Sunday, September 5, 2010

Trolling the Mind of a Writer: Ideas

When I meet new people, I either tell them: (a) I’m a technical writer, in which case I have to try to explain what that is in less than 100 words before their eyes glaze over; or (b) I just tell them I’m a writer.

If I give answer (b), then they usually ask “what kind of books do you write?”. If I say that I write for children, usually I get one of two responses, either: (c) “Oh.” as they sidle away to talk to someone more interesting; or (d) “Oh. You write picture books. Do you do the pictures as well?”.

After clarifying that I write for different age groups and that, while I have an art background, I am not a professional illustrator, if the person is still talking to me, then they might next ask “where do you get your ideas?”.

So I ramble on about Dandelion Dan, Thelma the singing dragon, Kacper and Ruby, and Charlie Skinner. I get pretty excited about my story ideas, so if left unchecked, I can rabbit on indefinitely.

But where do I get my ideas? Here’s a few examples.

I get inspiration from my own life, my own family, where I live. My brother is the subject of a couple of my book ideas, Dandelion Dan being one of them. This is the story of a boy who doesn’t wash behind his ears and ends up growing weeds off his head. Now of course, in real life, my brother never managed to grow anything off his head (in his night table, yes, perhaps even under his bed). But as I was washing my own ears one day, I thought back to our childhood and how our mother used to hector him to wash behind his ears. So, I was musing to myself, what if…?

I have two friends who have given me ideas for books based on their families. Flyball is based on the true-life adventures of a beautiful half-wild, 18-pound cat who’s full name is Flyball Flintabbatey Flonatin Pfeffernusse Foot-Furnace Boniface Brant. The book involves two very competitive brothers, summer softball games, and their mutual adoration of this cat.

TV and film and non-fiction
No, I’m not talking about copying an existing story. But sometimes, a detail will catch my interest. So I make notes, just in case, and file them away. I saw a documentary about an ancient continent called Lemeuria and scuba diving archeologists. How could I not be interested?

I especially like film scores but any kind of instrumental music can be good for setting a mood. I wrote 10 pages of notes for a medieval adventure while listening to Loreena McKennitt.

Fairy tales and legends
Terri Windling published a series of books of reworked fairy tales. I want to do a book like that. I have an idea for a story about Ch’i-Lin, one of the four mythical creatures in Chinese mythology. Being Canadian, I might do a story around Ogopogo, our version of Scotland’s Nessie.

Not "issues" in the way that makes people roll their eyes. Most people have personal stuff that they struggle with as they go through life, so I think there are some topics that have special significance to me that I want to tackle, such as self-esteem, depression, grief, courage, and volunteering (see, it’s not all negative and heavy). I worked in a nursing home when I was younger, so I have ideas for stories involving older people, one may be a murder mystery involving elder abuse, another could be a bit of a comedy called The Crusties’ Rebellion.

A Dragon Named Thelma came out of my love of dragons and my experience as a folk singer and a volunteer at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.

Photos, newspapers, and magazines
Funnily enough, this series of ideas is a composite of a photo in a family album and two newspaper articles. My grandma had a photo of a guy with a bi-plane that was taken in the 1930s. The label on the photo said only Skinner. All I new about him was that he flew into the farm with my grandpa when he was courting my grandma, and she had a ride in that plane. I had an idea for a book based on stories about farm life that my grandma and her sisters had told me, Jessie’s Dream. I want to have Skinner and his plane in my story too. Very recently, I cleaned out a little painted suitcase full of papers that my grandma had saved. In it, I found a double-page newspaper spread from the 1980s about Charlie Skinner and his wife. There before me was a whole page of details and an idea for another book! Also in that suitcase, was an article about a very tall young man from the late 1800s called The Giant of Willowmount. That was a story title if ever I heard one. The interesting thing is that the giant and Charlie Skinner are from the same town! Now I have a trilogy of book ideas that are connected by Charlie Skinner. And it all started with a photo, a few family stories, and two articles.

Recording ideas
Like many dedicated (or slightly obsessive) writers, I always carry multiple pens with me. If I don’t actually have paper or sticky notes or a notebook handy, I will resort to paper napkins, menus, or anything else that will take an ink impression. I also send emails to myself or text messages. In desperation, I will even write notes on my own skin, to be transcribed and then washed off later. I have a folder on my computer and on my table. They are both brimming with ideas.

Somebody said “write what you know”, but I say “write what you wanna know” too!

Ideas are everywhere, you just have to be paying attention.


rosesnjazz said...

Really interesting post, Colleen! Thanks for sharing the inner workings of a writer's world!

A. Colleen Jones said...

Thanks very much! It's great to get feedback, and I can hopefully improve my posts as I get more practice. :)

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