s rise to prominence. It’s easy to be number one when you kill and steal everything. Look at W.W. II. Anyway, that’s another story.

  6. I agree, like the overlooked story of disrespect, insult and desecration of the Black Hills, which is a sacred place for the Lakota Sioux, not to mention that this is a desecration of a natural feature of the land. It’s like graffiti on nature! The Black Hills is also home of Wounded Knee where U.S. Troops massacred unarmed Sioux women, children and men. How’s that for terrorism? Now, back to this story of “so-called” Mt. Rushmore (A.K.A. The Black Hills). This monument to European hubris was build on stolen lands. A theft which require the massacre of thousands, if not millions! I could say more, but this monument is a shameful reminder of the true underpinnings of America’s rise to prominence. It’s easy to be number one when you kill and steal everything. Look at W.W. II. Anyway, that’s another story.


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