Thursday, June 11, 2009

Getting story ideas

It seems every time I turn around I'm seeing discussions of the question, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Just the other day after my post on hidden stories everywhere, my friend Eric Del Carlo had an excellent thought on the subject, which was basically, "everywhere - just pay attention." This is certainly true of his work; he gets ideas from all over and turns them into cool stories.

But everyone pays attention in different ways. The things that stand out to one person may not stand out to another; the ideas that might come together to layer into a story for one might leave another totally cold.

I got an idea this morning while I was walking my son to school and heard a family speaking Chinese to one another as they got out of the car. When I heard them, I was immediately reminded of the most useful thing I know how to say in Chinese, namely "I don't speak Chinese." It then occurred to me that the phrase I've learned is in Mandarin, but that this family might be speaking another dialect - if I were to say it to them, they'd probably understand, but it wouldn't be what they consider their family's language. And then a connection was made, for no reason I can really explain. I thought of how I'd just recently blogged about the idea of a lingua franca - thinking at the time that I should look for a story to place in such an environment - and began to wonder what it would be like if that language really wasn't the native/comfort language of any of its speakers.

At that moment, I imagined a character. A person who has learned the lingua franca in order to move into a community, and then discovers when he/she gets there that it isn't the "real" language of anyone he/she meets.

It's not a story. Not yet. But it's an appropriate language concept for a story in my Allied Systems universe, so now I'm going to be looking around after this for other ideas to attach to it. Ideas that might tell me who precisely this character is, and what he/she wants, but can't get, because of this language issue. Defining the stakes is critical to having a story to tell, rather than just a situation to describe.

Once I have a sense of stakes I can elaborate more and begin playing with details of alien physiology, environment, langauge and culture. Basically, the million more layers this will need before I can start writing. And I'm pretty sure that once I'm finished, not only will it be a story, but that it will be entirely my own story.

Originality of ideas is always a tough question. Some say there are only ten story ideas in the world (or so). As I read, and watch movies, and go through life, I encounter lots of story ideas that because of the fact that I'm experiencing them, have obviously been done before. I feel lucky to have my bizarre and esoteric (I say this fondly) academic background, because it helps me to have a new perspective on whatever ideas I encounter. Some ideas are clichéd, and hard to revive. But you can't necessarily predict when something familiar will feel old, or when it will feel classic, and a lot of that is in the execution.

Think about what your experience gives you that no one else has - the insights, the perspective, the attitude, whatever it might be - and try to bring that to bear on your search for ideas. An idea someone else thinks is novel may not catch fire for you simply because it doesn't mesh well with the unique heart of your creativity. Or on the other hand an idea that is often considered a bit passé might wake something in you that sends you to your desk to write fiendishly, because it opens up that opportunity for you to show the world what you have that no one else does.

Through it all, keep your senses open, and ideas will come to you.


  1. My wife and I know a couple who are 2nd-gen Chinese. At their son's 1-year party, her mother and his parents were in attendance. But they could not talk to each other. So the father would tell KC in his language, he would tell his wife in English, and she would tell her mother in her language.

    We may call them "dialects," but that is political. It is only because China has a single government. If two tongues are mutually unintelligible, they are different languages.

    OTOH, a Norwegian and a Dane can understand each other. But (again, for political reasons) Danish and Norwegian are accounted separate languages rather than dialects.

  2. Point taken, Mike. So I imagine you'd argue that they are different languages in the same family. Am I right?

    I just heard Norwegian the other day, in fact. A very nice woman taught me how to say "I don't speak Norwegian."

    A phrase I enjoy picking up in as many languages as possible, obviously.

  3. I think language is more a continuum than a set of discrete boxes. Portuguese and Spanish are closer to each other than either is to Italian; and those three are closer than any of them are to French. So, there are degrees of separation. When you layer politics atop - Norway's declaration of independence from Denmark; the Han conquest of southern China - certain identities are imposed on the biological reality.

    What we need is some way of measuring "distance" between two dialects. Clearly, kSwahili is "far" from English while Frisian is "close." We recognize this when we try to define language families and subfamilies.

  4. I work as a customs officer at an international airport. In Mandarin, I can say "Hello", "Thank You" and "Goodbye" (but that is the full extent of my fluency in Mandarin). This always seems to please and impress the Mandarin Chinese.

    But it annoys the hell out of any Cantonese speaking Chinese that I mistake for Mandarin speakers.