Story Ideas and Techniques

Where do you get ideas for stories? Many of mine come from observations I’ve made and experiences I’ve had. Once in awhile something will just pop into my head. When I am on a “roll” and things are moving along,  it’s so exciting to me. I lose all track of time. Does that happen to you?

I recently wrote a short story (and I think it’s a work in progress) and ideas came so quickly, I couldn’t keep up. My fingers were flying across the keyboard. I couldn’t keep up with the thoughts in my brain.

I am grateful for my education in journalism in the 1970’s at UNL. As a student, I learned to type and think. It was much different than the leisurely handwritten thoughts that I was used to. I had to sit at the typewriter and, in rapid fire, put down my thoughts. It was daunting. But now I have difficulty putting pen to paper because my hand is slower than my brain when I write.

I have discovered that I like to write mystical stories. I’m a reader of mysteries, thrillers and spy novels so this has come as a surprise to me. My latest short story is called “Dream Catcher” and it’s about a museum curator who has the uncanny ability to sense things “other worldly.” I got the idea while looking at the dream catcher that hangs in my bedroom window.

Dream catchers started with the Native American of the Great Plains, the Lakota and Sioux. They believed the air is filled with both good and bad dreams. Dream catchers were hung in the tepees and on the babies’ cradle boards for protection.

According to legend, good dreams pass through the center hole to the sleeping person. Bad dreams are caught in the web where they die in the light of dawn.

Traditionally, the frame was made of willow hoops and animal sinew or cordage made from plants. The circular shape represented the sun and moon (and time) as each day moves across the sky.

Now, soft leather cord or synthetic materials are used. The hoop is likely wooden or plastic. They are often decorated with feathers and beads. Mine has an arrowhead in the center.IMG_3865

I have several dream catchers in various forms. I’m not sure when my “collection” started. Like many of my collections, it was inadvertent. I received some from the St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota after making a donation. I continue to receive them now and then, even if I don’t send a donation. I bought the one I have in my bedroom while vacationing in Colorado Springs. I also bought a dreIMG_3868am catcher necklace on another trip to Colorado. I’ve had one of my dream catchers so long, I don’t recall when or where it came from. It is made of leather and is very simple but beautiful with pinkish webbing. It’s one of my favorites.

http://www.dream-catchers.org/category/history/

In my story, the protagonist, Frank de Salle, is a museum curator who was born with microtia. The character is loosely based on my brilliant younger brother who is deaf. My character’s name is Frank de Salle, named for the patron saint of deaf persons, St. Francis de Salle.

Frank and his sister, Christine, a reporter, travel to the Pine Ridge reservation where they attend a powwow. Things happen as they journey onward to the Black Hills and into Wyoming to see Devil’s Tower. All culminates when Frank returns home and is visited by a ghostly figure one night.

Excerpt from “The Dream Catcher”

Frank de Salle was born with a missing ear.   He could speak but he knew he didn’t articulate very well. Strangers treated him as though he was retarded. He sensed it was because of his slurred speech and very loud nasal voice. But he held advanced degrees in both anthropology and history.

 He worked at the college museum as a curator where he set up traveling exhibits,  cataloged museum pieces, and conducted research on artifacts. He worked alone and lived alone and he was fine with that.

His modest two-bedroom home sat ten blocks from campus. He had a drivers’ license but preferred to walk. Pedestrians didn’t cut in front of one another or flip each other off as they hurried down the sidewalk. A nod or smile made it a much more genial mode of getting from point A to point B. Oh, he’d drive in the winter sometimes but leave early in the morning before there was much traffic.

When he spoke, he could hear his words echo in his head and thought they sounded fine, even though strangers looked at him in an odd way. “Don’t yell so loud,” Christine would say, but then he couldn’t hear his words. His speech therapist explained that, with his hearing aid on, he could hear about as well as someone underwater in a swimming pool might hear, whatever that was.

Sometimes he’d feel a vibration before hearing a sound through his hearing aid. Doctors told him that his other senses were heightened. He overcompensated because of his deafness. An oncoming car felt like he was holding an electric razor with the sensation passing through his entire body. He liked vibrations, his connection to the world.

Want to read more? Let me know. Leave a comment below. 

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“Everything the Power does, it does in a circle.” Lakota Proverb

“A man’s life is a circle from childhood to childhood, and thus it is in everything where the power moves.” Black Elk

 

The Roots of My Novel

Today I was asked, “What is your novel about?” This is always a difficult question because my story has many twists and turns.

A few years ago at a Nebraska Writers’ Guild meeting, one of our members, an author with a NY Bestseller, told us we need to identify the genre of our book. I said “fiction.”

