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

 

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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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What if…?

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“What if I could catch that little white hand that is moving around?” —My curious cat, Daisy

Where do you get your story ideas? How do you develop your characters? What plot(s) do you choose?

At a recent writers’ group meeting, we worked on a prompt inspired by what someone read about Stephen King. Apparently, some or most of his novels started with the thought, “What if?” What if a dog terrorized people? What if an outcast girl had telekinetic abilities?

As I think about it, my current novel started out as a “what if?” What if a man commits suicide and can redeem himself somehow? What if Hell is other people like Jean-Paul Sartre proposed in his play ‘No Exit’?”

The prompts the writers in our group came up with were very interesting. Some were simple:
What if I took a wrong turn while driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood?
What if I found a blue pine cone?
What if my clock started to rewind on its own?

All of these “what if’s” could lead to an interesting story if we use our imaginations. We would come up with different scenarios and characters using the same “what if.”

It is interesting to think about.