Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 15, 2017

Divine Inspiration… Or Not: Mining Your Life for Story

Kate Moretti

A few weeks ago, the fabulous Kimberly Brock wrote a post about the fear of the blank page. She claimed that there are people who love it and she called them psychopaths and equated it to jumping out of airplanes.

I’m here to confess: I am that psychopath.

I just handed in my latest novel to my editor. I have a few scenes I know it needs so I plan on banging them out now while she is reading. I have articles to write (this one!) and emails to catch up on. But the lure of the blank page is too much. Today I opened a Scrivener file and wrote 800 words. I don’t know where the scene will fit in the novel, if it’s the first scene (feels like it to me) or if will be relegated to the murky middle, as a flashback. I just know that right now, everything about this book feels kind of amazing: fresh, new, not muddled and unclear, the shimmering pull of discovery right around the next bend.

For me, the draw of writing isn’t in the actual drafting. It’s in the idea of story. I have a Google word document with ten primary story ideas (and a zillion other partial ideas) in various stages of development. Some are just a logline with zero details: a woman does x, a woman’s sister/friend does y. Others have fleshed out characters, and still others have a theme I’m interested in more than a plot. Bottom line? They’re all potential stories. (Side note: I keep it in Google so I can access it anywhere, even from my phone on the go).

Are you the kind of writer who feels paralyzed by the beginning? Who looks at a blank page with dread? Who thinks, “Oh no, now I have to come up with a whole new idea,” and rather than feel that zing of anticipation, you want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head?

4 tips to help you come up with a new story:

1. Open to the stories around you.

They are everywhere. In the man who walks from his house across the street to three houses down, every single morning, and walks home every night. Who lives three doors down? I’ve never seen them. I assume a sweet, octogenarian romance. But how cute is it that he comes home every night? Does he care that much about propriety?

I write suspense, so sometimes I see a story and think: oh, this is not my story, not my genre. Sometimes I even pass those ideas along to friends. Sometimes I can massage the inspiration into something that does fit my genre. Writers can be lightning rods for stories, but we struggle to receive it. We can get so caught up in the questions: Is it commercially viable? Can it carry a book? Is it for me? Can I make it for me? Can I bring that something-something into another plot? It can get so exhausting that it kills creativity.

I find that getting the initial lightning strike down on paper — regardless of logistical questions — is what captures the essence of story. My Google word doc has zillions of these; it stands at almost twenty-five pages: some of it is complete non-sensical, various fonts (copied and pasted!), it’s messy and disorganized but it’s all (gold)mine.

2. Read the headlines.

I peruse headlines from five or ten years ago, just for fun. There’s a danger here, especially for historical fiction writers, since what inspires one may inspire many. The old adage, “the truth is stranger than fiction” is never more true than when you find a gem like this or a heartwarming story like this.

I read a story, years ago, about a family of children who was kept in a small New York City apartment their entire lives. Their mother died and the children were taken in by social services. They’d never been outside, never been to school, never socialized with other children. This is absolutely in my story document. I can’t find an angle that fits my brand but I just love it.

My forthcoming novel, THE BLACKBIRD SEASON, was inspired by a news story I read about a teacher who followed his students on social media. He was praised in the story for being involved and going beyond the call of duty. I thought, hmmm there must be a twist I can apply to this. What if the very thing that once made him a great teacher became the thing that made him a suspect in a student’s murder? I catalog these odd bits and pieces on Pinterest where I can access them later.

3. Consume other fiction: Not just books, but movies, television.

I find a lot of inspiration in true crime TV, as does a writer friend who recommends shows to me. I am currently into The First 48, which breaks a case down to the investigation level, each episode ending with an arrest. I am also inspired by books outside of my genre. Years ago, I read the book THE CASTAWAYS by Elin Hildebrand. I loved the ensemble cast structure and the beach setting, so an ensemble cast with a beach setting has been on my list since. In a fit of inspiration, I recently dusted it off and developed the four main voices, the murder, the motive, the red herrings.