“But what kind of fiction?” she said.

I mulled it over and finally decided it is probably an urban fantasy since there is a “spirit” (for lack of a better word) in it.

So, when I am asked what my novel is about, I say, “It’s an urban fantasy.” Most people look puzzled at my answer. So, I go on to explain how I came up with the idea.

I started writing the story when a good friend of mine committed suicide. I felt totally betrayed when he killed himself because, in college, he had been my spiritual mentor. As I struggled with my religion and life’s lessons, he was my rock. He listened and educated me. He made me think about my beliefs. He helped me solidify my convictions. His suicide made me angry and hurt. So, I started writing about my feelings, our relationship and memories of happier times. As I did so, I thought, “What happens when someone commits suicide? Do they go to Hell? If God is truly loving and merciful, would He condemn my friend to Hell?”

My friend was such a great guy and helped so many people, I found it hard to believe that he would go to Hell. So, I considered the options. He did, after all, take his life, which is not exactly a saintly act. I felt he must have some way to redeem himself. His suicide made me re-exam my beliefs again, just as I had in college.

As I was writing, I tried to put my mind inside a person committing suicide. It must be a very helpless feeling to think your life isn’t worth anything or to be in so much pain, suicide is the only option you see.

I started writing about a fictional character, Jake, sitting in his car with the motor running, a hose connected to the exhaust pipe. I read about carbon monoxide poisoning and, contrary to what a lot of people think, you don’t necessarily just “fall asleep.” It can be an excruciating process as the red blood cells lack oxygen and every body system is affected. Extreme nausea, headache, body aches, panic, gasping and shortness of breath can all occur.

In the 1930’s, the Nazis used carbon monoxide to exterminate the Jews before switching to cyanide gas which was much more efficient and effective at killing. Carbon monoxide was not the best thing to use for mass killings.

So, Jake starts experiencing some of the symptoms while thinking about his life. Using flashbacks, I tell his story, how he used to be and how he had changed. When he dies, Jake doesn’t go to Heaven or Hell, but instead, finds himself “attached” to a woman he can’t escape. She is totally repulsive to him and he feels pain and distress at her mere appearance. As he takes his arduous journey, attached to this woman day in and day out, he comes to realize his pain decreases if he doesn’t judge her so much. If he finds her habits or appearance less repulsive, things go a little better for him. As he becomes more empathetic to her, he starts to recognize her as an old friend. When I told my adult son, a philosophy major, about my atory, he said, “Mom, that is like Jean-Paul Sartre’s premise in his play ‘No Exit.’ Hell is other people.”

Using that premise, that Hell is other people, I found things made more sense in my story.

As Jake journeys with this woman, he becomes involved in a crisis in her life. He wants to help her, but he is trapped. He watches helplessly as she tries to deal with the situation. He must find a way to communicate with her, but how?

Timing is Everything

As I read an excerpt of my novel to my writers’ group at our last meeting, one of the writers said that she envisioned my main character as 65-years-old. Oops! He is supposed to be 45! Where did I go wrong?

It didn’t take long to discover that my flashbacks and my current setting were confusing the time. My character grew up in the 1960’s but my story takes place in 1995. I hadn’t given clear clues to help the reader know how old my character was. I had to come up with a solution, short of saying “Jake is a 45 year old white man.” (Not a good idea.)

movie 1995

It seems that when people read (unless it is made clear that is it a period piece or science fiction or futuristic) they are in the present time. An author has to make it clear if the story is taking place at a different time. It is easier to write a period piece that is far in the past or far into the future than it is to write a story happening 20 years ago.

Thank goodness I have tgaminghe internet. I can’t imagine doing the research for this without it. I can google a year and find out current events, technology, fashion trends, music, movies and common slang. It helps remind me of what was going on back then.

cell phones

I am going think about specific things that identify the 1990’s such as CD-based gaming consoles, Windows 95, the dawn of email, portable CD players with earphones, digital cameras and the new use of the word “pixels.” Air Jordan tennis shoes, Hootie and the Blow Fish, the Goo Goo Dolls, Clinton as president, Newt Gingrich as speaker, the OJ trial, Bill Gates the richest man in the world at 12.98 million, Bosnia-Serbian war.

toy storySomehow I need to incorporate enough of these references in order for the reader to know that the story is taking place in 1995 and the main character is in his 40’s. He remembers things from the 1960’s but the reader needs to know that the current time is not 2014.

digital camera

I am disappointed that I hadn’t made the time frame clear. I was having such a good time writing my flashbacks but it only served to confuse my reader. I have spent a lot of time on my story and am disappointed that I must do a major rewrite. On the other hand, I think I will have as much fun adding the 1990’s hints as I did the others. Let’s hope!

