Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Genesis of an Idea

It’s back to school now, back to my daily hour and fifteen minute commute. (Each way.) The time isn’t wasted. I do a lot of thinking during my drive. I work on plot twists for stories I’m writing, and on brand new ideas for stories I haven’t started yet. I carry a little tape recorder along with me to record anything I might forget. This morning I got a whole story out of the drive and was able to quickly produce a rough draft as soon as I got into the office. I thought I’d talk about how the story came about.

On many days, I set myself a mental task for my commute. This morning I decided to work on ideas for a noir story using a title I came up with weeks ago: “Long Dead Woman in a Black Dress.” I started thinking about a crime scene in a forest, the discovery of the Dead Woman of the title. Immediately, a sheriff and a coroner character occurred to me. They didn’t get along, providing some nice conflict in the opening. Dialog began to unroll between them but I realized the story was moving toward a heavy duty CSI kind of tale, and my interest began to wane.

As I often do in such situations, I stopped pushing on the story itself and started thinking more about the setting. Many times, figuring out exactly where and when a story is set helps me generate the primary plot points. I don’t consciously decide on setting so much as I just let thoughts flow until something coalesces. Here’s what came to me: Southern Louisiana. The swamps. A small rural community with folks who hunt and fish and keep lacquered gator heads on their boats and in their river shacks.

A character appeared. I didn’t try for him. He was just there, embedded naturally in the setting. His name was Swampy Jack. I could see him; I could see the little store he ran, where he sold bait and bottled cokes out of an old timey dispenser, with aisles of dusty fishing lures and a jar on the counter full of homemade jerky.

That did it. I went back to the first scene, the local sheriff and the coroner examining a crime scene in the woods. That scene had changed because of my new knowledge of the setting. The sheriff character had changed, because in this setting he would be the type to know everyone. He would know Swampy Jack. Things began to fall into place, like dominoes toppling. The murder had to change too, and so the original title just wouldn’t work. A new title stepped up to claim supremacy: “Swampy Jack’s Finest Cut.”

I don’t know if other writers work this way or not, or if they could work this way, but the keys for me with this story were:

1. Having some time to think. In fact, the commute almost ‘forces’ me to take that time. I can’t be checking email. There are no students coming in. I can’t read or watch TV.

2. Visualizing a scene where there is some kind of mystery. This was the crime scene in the woods with the sheriff and the coroner.

3. Letting the characters in the scene talk. And I mean “letting” them. I try not to be directive. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to consciously write a story, but I think it’s pretty tough. Every story requires hundreds if not thousands of decisions, and it’s a lot easier and more productive, I think, to let the unconscious make most of those decisions, especially during the rough draft phase, and use consciousness to evaluate them for the final draft.

4. When plot blocks occur, and they will, switch your mental focus from the story itself to the setting. If you can’t answer one question at a particular moment, answer one you can. Just don’t stop generating questions, possibilities, and images.

5. For me at least, the most important thing in the beginning is to not be overly judgmental about ideas. So what if you generate ideas that ultimately don’t work. So what if you develop some that turn out to be silly. No one ever has to know. They can’t read your mind. Ultimately, thought is cheap. It costs you nothing. And the only thing that can stop it from solving your writing problems is you.

29 comments:

ivan@creativewriting.ca said...

Oh hell.

More often than not, the answer comes out in humour.

Necrophiliacs looking for dead ones.

BernardL said...

Definitely a great use of your time on a commute like that, and recording ideas on the way won't endanger anyone sharing the road with you either. I remember you blogging about coming across a set of clothes laid out on the ground in a creepy manner while hiking. Is that part of where your scene idea came from?

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I need to do that so I can flesh out the outline for my next book better.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, but I don't have a sense of humor, man.

Bernardl, yes, at least some of the time scene images come that way. Quite a few of the ones in this story came from my swamp hikes. Sometimes from dreams.

Alex, I love it when I have the time to really do some thinking about a story.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Your method is as close as I get to a detailed outline (except for the children's books). Mentally plotting a story makes my 4 to 6 miles on the threadmill go by more quickly, and reduces the occurrence writer's block when I get to the computer.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jewel, the treadmill would be a great double dip for this kind of thing. I get a lot of ideas while walking the blocks around my house

Lynn Emery said...

I use some of these tips, but learned some useful info per usual. More tools for the old toolkit. Thanks.

eric1313 said...