4. Try.

This comes off like sanctimonious B.S. I’m sorry. I do think some percentage of writers expect inspiration to be like divine intervention. I’ve heard a newly published writer say “I have to really be inspired by something” when discussing story development. While many great stories may start as pure lightning strike, others must be ferreted out of the confusing depths and coils of the writer’s mind.

Sometimes I use long drives to deliberate think of story ideas. I talk into a microphone and pretend it’s a person. Sometimes I talk to another writer. The act of using my voice prompts me to dig deeper. I might say, “What if a woman who is hiding from her ex-husband falls in love, unwittingly, with her ex’s brother? NO, that’s been done before, I think. Wait, look up the plot of Sleeping With the Enemy, God I haven’t seen that in like 15 years.” It’s the stream of consciousness that awakens THE THING in me: the creative beast that will eventually unlock the story.

And that is all I really need: the key to unlock the story I know I have. Somewhere. I get the partial down in my Google doc and call it a day. When I’m at the stage I’m now, where I have to write up a pitch for my agent to send to my editor or even start a few chapters, I mine the document monster I’ve been keeping for years. Sometimes, it even works.

How do you mine for story?


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About Kate

Kate Moretti is the New York Times Bestselling author of four novels and a novella, including Thought I Knew YouWhile You Were GoneBinds That TieThe Vanishing Year, and Blackbird SeasonHer first novel THOUGHT I KNEW YOU, was a New York Times bestseller. THE VANISHING YEAR was a nominee in the Goodreads Choice Awards Mystery/Thriller category for 2016 and was called "chillingly satisfying." (Publisher's Weekly) with "superb" closing twists (New York Times Book Review). 

​Kate has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for twenty years as a scientist and enjoys traveling and cooking. She lives in Pennsylvania in an old farmhouse with her husband, two children and no known ghosts. Her lifelong dream is to find a secret passageway. Visit her website at www.katemoretti.com.

31 comments on “Divine Inspiration… Or Not: Mining Your Life for Story”

  1. Haha! I am the first commenter. The only way I can ever beat Laura to this spot is when she's on a road trip and I had a Mother's Day nap. LOL.

    But on to your gorgeous article...what I like most about writing:

    * Being with the characters.
    * Getting the story out of my head.

    I'm like that with exercising too. I know it's essential, I know I want to do it, but I don't actually enjoy the process. I like HAVING DONE IT. To get people like me to the page takes bribery, and habit, and fool yourself games like "I only need to do this for 15 minutes..." That 15 minutes nearly always becomes an hour and a half, and brings the satisfaction of having done it.

    As for how do I find the story...I don't know. They're just there, and I tap in. But for the nuance, it's all about research and plotting with my writing pals.

    1. Yay to find another "psychopath!" I don't like the actual writing either. This is why the blank page is so enticing. Endless possibilities!

      1. I'm so delighted to find out that there's someone else who loves the story and isn't a huge fan of the writing. What a comfort! *fist bump*

  2. Often my ideas show up when I'm looking for something else. I was looking up places cartels were active in Mexico for an opening gambit for my covert ops book, and I ran across a story about how cartels were kidnapping American engineers to build cell phone networks. That became the book. Travel also inspires ideas (and then you can write off the trip!)

    1. I find my best stories when I'm not looking yet. For me the challenge is capturing the essence of what excited me so that when I need it, I know how to find it.
      That is a crazy story about kidnapping American engineers!! Now I want to read this book!

    2. You're so right, Terry. Whenever I travel, something always happens that ends up in a book. I haven't tried to write any of the trips off, though. That could end up as a horror story!

  3. Great post. I feel the zing! I guess I'm a psychopath too.
    I have swags of snippets. Ideas that could turn into something if properly mined. But it's the one idea I keep coming back to, turning over and worrying until something pops. The pop usually happens when I'm hallway through my latest work in progress. Then, like a psychopath, I feel the excitement of the blank page calling.

