I’ve got to say, I just love a cold start on a fresh story. It’s almost a miracle the way ideas bump together and a structure starts to build up where before there was just random litter. I feel like a caveman, bumping rocks together and watching pretty sparks come out . . . and light my campfire.
I found the video clip we’ve been showing this week of Diana Gabaldon’s process to be very natural. The thing that amazes me is that she relies on only one external input – that crystal goblet from a Sotheby’s catalog. For me, I like to have at least two things bump together.
Those things can be words (like in Elizabeth’s writing sprints on Fridays) or images (all praise to Google Image search). My own experiences are like the logs on the fire – the sparks I get (if I’m lucky) fall on some dry memory ready to burst into flames and story.
For example, my Bunny Blavatsky stories started out when I was googling women photographers. Google led me to Bunny Yeager (image from The Atlantic.com). What an exciting name for a character! Full of cuteness and jet planes and all sorts of resonances. But Bunny Yeager was a real, living person, and I felt funny about using her name. Still, here were some of Bunny’s fabulous pictures of Bettie Page (From the Atlantic article) dressed in a cheetah print . . . with live cheetahs! What an interesting dichotomy! How does a Bunny interact with a Cheetah? What kind of problems would they have?
A fun postcard from the 19th century made me back the timeline up to 1899, and I like New York, so that became the time and setting. The more research I did, the more kindling I added to the fire. The story isn’t done yet, but it doesn’t feel “dead” either, if you know what I mean. Just banked, until I’m ready to devote some serious time to it.
Cold starts aren’t easy for everyone. I teach English to Japanese schoolchildren, and one of our activities is a “What’s This?” quiz. A lot of kids have no problems cold-starting. They can come up with an idea for their quiz and start drawing right away. But other kids are completely stumped.
I think the first step is for them to put away their inner censor. They come out (one by one) to the hall to have a “secret consultation”. (-: I think that helps in several ways. First, “it’s not my fault” – when two are talking, the responsibility is shared. And second, I can encourage them in a couple of ways. I can praise their ideas, and give them that little extra boost. And I can also say, “Look, just go with this idea. We’ve got 20 minutes, which is a lot of time. If you get a better idea, then you can ask the teacher for a new piece of paper.” Taking away the “this is my one and only chance for success” idea can be very comforting.
Second, I can give them a prompt. I used to say, “Well, we’ve got a deadline, so open this illustrated book at random, and see if that strikes your fancy.” And this would work 80 percent of the time. These days, I hold that in reserve, and start off with a question: “What do you want to do as soon as you get home?” Snack foods are easy to draw and make good quizzes. So are game controllers and game characters. (-: Once in a while, I get a kid who wants to sleep, so I suggest they draw their bed.
So, how would this question work for you? When you get home from work, or finish your chores for the day, what would you really, really like to indulge in? There are so many ideas: a chocolatier and a ukulele player meet at a hotel that’s hosting a romance convention, and hi-jinx ensue. The heir to a quality mattress-maker meets a YouTuber on a plane to Hawaii. And their luggage is stolen by Chinese industrial spies!
Or, you can take the question back: when you were 12, what did you really, really enjoy doing? I won’t give you any story ideas from my own weird childhood, but our loves can be set quite early. If you were passionate about dirt bikes when you were young, there’s a good chance you can enjoy a few hours of dirt bike research in order to create something for your story.
The original spark may not work out, but it often sets fire to something else, I find. The important thing is to get started and get writing. Somebody is waiting to read your story! They just don’t know it’s there yet.