Ideas and Story Seeds

Every writer gets the question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

My usual answer is to laugh and tell them that I get a gazillion ideas in my breakfast cereal.

That’s not entirely true, but it’s not much of an exaggeration. Ideas are everywhere, because life happens which makes me ask questions (“Why did he do that?” “How did that happen?” “What would happen IF….”) and wonder about the possible answers. Or the glimpse of an interesting person, or a scene or any slice of life, or something I’ve read somewhere that makes me question or wonder.

Another thing writers often hears is “Hey, I’ve got an idea for a book!”

Listening to them, they’re often the same kinds of things I was just talking about. The problem is, though, that an idea isn’t enough to write a story from. At least, I’ve never found it to be enough.

To create a full story, you need characters, events, a world, at least one theme–tons of things that any idea just doesn’t contain. If I’m fortunate if I get one of those things out of an idea, something that excites me enough to ponder it, but ideas are tiny things. If they show some promise of spawning a lot of questions, then something might come of it. But a full story requires the answers to a slew of questions that the original idea can’t even dream of. This slew of questions spawns what I call a story seed–the basic things I need to grow a story out of.

So when I find an promising idea, I do the only thing I’ve learned to do to create a story seed–I forget it. I say I’m throwing it into the stew pot in the back of my mind, and I just forget about it consciously.

See, one thing I’ve learned about being creative is that I’ve got to trust whatever that creative force inside myself is to do its job and not consciously fuss about it.

It’s a very fertile place, my mental stewpot. And it burbles away constantly, merging all those little ideas that came out of my breakfast cereal, my walk to work, the book I’m reading, the myths and legends I’ve heard, the TV documentaries I’ve watched. Every now and again, something comes to the surface and knocks at my consciousness.

Different writers need different things in their story seeds. A friend of mine has to have a very strong character with a strong summary characteristic (she calls it the character’s “cheese”–long story for another post) that help define the theme, or society, or events, or something more. If she has that, she can write hundreds of thousands of words about that character. Another writer I know gets all her inspiration from drawing maps, and as she draws the map, she sees the societies living there, and that quickly builds the characters, their conflict, and the whole story.

Me, I need a seed that contains a character I give a crap about and some kind of event intrinsic to them to grow a successful story–whether or not that event actually happens in the book.

Even then, not all story seeds take root and grow into stories the first time. Sometimes I try to grow one and it goes a few thousand words, and it dies. So that seed goes back into the pot to stew for a while longer. At some point, it’ll burble to the surface again so I can take another look at it and give it another shot.

Most times, a story seed will burble up and it’s just from left field. I don’t remember throwing those ideas into the pot, but they mashed together and it just came out perfectly. My creative unconscious snatched a bunch of stuff from my experiences and observations and put it all together without my ever thinking about them. Even if I can’t use that seed, it’s always exciting to see what comes out.

When I’m actively writing on a project, I consciously put a “filter” on what can burble up into my consciousness. I don’t want to be distracted by another seed, so I only want things that will add to the cool factor of the present story. I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve trained myself to do this, and my creative unconscious plays by the rules I set. I’m having problem with a scene, a plotline, a character, a whatever, something will burble up and be the perfect answer. Again, those are rarely seeds of a single idea, but things that will impact more than one level or part of the story. Things have to intertwine, after all, and these later story seeds are more like morning glory vines than oak trees.

So, that’s what happens to my ideas and where my stories come from. Others might not use the same images as I do, but I honestly think if we trust that unconscious part of ourselves, we’ll always get the answers we need.

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  1. I love reading about history. It was the chance reading of a book club selection I’d neglected to say I didn’t want so it came anyway, that planted a seed that eventually became my medieval novel. My ideas always come out of historical reading. Once I get that twinge, that thought that, hey, this would be a great time period to use as a backdrop then I begin thinking about who would people the era. Once I get a good grasp of my characters, I’m off and there’s no turning back.

  2. What you describe is so true of me. I have to let those story seeds germinate too. It’s the stubborn seeds, the ones that take root and start sending shoots up through all my mental compost and survive the late frost and occasional drought that make it into story form.


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