Nice description of internal process. It truly is like lightning bolts... these ideas and the way they come. Then you set it down, things get stale... I go back to the intro and think and stare and put in commas that i take out later and stuff lol... that's when the new beginning often occurs. Just like that. Refining the setting, dropping in little details like bread crumbs.

eric1313 said...

and if an ending comes, it is usually not going to be very good until that refined new beginning takes shape.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lynn, I'm glad if anything clicked. I appreciate the kind words.

Eric1313, I find that too. It's very very rare for me to get the perfect ending first and have to write my way toward it. Usually the end is refined as the beginning is.

David J. West said...

I still loke that first title too.

I used to do the same when I had such a long commute-now I don't and I have wondered if I have had to sit at the computer (full of distractions) and actually take a little longer by being "IN" the office.

Double edged swords.

I look forward to the tale.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J., I will eventually find the story for "Long Dead Woman in a Black Dress." I've often in my life come up with titles long before the final story coalesced.

Erik Donald France said...

#s 1-5: great! I love it ~ and yes, carving out mental space and time bubbles is a must for any deep thinking. The fact that in this case it's also commute time makes it double duty.

Superb.

Ty Johnston said...

Great use of your time, Charles, that drive.

I work somewhat like you, though I usually don't focus on the setting as a way to get my mental juices flowing. It's an idea, though, one I'll have to try. Most times I start thinking about my characters, and sometimes I'll through in an odd or new one just to see how it will affect a situation.

As for plot blocks, I usually ask myself, "What would be the most logical thing for the character(s) to do next?" I realize this sounds kind of trite, but it always works for me. Whatever the situation, when I come to a point in which I can't decide what happens next, I turn to my characters' motivations and personalities.

G said...

Number 4 worked the best for me this past weekend. Got completely stuck on how to write a particular fight scene, so I switched over to thinking about how to end the story (this was done in the shower, where some of my strangest ideas and strangest solutions take shape).

Lo and behold, not only did I came up with a very doable ending but I came up with good solution to my fight scene.

The Golden Eagle said...

I usually go through a similar process--though I tend to get hung up on plot blocks. I'll hammer away at them and lose the overall picture.

SQT said...

I like the idea of using the scenery as a means to work through a plot block. I find that dialog flows but action can stump me occasionally. So a break to work on scenery, and maybe find a new avenue, is a good idea.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, I like it because I rather hate wasting time, unless I've actually decided to waste time in playing.

Ty, I sometimes put my characters into conversations that have nothing to do with the story itself just to learn about them.

G., when we disengage our minds from conscious thinking the good stuff seems to come.

Golden Eagle, I think that brings the consciousness in when you hammer, and that may be slowing things down.

SQT, I have a hard time with dialogue outside of setting. It seems like talking heads to me too often.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Excellent post, Charles. I also do some of my best thinking during the commute. I like the idea of a recorder, I usually write small notes, or leave myself a voicemail. One thing I know is I cannot force inspiration or ideas. Sometimes, something as simple as a song that comes on or a news story, can get things going. Your story sounds very good already

Charles Gramlich said...

Sean, I got my recorder at Best Buy. I think they have them for 20 or 30 bucks now. It's handy.

Carole said...

I think these ideas are great. Especially taking the time without all the daily distractions to let your mind wander freely. Good Stuff.

Charles Gramlich said...

Carole, and it's a lot of fun, too!

Steve Malley said...

Hell with the process, I want to read the story! ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve malley. still rough drafted at the moment, but it will be done!

laughingwolf said...

good ways to tackle a tale...

non-writers snicker at the idea of 'letting characters do the talking', i think they can supply solutions to many stumbling blocks, even tell you to allow them more time to supply input :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, yes, it works. the unconscious is a powerful force for that.

Joanne said...

Good tips. And some of my best ideas have hit while driving.

Jess said...

Wonderful advice. I feel like I'm most creative when I'm driving a long distance. I work out a lot of writing problems. I'm terrible with setting but your advice goes along with a book I'm reading now; I've been trying to concentrate more on setting and let my characters develop from it. Really, really good post, Charles; I needed this. Thanks!

Charles Gramlich said...

Joanne, something freeing about carrying out a mundane task that lets your mind flow.

Jess, thanks, I'm glad you found it useful. I'm glad I can do it that way because otherwise I'd feel like I was wasting too much time on my commute.