THE WHAT IF GAME–WHERE DO IDEAS COME FROM?

Have you ever been asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” 

 Where do your ideas for writing fiction come from, and what makes them worthy of the time, effort, and creative energy we expend to bring that idea to full fruition—to craft a well-written story from it? 

One source of story ideas is from real-life experience.  Whether we are retelling a chapter of our own life, or something that happened to someone else, we must have come to the conclusion that that idea was worthwhile and that others would be interested in it, as well.

 Gleaning ideas from actual happenings can be tricky.  For many years, I taught a series of classes on “writing your life story.”  You can’t imagine how popular those classes have remained, especially with the older generation.  The idea that one’s life is unique or different suddenly takes on new meaning when others say, “You should write that down!”  It comes to mean, “Your life has been fantastic!”  It may well have been fantastic but when you stop to think about it, many, many people have had unusual, one-of-a-kind experiences at one time or another.  What would make a person believe that their life story would be the one people would rush to Barnes and Noble to pluck from the shelves and lay down a twenty dollar bill to buy?

 Many times, we, as writers, can draw from our life experiences as a bank of ideas for our fiction. But to write our own life story in full would generally prove to be a project that might, in the end, be a disappointing failure.

 Characters we’ve met in our lives also give us ideas for the characters we create.  Although we might not think of our sourpuss Aunt Betty as a “character” in real life, once we begin to write the fictional story we’ve been plotting, we might see one of the secondary characters begin to take on attributes of Aunt Betty–someone we haven’t been around for the past five years.  People we’ve met casually, or known in a family context, can firmly insert themselves into our stories–much to our surprise.

 Books, poetry or movies that might have influenced our thinking during our lives also can have an impact on our ideas.  I once read a book based on a song that was popular in the early 1970s about a young woman who was in love with a sea captain.

 Other forms of mass media can also add to our treasure trove of ideas. Articles we’ve read in magazines or newspapers spark ideas.  True stories that are fictionalized have become one of the most popular genres ever created.  Truman Capote’s best seller “In Cold Blood” was the book that became the catalyst for and set the standard of this type of fictionalized reality.

 Historical events from the past can also provide us with ideas that can either stay fairly true to history or take a wide turn around the actual events. Alternate history is a new up-and-coming genre that encompasses all types of fiction writing, from science fiction to historicals, including certain genres of romance, mainstream, and political fiction.

 Now that we’ve talked a bit about where some of our ideas might come from, how we know whether an idea is “story-worthy” or not? Have you ever started writing on a manuscript that you loved the idea for, but suddenly…the plot fizzles?  Maybe you get to a certain point and don’t know where to go next. (This has happened to me, since I’m more of a “pantser”, not a “plotter.”) Does that mean your idea is no good?

Or does it mean you are just in need of some brainstorming to re-direct your plot, punch it up, and keep the middle from “sagging”?

 Someone once said, you can wash garbage, but it’s still garbage.  Learning what is garbage and what is salvageable is the most important thing we need to know, as writers.  If you begin with an idea that you love, chances are, there’ll be someone else out there who’ll love it, too—your readers!  If you have an idea that’s “sort of” good, the question is, will you care enough, as a writer, to see it through to the end?

 Of course, everyone who has ever written anything for pleasure has had self-doubt.  Remember Miss Smith’s third grade class?  If the assignment was to write an essay, or a short story, you didn’t dare let that smirk of anticipation cross your face.  What would your friends think of you if they knew you were looking forward to actually writing a paper?  While everyone else wrote a paragraph, you couldn’t help yourself:  you wrote two whole pages!  And the secret was out.  Self-doubt set in the very moment one of your classmates asked, “Gosh, why’d you write so much?”

 So, you see, self-doubt has been instilled in us since we were in Miss Smith’s class.  It will never leave us.  We have to practice introducing ourselves in the bathroom mirror:  “Hi.  I’m (insert your name here.) I’m a writer.” This takes some practice for most, and is one of the most difficult stumbling blocks.

 One of the best idea-getters is the “what-if” game (one of my favorites.)