    1. Yes!! I also love swags of snippets :). But I always feel that pull when I'm writing something else. Karen Karbo called it the "affair book". The one you're writing is the ball and chain. I think of this constantly!

  4. This will sound corny, but my main inspiration in my husband. He can come up with a new story idea that was lurking somewhere deep in my story and say "what if...." I never using his wording of the idea (because I never like it - it doesn't sound like me) but I often use the idea itself. Even in Scared Silent, where a woman murders her husband, he suggested a storyline that was great. My historical fiction is always made richer by his knowledge of history. He simply suggests a happening I hadn't discovered, and when I research it, it is a gold mine. I know that I'm lucky. It makes me want to share every detail (probably to his chagrin) of every manuscript with him.
    Joyce Shaughnessy

    1. Oh how lucky are you? My husband isn't a reader or a writer. I'd love to have someone in-house to be able to bounce story ideas off of. He tries, bless his heart. He's way to literal! :D. You've lucked out, my friend!

  5. I truly enjoyed this article about mining for story. I have similar bits and pieces and whole pages of things I want to write "someday". But mine are not in a nice safe place like a google file. Mine are scattered in different journals and actual paper files because I am now a quite old woman and I have been accumulating them for over 20 years!! For the ones I never get to write because I have passed on, I am hoping one of my writer/author kids will find promising enough to make into a book length tale. I have 2 who are also published authors and 2 more who have wips. So, maybe.And I just cannot imagine having to agonize over what to write next or feel I will never again have a book worthy idea.

    1. I can't imagine having 20 years worth of story starters. How fortunate are you! And to have kids that have become writers as well. I bet your Thanksgivings are spectacular!

  6. I love the zing. I get discouraged by my first attempt to illustrate that shiny idea using words. A couple of days ago someone posted a meme of Starry Night by Van Gogh, It said, "Story idea in my mind" or something like that. Below it was a stick-figure drawing that said how it looks when I try to talk about it. "So much awesome, right here." I feel like that with my shitty first drafts. Thanks Katie, for the inspiration!

    1. I love that cartoon! "Amaze! So much awesome!" It's really true. Thanks for dropping in Ella! xo

    1. HA! I bet you love revisions though... (***HIVES***)! I'll channel you soon xo

  7. I love story seeds. They're everywhere - like the pollen in the air right now (sneeze!).
    I'm not quite as organized with the story monster document but I have a notebook with ideas and a folder of bookmarks in Safari. But there's always one or two that knock around in my brain, collecting details as they grow into full-fledged stories. I love this part. If only I could fast forward from this to revisions. 🙂

    1. Hello fellow blank page lover! I don't mind drafting, I don't love revising! I like the initial zing and i love when it's done. Everything else in the middle is BLAHOMGAWFUL.

      1. Me too, Kate! Ignore Orly. I'm convinced she's a well-disguised alien from a planet with lots of coffee and wine, sent here to steal ours.

  8. I would much rather work with a blank page than revising a bunch of ink. I don't know if that makes me a psychopath, but I do have several characters who are alive and hanging out in my head telling me their stories, their friends, their histories. I've been revising three books the past year, so I haven't started anything new, but I can't wait to start a new series that I've already finished the first two books "in my head." But I have two other books whose characters are waiting before I can start the new series. And nope, none of these ideas are written down, though I do have a phone app and a computer document with a few lines to a few pages of story ideas for the characters who didn't talk loud enough.

  9. Jenny's right - 360 miles on the motorcycle yesterday, getting home from a 3,000 mile trip. My butt is tired.

    Wish I knew where the ideas come from, Kate. I hate to sound all woo-woo, but I don't know. I usually get the best ones on my bicycle, or motorcycle, when the working dog part of my mind is happily busy chasing sticks, so the subconscious can play.

    I'm with you - love, love, love the time before I write the first line. I mean, the book is all shiny and new. Those sparkles hide the glaring holes and impossible stuff.

    That shows up in the middle - aka - The Pit of Dispair.

    Fellow Psycho

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