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Slaying the Editing Monster

 

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” William James

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Do you sometimes feel like you are just rearranging your writing?  Constantly editing?  Revising?

We edit for spelling, grammar, word usage, structure, consistent verb tense and content.

At a critique group session last evening, I mentioned some verb issues to a novice writer.  She went from past to present tense several times in a paragraph.  When I pointed it out, she said, “But I did that in the past and now I’m doing this in the present.”  It made her story very confusing to read.  When the tenses were congruent, it was easier to read and rather interesting.  The rhythm of her story (which was about running) was excellent. The sentence structure became shorter and shorter as the story progressed, showing the runner working and breathing harder.  It was a great technique, but her verb tenses disrupted the pace.

Verbs   When I edit my works, one of the first things I do is underline all the verbs in my sentences.  Are they in the same tense?  Are they action or passive verbs?  I change the passive verbs and revise the tense to match the paragraph.  If I find I need to use past tense in a sentence with present tense, I determine if I need a new paragraph in past tense.

Structure   One editing technique that works for me is to read my story backwards.  Start with the very last sentence and read it.  Does it make sense?  Does the sentence read well alone?  Then I read the second to the last sentence and so on and so on.  If a sentence can stand alone, it is probably in correct form.  I usually use this technique when I have already checked grammar and verb usage.

As in many things in life, prevention is the best “treatment” for a healthy manuscript.

Content editing  

“Just the facts, ma’am.”

We have all read books that have made us scratch our heads when we run across a fact or image that doesn’t fit.  I remember the first time I noticed that was in a Michael Crichton book where he described a baby that had meconium-aspiration.  As an NICU nurse for many years, I have taken care of babies with meconium aspiration pneumonia and what he described in his book didn’t make sense to me.

I was surprised that Crichton had made such a blatant error.  He already had several books out and must have had a group of editors read his manuscripts, but somehow that error was missed and it made a difference to me as a reader.  It made me stop trusting his story.

There are things in various fields that we may insert into our books.  We want to make sure we have the facts right.  If in doubt, have an expert read the sections of your book that contain medical or technologic or legal issues that you “kinda” know but maybe don’t have entirely correct.

With a novel, I found that it is useful to have a timeline.

A friend pointed that fact out to me as I was floundering and getting lost in my novel.  He suggested I make a timeline for my characters so that the characters are where they should be in the story.  Prior to developing the timeline, I had difficulty bringing my characters together when they needed to be together. He helped me create a linear chart with scenes on it.  (Unfortunately, I am not techno-savvy enough to insert it into this post.  Tried and failed.)  It contained scenes like:

  1. Jake in the car ready to commit suicide
  2. Flashbacks to childhood and parents
  3. Flashback to delivering newspapers
  4. Flashback to Kennedy election

Each scene in the book is mapped out so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

I recently found another excellent tool that I wished I had had at the beginning.

It is a character chart.  The author lists characteristics of each character, even though most of the information will not be used in the novel.  It is a way for the author to know the character.

  • What is the character’s full name?  What is his or her nickname?  How did the nickname come about?
  • Where is your character’s hometown? What year was he or she born?  How old is the character now? (Your story may take place in a different era, so age can become confusing at times, so write it down so you remember.)
  • What color are his or her eyes?  Hair? Type of body build? Skin type and tone?  Distinguishing marks such as scars, birthmarks, freckles? Predominant feature–what do people notice when they first look at your character?  Is your character healthy?  If not, what condition does he or she have?
  • What was the character’s first memory?  What was his or her childhood like? Was there an important event in childhood that continues to haunt your character now?
  • List of favorites–what is your character’s favorite color, food, music, book?  How does your character travel–car, bus, bicycle, airplane?  Is he or she a careless or cautious driver?
  • Does your character use any expletives or common expressions a lot?
  • What are your character’s vices? Does your character smoke or drink?  If so, how much?
  • Name your character’s hobbies and interests.  What does he or she do during the winter months, summer months, when it’s raining or snowing?  Does your character go on regular vacations?  If so, where?

I will end with this wonderful statement from Woody Allen.  To me, it represents editing at its worst.  It is a delightful paragraph and I enjoy the imagery, but it is confusing.  Basically, he asks if he should be a writer and Gertrude Stein says, “No.”  He ignores her.  Woody uses over 50 words to tell us that.

“In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she  said, “No.” I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day.”  — Woody Allen

How would you edit Woody’s paragraph to “cut to the chase?”  Post your reply on my blog.