What if there was a man and he had a beautiful daughter.  What if he fell in love with a woman who had two daughters of her own.  What if they married.  But, what if the woman wasn’t what the man had believed her to be?  What if she hated his daughter and was jealous of her?

CINDERELLA!!!

 I love this game because it leads to all sorts of possibilities.  Our stories can take flight in directions we never imagined, becoming a joyous surprise even to ourselves, the authors!

 Though we must battle our self-doubt on two fronts (a, will the story idea be interesting and good; and b, will I be able to write it, finish it, bring it to fruition through publication) reminding ourselves every day that we are professional writers and that our ideas are worthy is one way to combat that doubt.  I’m not a fan of critique groups normally, but finding other writers who are supportive through other venues is a great confidence booster.

 Something to think about:  The greatest “what-if”?  What if I wasn’t a writer?  That would have a terrible outcome—my stories would have never been written! 

 I’m curious as to how other writers come up with their plots and ideas. And how do most readers see them, once they actually “come about” and appear in a novel or short story? I’ve told you some of my ways of coming up with ideas. I would love to hear yours! And for our readers, what kinds of ideas would you like to see more of? What are you tired of? We’re listening, and we love to hear what you think!

 

CHERYL PIERSON’S AMAZON LINK:   http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002JV8GUE

Cheryl Pierson
A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: https://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 37 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com
Follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cheryl.pierson.92
http://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules

31 Comments

  1. Hi Cheryl!

    My story ideas come from all over the place; events in history, family history, books, music, etc. A recent one developed after watching an old episode of the Virginian. It was just something one of the ranch hands said and I played the “what if” game. Another manuscript idea came to me during football season a couple years ago and a certain quarterback started the “what if” process.

    And some ideas seem to spring from a deep dark place in my mind. Pretty scary, and even I wonder how I came up with that. :o)

    But I agree, once an idea starts to form I always ask myself if the plot, characters, and story will be something I care about right down to “the end” or is this a story that won’t hold my interest and therefore wouldn’t keep a reader hanging in there for the HEA.

    –Kirsten

  2. Great blog, Cheryl.
    I cringe when asked that question because I never know how to answer it. I am always taking in things I see, hear and read. Then they simmer around in my brain like stew in a slow cooker and come out very different from the way they started. I think my style is called “intuitive” whatever that means. I just do it.
    Kirsten’s “what if” process comes in handy sometimes. Wishing a great day to all.
    🙂

  3. Hi Kirsten,

    Oooh, I can sure see how some of these football players can cause the great ol’ big “what if” in your mind! LOL I’m not a big football fan–I know that is sacreligious, living in Oklahoma as I do, and I will watch the Sooners, but I’ve been known to come sit down and watch a few minutes here and there just to “look at the scenery.” It’s amazing how fanfiction keeps so many tv series and movies alive by extending the plotlines of different episodes. One of my early manuscripts (which I plan to go back and rework SOMEDAY) was very loosely based on a couple of tv characters in an old western series. The plots, characters and continuing action that carry a story forward have to be something I believe can withstand an entire novel. Although I write short stories, too, there have been many of my short stories that I plan to go back and rework into full length stories (if I live long enough.) LOL Thanks so much for coming by and talking about your writing process, Kirsten!
    Cheryl P.

  4. I catch myself playing “What if” all the time. I do it in real life, in movies, in books. I’m always re-writing everything (which is kind of a bad idea in real life, a person needs to deal with reality as much as possible) 😀
    But I guess writers are just blessed with an overactive imagination.
    Ya THINK????

  5. Hi Elizabeth,
    I feel like there are times when I have taken certain things I meant to write one way and after the “simmering” process, they come out totally different. I think that’s a good thing, because for whatever reason, it means that your original thought or idea has had time to be rehashed and thought about at length, so that when you write about it, it comes out as it was truly “meant to be.” It’s like anything in life, I think–if you think about it long enough, sometimes you come to a different conclusion or idea about what to do about it than the original thought you may have had. Especially important in your “take” on a story, I think. Hope you have a wonderful day, too–it’s going to be in the high 70’s here in Oklahoma City, sunny–and last night we actually had some of the wet stuff, I think it’s called “rain.” LOL
    Hugs,
    Cheryl P.

