So You Want to be a Writer? What Are You Going to Write About? How Will You Know if You Got it Right?
In some capacity, I have always been a writer. When other kids dreaded writing papers or completing essay questions on tests, I welcomed them. These things were a chance to show what I knew and what I thought instead of testing my capability to memorize data. My ability to write served me well throughout my professional career (day job). Something was missing, though.
I always wanted to focus more on creative writing. Over the years, I had many starts and stops. Professional pressures and other time consuming activities never allowed me to focus on an activity that I knew I would love. