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

 

Writing Class

An opportunity presented itself to me this winter. I found out about a program at the local university called the “Senior Passport.”

I hate to admit that I celebrated my “Medicare Birthday” this year but being 65 has given me some new opportunities. I signed up to audit a class on writing short stories. It has been a wonderful experience.

Each Monday, we meet and discuss short stories and present short stories we have written since the previous class. The professor packs the classes full of information and activities. Fortunately, we are a small group so there is time to get most of it in.

Each week, one of the students presents a short story to the class. The story I chose was “Train” by Alice Munro. With the stories, we discuss the author’s background, the story plot and twists, the characters and the setting.

Then we critique short stories we have written. This is my favorite part. It is fun to read what other people have written and to offer suggestions to one another. The other students are all fairly young but they offer many good suggestions on how I can improve my stories and in turn, I offer my opinions on their stories.

Writing in a group has a way of bringing people together, of bonding with one another. Being the “old lady” of the class, when we first met, the others were more interested in looking at their i-Phones than chatting during break. But as we began to share our stories, we talked to each other more. We got to know one another through our writing.

When I presented my story about growing up in small town America in the 1950’s, many of the other students came up to me afterwards with comments. One young man asked me about Roger Maris. He lived in Fargo, SD, for awhile and told me about a museum dedicated to Roger Maris in that town. We talked about the excerpt from my story (below) and shared some laughs.

Leaving their dogs to roam the streets, they’d head to the theater four blocks away.  Once inside, they bounced on the padded flip-down seats and waited for the lights to dim. “I hope they show Bugs Bunny today.” Gloria grabbed a handful of popcorn from the bag.

“I like Woody Woodpecker best,” Bob said.  They both made the classic “Hahaha-ha-ha” laugh of the cartoon character.

            The bouncing stopped as they heard the whirl of the reels begin. A black and white circle with a grid appeared on the screen, “Please Stand By.” They clapped their hands. A countdown flashed with numbers and they chanted, “Five, four, three, two, one.” Then the newsreel announcing “News of the Day.” Black and white pictures appeared on the big screen. Large white letters announced that Queen Elizabeth christened a ship somewhere. Roger Maris hit another home run.

            “I love Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle,” she whispered to Bob.

Another student talked to me about anorexia, a topic I breach in my story.

Flipping to the next page, she found several greeting cards. “Happy 6th Birthday” in big red letters.  A chubby cheeked girl in pink drawn holding a bunny on the front of another said, “You’re Turning Six!” One caught her eyes in particular. It was from her big sister, Barbara. She recognized the exact loops, uniform and clear, marking her signature. Always perfect. Her sister was ten years older than she and the oldest, making her the boss of the family. Whatever Barbara wanted, she got. She was talented, smart and pretty. But she was also a tyrant.

Gloria thought she probably had anorexia. Back in 1957, no one knew about anorexia nervosa. Mental illness was considered a character flaw. Barbara hid her problem from adults, but the siblings knew something was amiss.  She ate a lot of celery.

Others talked to me about my story in general and commented on what they liked about it as well as some pitfalls in my writing. It was interesting to see how the story brought us together.

Writing is a powerful tool. We are reading “Fortune Smiles” a book by Adam Johnson, a Pulitzer prize winner. His short stories are very intriguing. Our professor asked if we thought writing was just for entertainment or was there a deeper purpose? Most of us agreed that writing can change minds and promote social justice. Why else would tyrannical governments burn books if the words inside didn’t offer threat?

Books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” brought the plight of slavery to the forefront. Dozens of books including “To Kill a Mockingbird” shed light on the law and people’s prejudices. The short stories in Johnson’s book touch on topics such as cancer/death and dying, living with a disabled wife, pedophilia, and the Cold War attitude of an East German prison warden.

The class has given further proof that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The most exhilarating feeling for me is when my writing touches a soul. I may curse the Muses and wonder why I were given this “need to write” but then, once in a while, something magical happens and people are influenced by something I’ve written.

Have you ever had that happen? Tell me about it.

 

 

A Room of My Own

Virginia Wolfe wrote, ““A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I am in the process of converting a small room upstairs into my office.

When we bought the house, the description counted this particular room as a bedroom. Supposedly our home is a 5-bedroom house. No way! A crib might fit in it, but there’s not room even for a twin bed and dresser.  It might make a nice office, though. We shall see.