  6. Mary, you crack me up. One of the things that I think has been so funny about having Facebook and re-connecting with people from the past is, 9 out of 10 of them will say something like, “I figured you would be some kind of writer–you always had such a great imagination!” (It makes you wonder what they were thinking back when you knew them in the “old days”–probably “Man, what a nutcase!”)LOL Like you, I play the “what if” game in real life, but I think a lot of that came from my mom. She was a very empathetic person, who would always try to put herself in the other person’s shoes. If a clerk was rude to her in a store, she would say, “Well, we don’t know what kind of a day she had had, Cheryl. Maybe her husband was caught fooling around on her. Maybe she had a sick child at home and couldn’t take off work…you just never know about people’s lives.” I think that’s why I do a big part of the what if game–it was taught to me from an early age. LOL
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  7. Hi Cheryl, I received your book The Traditional West yesterday and immediately sat down and read your story. It was wonderful! And exactly what I like to read.
    Sadly, I was born without an imagination (genetic on my dad’s side), and I’m so jealous of you writers! I can’t imagine going about every day with this whole separate secret world spinning around in your brain.
    As a reader, I don’t care so much about romance as I do about interesting characters and experiences.

  8. Hi Judy!
    WOW it got there quick! I mailed it Friday! I’m so glad you enjoyed the story. It was a little different for me to write something that didn’t have a romantic twist to is somewhere, but I thoroughly enjoyed doing it, and started another one that has no romance in it, just western-y. You know, I was worried about my kids not having an imagination, as my husband is very “nuts and bolts”–but he is also a songwriter and musician. It seems that imagination manifests itself in a lot of different ways, so don’t be quick to write yours off. My daughter is also a writer, artist, photographer and does some acting. My son writes music and stories, but his imagination also bridges the gap of “what if” and science (he’s a math/physics major in college) so he’s always been gifted with imagining inventions of different kinds, and research into areas that are just opening up. I think our imaginations are just one of those things that take off in different venues. Yes, I have to admit, it is strange to have the secret world spinning in my brain, as you say. LOL

    Thanks for popping in, and thanks so much for letting me know you received the book and how much you enjoyed the story.

    Cheryl P.

  9. Most of my work is in the historical romance genre, so my ideas come from reading non-fiction accounts of events and people’s lives who lived in the period where I set my story.

    I also write short contemporaries, so use bits of my own life, plus stories I hear, but I temper the facts with fiction to construct a realistic story.

  10. Hi Susan,
    When I write historicals, I try to use real-life stories, happening, people, etc. as well. One of my short stories that is close to my heart, ONE MAGIC NIGHT, is one that I took the liberty of writing based on my great-great-great grandfather who was stolen from his Indian family and given to a white family, a Presbyterian minister, to raise. In real life, I know know that he never fit in anywhere, in the white world or the Indian world, after he was taken and given to the whites. But in my story, I allowed him to have a happily ever after ending. He needed it!
    Cheryl P.

  11. Cheryl,
    My ideas come from places or people. An image will stick in my head and I can’t get rid of it. I must write that story! a lot of the drama, particularly family drama, in my books is inspired in part by real life experiences. For instance, having to give up a share of jointly held family property became a major conflict in my Seeing Red, the things I longed to tell my dad (who had died many years ago) became the angst of Hannah in House of Lies. As for the rest of it, God knows where it comes from, but I hope it keeps coming! Maggie

  12. The scary thing is – I have no idea where my ideas come from. I have four stories done and now just need the guts to send them ‘out there.’ I do live where my historical west stories are set and that may feed my imagination. Also, I am not sure if my great, great grandmother might be feeding me ideas. After my mother died, I really paid attention to the geneology that she’d done. When I found a story that this particular grandmother had published (supposedly the first woman to have stories published in a magazine) I found one section that was almost verbatim to what I wrote. It really was an eyeopener for me. Do you think her stories are just being written through me?? It was so exact that I had to go in and change my story a bit. It was same words, same scenerio. 🙂

