Story Ideas and the Benefits of Bedside Stories

This month the Round Robiners have been asked to ponder where our story ideas come from. At this point I have a confession to make – I am simply rubbish at stories and in no way would I consider myself a storyteller.

Collective gasp!

Well, you may ask, what the hell are you doing calling yourself a writer then? And a writer of fiction to boot.

The truth is, I’m an ideas person. I love concepts, and science, and the way the truths of previous generations are overturned. I love that this inherently means that many of the ‘truths’ of our generation are likely to be overturned too. We live with uncertainty every day and one moment’s event – a car crash, the death of a husband and breadwinner, the onset of a disease, coming into money suddenly – can change how we see the world forever. I also love to explore psychologies and how these kinds of event affect people – how different people react to different situations.

So I suppose I often start back to front. For instance the book I am working on now started from the idea of exploring how a person’s world contracts when they are living with a progressive illness. There was a concrete beginning to this when a close friend was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and suddenly his world was turned upside down. Mix this in with my interest in the role of caring for someone – something that has been close to my heart since my mother died and left my father struggling with dementia, poor sight and cancer – and there was the germ of a story theme, but definitely not yet a story.

Other aspects of my stories might come from real events. The day before I went down to London to meet with my new agent was the day of the Westminster Bridge terror attack. As I travelled down on the train, the events of the day before stayed in my mind. I walked through the streets to the agency’s office and was really struck by how calm London felt just 24 hours later. Cue the invention of another character who had been caught up in the attack – and the exploration of how this impacted on his family.

Combining my themes and ideas into proper stories is the big problem I have. My very first novel, which I now see as a training ground for my writing, took two autobiographical events and framed them into a story. One event was a holiday travelling round Scotland by train – the landscape really spoke to me and it felt healing in a powerful way. So I combined this with a character who was grieving the loss of her baby and threw in a stranger for her to travel with. I still love aspects of this story but it fell down because I hadn’t got to know my characters and their motivations properly – there wasn’t enough of a goal or driver to the story and the characters were not engaging enough. Maybe one day I’ll return to the basics of this story because I still love the premise and it also seemed to appeal to the agents that I sent it to.

I suppose one of my problems is that I am very much a literary reader and writer. A lot of my favourite books do not have the normal hooks and peaks and troughs of the page-turners that publishers are looking for. I admire prose that is dense and poetic – that appeals to the senses and the intellect at the same time. Yes, you need to ground it in stories and characters that we care about, but the atmosphere of a book is really important to me. That’s why, in the novel that my agent is currently seeking a home for, the landscape of the Lincolnshire Fens became a character in its own right – I even plotted it a ‘storyline’ for it within the book.

I love history, too. My current book takes a character who has Multiple Sclerosis and sends her travelling to the places she had previous worked during an acclaimed photojournalist career. I was delving into the history of Bosnia and the conflicts of that region, looking at the events that brought down the Berlin Wall. My agent warned me of the dangers of getting too distracted from the narrative drive of the book, and I think she probably caught my writing-weakness head on – I can get too absorbed in the detail and forget the real goal of my protagonist and the need to keep a momentum leading towards this.

So, maybe I need to go back to the simpler stories that my mother told me as a child. The ones she would invent as she went along to the light of my favourite bedside bunny lamp. She certainly held my attention, and I remember some of the tales she invented to this day.

Find out how other writers get their story ideas at these blog sites:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1dm
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

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9 thoughts on “Story Ideas and the Benefits of Bedside Stories

  1. Hello Anne, I found this blog very interesting. I loved the part where you write about your mum telling you stories that she had made up by the light of your lamp. I am also interested in the idea that you might lose your “reader” because you love the detail, history etc but they want to know what happens next. I am finding that more recently I am reading a book twice, once to find out what happens next and then to savour the details, the style the connections. I hope that you and your Dad are OK.
    Best wishes
    Sally

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    • Thank you Sally – I agree that many books really warrant a second reading. Dad and I are fine despite him having a fall earlier this week – no bones broken and his equanimity fully in tact! Ax

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  2. I smiled about your mom’s stories because I recall my dad telling my baby sister stories that although we were a lot older, my brother and I hung on and didn’t want to miss an episode. He’d created this tiny girl, so small she was nicknamed pimple and every night she had a different adventure. The surprising part as I look back on it was that my dad isn’t one anyone would have thought of as a story teller.

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    • That’s exactly it – the people with gifts for story-telling are often the ones who most surprise us. And parents rule when it comes to bedtime stories!

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  3. My Dad told stories at the dinner table, usually about his WW2 experiences (nothing grisly) but I read children’s stories from the time I began learning how to read. I’m now wondering if those episodes are entering my writing.

    You know if your like literary reads that are dense and poetic without the peaks and troughs of genre fiction, and if you aren’t doing them already, you might try writing creative non-fiction essays. I took classes in it last summer and really love the freedom.

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  4. I’m just the opposite of you. I often focus on the characters and their conflicts and forget to include anything about their surroundings. Setting, events, etc. don’t matter to me as much as the relationship and how people relate to one-another. And I’m curious about your having an agent. I’ve got 13 books published, but never thought to look for agents, because I figured they work for writers who make lots of money. Not for those of us who labor in obscurity.

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    • Hello Fiona, I’ve written four novels and one non-fiction book and got none published yet. I’ve had an agent for a year and she’s picked up my third novel and had been submitting it widely and we’ve had lots of praise but no deal though quite a few of the publishers have asked to look at what I do next. I tried for many years to get an agent – many many submissions and lots of networking – because I write literary fiction and every single piece of advice from many sources is not to try to self publish in this genre – sales tend to come from reviews and prizes and the backing of a bigger publisher. Are you self published or through a small press? I have a friend with similar style to me who has two novels published through a small press but is now looking for an agent because sales are poor and she can’t get in the bookshops. Anne

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      • I’m with 2 small publishers. At one time it was three, but one closed down by selling all of their assets, including books and their authors, to a new owner. I didn’t want to be part of that sale, so I requested my rights back. Then I resubmitted those books to one of my current publishers, who did an excellent job of getting books out on time, and made paperbacks available at no extra cost to the author. Of course they were POD, print on demand, meaning that it was impossible to get them into book stores anywhere.

        Then my publisher’s mother was ill, so she sold her company to a new owner, and it’s been one delay after another for the past 3 years. I’ve had 1 book come out since then, and I didn’t even know it was out until I found it on Amazon…and then only as a POD, and despite frequent emails to the publisher, nothing seems to be happening regarding getting the eBook onto Amazon’s pages. I got rights back to 2 of my books, and have spent a year intending to self-publish. But Smashwords only pays royalties via Paypal. If you make over $75 in sales, they will send a check. But I’ve barely made over $75 in sales for the past 9 years that I’ve been published. Sigh…

        I don’t know what else to do anymore. I keep writing, when I can squeeze it in, between my 2 jobs and time spent with my family. But I’m very discouraged. I guess I write because I have to, since I long ago learned that laboring in obscurity is no way to be able to replace one of my jobs with royalties income.

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  5. What a long and difficult journey Fiona, and I so empathise with how discouraging it can be to put so much into writing with little reward at times. It must be so lovely, though, to have you’re work in print and out there. I wish you much self-publishing success if you go down this route in the future. Anne

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