Wednesday, March 29, 2017

So what if?

by Dietrich Kalteis

What sources do you draw on for ideas for your stories?

Ideas can spring from just about anywhere: memories, headlines, newscasts, personal experience, what happened to the neighbor, dreams, song lyrics. They can be imagined or borrowed, and when I find something interesting I often find myself thinking, “so what if?” And it starts me writing a single scene. And from that, it leads to the next scene. 

The idea for my first novel Ride the Lightning came from a bit of dialog I wrote for another short story. Two characters talking and it just grew from that. For the next one, The Deadbeat Club, I came across an article about the thousands of grow-ops here in British Columbia that contribute to forty percent of all the pot in this country. From that I came up with a pot grower up in Whistler who grows a killer strain and just tries to stay off the radar when a couple of rival gangs come up from Vancouver to squeeze him out. The idea for Triggerfish came from a program I watched about these high-tech narco subs being built by drug cartels in secret locations in the jungles of the Amazon — subs that can travel two thousand miles virtually undetected. I checked the distance from Mexico to Canada, and I had the starting point for my story. House of Blazes started out as a screenplay I wrote about a dozen years ago, set during the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. It was a time of lawlessness, corruption and debauchery, the perfect setting for a crime novel. As I started writing and sifting through piles of research, I found a recent article about 11 million dollars worth of gold coins a couple discovered on a property they own not too far from San Francisco. The gold had been minted in San Francisco around the time of my story, and experts still can’t explain how it got there. It fit perfectly into my story and expanded it from the original screenplay.

When I come up with the spark of an idea I have to be totally jazzed about it since it’s going to take the better part of a year before I’ve got a novel to send out. And that spark is usually just for a single scene and maybe an undeveloped character or two, and everything just builds from there. I don’t know where the story will go at that point since I don’t plot out my stories. As I keep writing other scenes come to mind and the characters develop and usually by the second draft the whole thing starts taking shape.

It’s interesting to find out how some of the greats came up with ideas for their stories. For instance, Mark Twain based a character on a childhood friend and came up with Huckleberry Finn. John Steinbeck wanted to tell about the hard times people had to endure when he wrote Grapes of Wrath. After a classmate got jumped by a gang on the way home from school, fifteen-year-old S.E. Hinton started writing The Outsiders. And Jules Verne was flipping through a newspaper one day when he spotted an ad offering a chance to travel the globe in just eight days.

I keep an idea file for scraps to be used for future stories. Some of them I’ll use, and some I probably never will, but one thing’s for sure, there never seems to be a shortage of ideas out there that can get one thinking, “so what if?”


Paul D. Marks said...

It always amazes me when people ask where you get your ideas from. Not in the form of the question here, but friends, other writers, etc. They're everywhere, as you suggest, Dieter. You just have to recognize them.

Avalon808 said...

You also know your idea is on the right track when you start seeing it go out of your mind and into the real world. My WIP, I am writing a scene and then on one of my favorite TV shows, there was a plot that parallel to it and later in the news, the setting I used was in featured so it was my universe telling me, GOOD IDEA KEEP WRITING.