  13. Maggie,
    I can sooooo relate to the issue of family drama coming up in stories! And it’s weird, isn’t it, how it takes shape sometimes? I was thinking about a ms. that I have “from the old days” when I first started writing, where there are 2 brothers, and some of the things the father says to them are things that were a roundabout extension of things that were going on in my family at the time with my dad, mom and the three of us sisters. The things that the oldest rebellious son replied back to his father were things that were said in the same tone that I could see myself saying to my own father. I do think that we take angst AND happiness from our own lives and use that with our characters. I don’t think you will ever have to worry about running out of ideas! Not as long as Cleopatra’s alive and well! LOL
    Cheryl

  14. PAISLEY!
    What a story! That’s a story within itself! I relate to what you’re saying. Though I never knew my great great great grandfather that had been taken from his family and placed with the white family, I have heard that story throughout my growing up years into adulthood, and something always called to me to write about it. Many people can’t believe that our government would do such a thing, not realizing that’s only the tip of the iceberg. So maybe that’s the way of “getting the word” out to people, just like your writing is, from your great great grandmother. But that is freaky about your story being so similar to your gr gr grandmother’s! Whatcha waitin’ on? You need to get your stories out there, Paisley!
    Cheryl

  15. Yes our books’ ideas already exist somewhere around us. I wrote two books TO LOVE A HERO and Rx In RUSSIAN set in Belarus and I lent my heroine with several of my adventures. Rx for Trust,now self-pubbed as NO More LIES is based on the difficult experience of a relative. FRENCH PERIL is based on my niece’s training in a French chateau. In BABIES in the BARGAIN, the heroine borrowed my daughter’s experience as a neonatologist. Just by looking around us we found hundreds of ideas to turn into stories. The rest depends of the writer’s talent.

  16. WOW, Mona, you really HAVE drawn on your life experience and that of those you know to write your books. AWESOME. That is a wealth of experience you took and used to great advantage in your books! Thanks so much for coming by and commenting!
    Cheryl

  17. I think most of my stories come from asking: what if? My upcoming novel Clear As Day was inspired by summer vacations at the river and the what if game of: what if the heroine was commitment shy? Another story was sparked by a vivid dream. Throw in a little ‘what if it was true?’ and a fantasy story was born. I try to pass onto my young students the curiosity to ask “what if?” and “what happens next?” and encourage their imaginations. It’s delightful to see them learn to write and discover they really do know what happens next. 🙂

  18. Hi Babette,
    That is wonderful that you encourage your students to write and let their imaginations run free. That was one thing I really tried to encourage when I worked with the Indian Education Dept. here where I live and tutored young kids. They really need that, in order to see that their story ideas can become a full fledged story if they just take the what if one step further, and then one more step, etc.
    Cheryl

  19. What an amzing blog, Cheryl. I have played the “what if” game and often to work out a story line. I’m a plotter but I do get these epihanies while I’m writing that help me mmake the story more interesting.
    Most of my story ideas are from my life experiences. I keep a writer’s journal where I jot down anything I see or hear that I might be able to use sometime in a story. I think the writer’s journal was one of the most valuable things I ever learned to do in a writing class.
    You have a book I haven’t read yet–A Heart For A Heart. Wow, when did I miss that? Can’t wait to get my hands on it.
    How did you get into teaching writing? Do you ever teach online classes through RWA? If so, what are the titles of your classes?
    Loved your blog today.

  20. Cheryl, I play the what-if game all the time. It’s an excellent way to spark story ideas. Plus, it’s lots of fun. I think all writers probably indulge in this pastime at some point in their writing. I used to be afraid to tell people of the little idiosyncrasies of mine for fear they’d think I’d gone off my rocker. Now, it doesn’t bother me what they think.

  21. Cheryl, my ideas come from everywhere. I love the “what if” game. I read something or hear it in the news and play that game. Also, I love using family history. When someone asks my friend Bobbye Terry where she gets her ideas, she answers, “From a small factory in Ohio.” I love that answer, because authors get ideas from so many places that it’s hard for us to give one specific answer.

