Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What if? The birth of a story idea

I was speaking with a third grade class yesterday and one of the children asked: "Where do you get the idea for a story? How do you start a new book? "

I answered the question somehow. It was only later, when I went for a walk, that I truly thought out my answer.

For me, a story starts with an image and then with a What if? 

White Pine began with a visit to the Chippewa Valley Museum. I was sitting on a bench in the bunk house with my then third grader and he pointed out the lumberjack socks dangling from rail by the stove. The idea popped into my mind: What if a boy, one older than my son, had to go to work at a logging camp in the 1880s? Other questions followed that What if? Questions like:  Why would he have to go? How would the other men treat him? And, would he want to go home after a winter in the Northwoods?

Once the kernel of an idea for a story starts to develop in my mind, I often stumble upon other images or moments that develop the story. I remember going geocaching with my kids one Saturday afternoon and one of the clues that led us to our cache was a historical marker. The marker stood by an old brick building which turned out to once have been a lumber company office and was one of the few remaining lumberjack era buildings left in the city of Eau Claire. So, the idea for the story continued to grow in my mind. For me, it is as if a story asks to be told, gives me frequent reminders, and if I don't jot them down in my Writer's Notebook, the entire thing can slip away and be lost in the cobwebs in my mind.

So, my advice for new or young writers is to be open to the What ifs that pop up around you. A story, once it starts in your mind, has a life and power all its own. Your characters will demand that certain things happen to them. They will make their own choices and choose their destinies. But you have to jot down the ideas, hold fast to threads of inspiration which slip through your mind, or you risk losing these inspirations.

It all starts with a What if.

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