Currently, my “writing room” is on the main level in what was identified as a family room when we bought the house. Dennis and I use it as an office-library. Against the south wall, the computer and printer sit. Dennis’ big roll top desk is against the north wall. The fireplace and built-in bookshelves on to the west and another book case is to the east.

In the room hangs a plaque on the wall above the space where the  computer sits.  The nurses on the maternal-child unit at University gave it to me after I was awarded the NCC Neonatal Nurse of the Year Award.  The award itself, a beautiful crystal that sits atop a gray marble base, is hidden away upstairs somewhere.  The calligraphy reads:

That Woman is a Success–

Who loves life and lives it to the fullest;

Who has discovered and shared her strengths and talents that are uniquely her own;

Who puts her best into each task and leaves each situation better than she found it’

Who seeks and finds that which is beautiful in all people and all things;

Whose heart is full of love and warmth with compassion;

Who has found joy in living and peace within herself.  Barbara Burrows

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As I sit down to write at the computer, the plaque is a reminder of what my colleagues thought at the time and it inspires me to seek meaning in what I do.

To my left as I sit, is the mantel and fireplace with bookshelves on either side of the hearth.IMG_3615IMG_3614A myriad of books stack the shelves–non-fiction, fiction, inspirational books, children’s books, large tomes, small paperbacks and the Bible.  Each of the eight shelves, four per side, holds at least 25-30 books, well over 200 books total.

Against the wall on my right is a tall 5-shelf book case.  The bottom two
shelves hold more books, primarily books on writing, a couple of dictionaries, some writing materials and papers and a big book with the title of “Just Do It!”  The top three shelves display family pictures, my grandmother Grady’s old marble mantel clock, and an antique anniversary clock on the shelf above.  A Madonna and child statue sits next to the anniversary clock and an old German barometer is on the shelf above.  The barometer is a red and white chalet with the little man in Lederhosen and the little lady in a plain blue dress.  The chalet is adorned with flowers below the little window.  Today the little people are both inside the chalet with their backs to me.

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I have many things surrounding me that offer inspiration, but also distraction at times. My digital speakers for my I-pod sits next to my computer screen, allowing me to plug in the device and listen to music, preferably Golden Oldies for writing and  Irish tunes for cleaning.  A 1-½ inch wooden rectangular token with the image of San Juan on the front sits next to the speakers.  On the back, it tells of San Juan (St. John) the apostle who is the Patron Saint of Writers, Editors, Publisher and Printers.   A souvenir of my trip to Colorado Springs with my friend, Deb, it remind s me that writers can shape the world and inspire others to seek the truth.

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As I ponder on my surroundings, I realize that this is my own secret space, my writing space, my thinking space, my prayerful space.  It is the space that connects me to the world as well as keeps the world out.  I can communicate with my friends via email or Face Book or I can focus on my stories, shutting everyone else out.

Time stands still here.  I can sit down to write and time becomes irrelevant.  Then suddenly, I realize that 4 hours have passed in an instant.  It is 12:00 in the kitchen, but it is still early morning in my space.  I want to stay in my space but I must go to the kitchen because the world beckons.

My space is a little cluttered and sometimes the world invades my space such as in March when Dennis chooses to use my space to do the taxes. If I would change anything about my space, I would remove all the non-writing parasites that creep in and start to take over—the amoebic bank statements, the overgrowth of committee work, the pestilent to-do lists.  What my space really needs is the Orkin personal secretary and DeCon killer organizer to take care of the pests that get in the way of my writing.

Maybe the little room upstairs will provide that bastion for “the writer only.” Stay tuned. I will let you know how the room conversion goes.

 

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?

Davinci Syndrome

Have you heard of the Davinci Syndrome? It is the collection of signs and symptoms observed in creative people who have more ideas and visions than they can implement, making it difficult to complete a project before rushing off to the next.

Signs may include:davinci

  • rewriting, especially as the book is being written
  • editing the first chapter eight times before going on to the next chapter
  • procrastination, sharping pencils instead of writing
  • forgetting what was written in chapter 3 and ending up with your character living in Chicago in 1974 instead of in Iowa in 1969 in chapter 11

Apparently, Leonardo Davinci had so many ideas, he left some incomplete. Not only that, but some historians believe Davinci was a perfectionist and never truly believed his creations were done. Can you imagine thinking that the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper still needed work?

mona lisaBesides being a painter and sculptor, Leonardo Davinci was an architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Talk about multi-tasking!