  22. Hi Sarah,
    I am not a plotter–I tried to be, but although I might plan a time line or a very rough outline (and I do mean ROUGH) I just can’t structure myself to make a detailed plot outline. I started teaching writing classes about 10 years ago with my business partner and absolutely love doing it. To me, it’s one of the most rewarding things ever. I’ve never taught an online class, mainly because I’m not sure I have the time right now to do it justice. I’d love to teach an online class sometime in the future, though. A Heart for a Heart is a short story–it was included in A VALENTINE COLLECTION by VICTORY TALES PRESS when it first came out. Now it it’s a stand alone short story in the .99 gallery, which I love. Thanks so much for coming by today Sarah, I know how busy you are!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  23. Linda! A woman after my own heart. I don’t care what people think, either. LOL Writers DO have some idosyncrasies all their own, and I think that’s just fine! Hearing your characters carrying on conversations in your mind is one of those things–the what if game is another one. There are a ton of them, aren’t there? I’m so glad I’m not alone! LOL
    Cheryl P.

  24. Hi Caroline,
    WHAT A GREAT ANSWER! I’m still chuckling. “From a small factory in Ohio…” You know, I always think of the disclaimer on Law And Order that says something about even if the story might resemble real life facts, it’s not a true story. Then they advertise, “STORIES RIPPED FROM TODAY’S HEADLINES…” LOLLOL Thanks so much for coming by Caroline! I am so glad to know I’m in good company with people who are out there playing the “what if” game!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  25. There are only so many plot lines out there. It is the way an author handles that plot that is important. I have favorites – Cinderella and Beauty & the Beast- that I never tire of. If any plot is handled well, I will enjoy the story.
    Current events and scandal sheet newspapers certainly provide many ideas and variations for anyone who wants to write. You can “rip ideas from the headlines,” play what if?, talk with those characters in your head, whatever it takes for you Fillies to keep giving us all those good books.

  26. hi Patricia,
    I always laugh when I remember one of my college professors saying, “There are basically only 2 things that happen: A man leaves town, or a stranger comes to town.” This is true. People either set out on a journey, or arrive somewhere while they are journey-ing. LOL I feel the same way you do–if the plot is handled well, I will read it and love it. I read a lot of different kinds of books, and in many different genres, and I have favorites in all of them. Thanks so much for coming by and commenting–I always enjoy hearing your thoughts.
    Cheryl P.

  27. My ideas come from everywhere. The big problem for me, is making the time to write them down. But I am never short of ideas 🙂 Wonderful blog, Cheryl!

  28. HI Cheryl,

    I get my ideas from everyday events or picking up some discussion of a historical topic and thinking hum what if???? It seems to be the inventive twist on concepts that interest readers and publishers alike. Perhaps one abstract fact that can be woven into your time period. I have known people who write one word plot ideas on note cards shake them in a bag and pick to see what happens, but that sounds like work. Me… I’ll day dream to see what happens.

  29. Hi Liana!
    I know what you mean! There will never be enough years to write down everything we think of, will there? LOL I’m never short of ideas, either–just wish my days had about 60 hours in each one. Thanks for coming over and commenting!
    Cheryl

  30. Nan,
    You sound like me! I don’t do any of that stuff either–ideas in a jar, etc., but I guess if it works for someone and that’s how they get started then more power to them. I DO use those types of things in my classes as a fun way to do a short writing prompt. I love those in the classroom setting because it makes for interesting reading to know that everyone might have had the same prompt, but to see all the different ways they took the story–lots of fun, and eye-opening for them, too. As for my own stuff, I’m a day-dreamer, too! Thanks for coming by and commenting!
    Cheryl

  31. I get ideas from all over. I was driving one day and came upon firemen with their boots held out at an intersection collecting donations- bam- my own fireman started talking to me. My wolf series was inspired by the late night howling of coyotes here in the country. So soulful and longing in the deep winter night. I thought “What if…” and they were born. Great question.

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