I often feel like I suffer from the Davinci Syndrome. I am basically a short-story writer, primarily non-fiction. I am currently working on my first novel and find myself stuck as I rewrite and try to perfect my characters or plot.

IMG_1910With short-stories, it is much easier for me to write the story and move on to the next idea quickly, With a novel, I find I need a storyboard so I didn’t confuse the time or place in my story.

It is fortunate (or maybe not) that I am committed to my novel. It is near and dear to my heart. I will plod along, writing and rewriting, and maybe someday actually finishing it. I have a new group of writer-friends who are encouraging me and keeping me on track. Could they be the “therapy” I need to overcome my Davinci Syndrome?

My short story, “I Have the Coffee On” is in Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul (2000) page 169. It is the story of the North Platte Canteen during WWII.

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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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When the Past is Present

My novel is a “historic urban fantasy.”  In it, my main characters have flashbacks into the 1960’s and ’70’s.  It is important that the reader can differentiate between past and present in my story.  I think I have it nailed because people who are looking at my novel comment on the technique that takes them from past to present and vice versa. I haven’t really analyzed it to see how I am doing it, but maybe I will try now.

I read some comments online that various authors made about flashbacks.  Some say to avoid using flashbacks altogether.  Others say to use them sparingly.  Most recommend only using flashbacks to move the story along.  I hope I am doing that.

My novel has many flashbacks so I am breaking the first rule–avoid using flashbacks.  The flashbacks in my story are triggered by a memory.  For example, Jake, my protagonist is sitting in his enclosed luxury car, waiting to die.  He hears a song on the car radio that reminds him of his childhood.


Jake hit the buttons, “Damn!  I hate 80’s music.  It’s 1995. You’d think disco would be dead by now.” Finding a “Golden Oldie’s” station, Jake settled into the car seat. “That’s more like it.”

Anybody here seen my old friend, John? Can you tell me where he’s gone? He saved a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young,” the balladeer crooned over the radio.  It was an old classic.  He remembered it well.  “It was a safe time then,” he thought.  It seemed like a safe time.  John and Bobby Kennedy would not agree, nor would Martin Luther King.  It seemed safe to a ten-year-old Midwestern boy.

Jake was at the city pool that afternoon in 1960.  His shoulders and neck tingled after two hours in the sun.  His skin felt hot as it started to glow darker pink with time.  His mother warned him about using suntan lotion, but Jake was too busy laughing with his friends, splashing, diving from the low board and doing belly flops.  He could almost smell the white, cool cream his mom would gently apply to his scorched back when he returned home.  He didn’t mind the medicinal smell because he knew the burning would cool when the cream coated the sunburn.  As Jake walked in the unlocked front door of the small bungalow on Pepperdine Street, he called, “Mom, I’m home.”


The song from the past causes Jake to remember a particular summer.  The transition from thinking about the safe Midwestern boy to the scene at the city pool pulls the reader into the flashback.  Other flashbacks in the book are triggered by sight, smell, touch.  The senses are good triggers to lead into a flashback.

I don’t think a flashback should be the first thing a reader sees in a story.  I have seen that done and it is confusing.  The reader needs to know what is happening “now” in the book before reading about what has happened in the past.  Flashbacks are events that have already happened..  A flashback should follow a strong scene.

The above example doesn’t show the entire scene I wrote.  My first sentence of the novel is “Carbon monoxide filled the enclosed luxury vehicle in the garage.”  Right away, the reader knows something is wrong.  “He ran his hand across the smooth leather as he sat in the car with the windows up. He had planned it this way.  He would come home from work, connect a hose to the exhaust and sit in the car.”  The charater has planned to commit suicide and is in the act of doing so.   Flashbacks come after the scene and are used as a way to do a life review and eventually (possibly) explain why the character is doing this.

Another way to segue flashback smoothly is verb tense usage.  Using past tense and past perfect can signal the beginning or end of a flashback.  If done correctly, the reader won’t even notice the tense, but will understand that the time has changed and the story is now happening in the past.  “He recalled his father coming home from the factory smelling of oregano.  His dad would bellow as he tossed the newspaper on his easy chair, “Is your homework done?”

“Recalled” is what the character is doing while he sits in the running car.  The memory triggers the flashback and the verb tense is changed. The use of “would” puts the reader in the past.

So, what do you think about flashbacks?  Do you put flashbacks in your stories?  Let me know.  I appreciate any tips you might have for me.

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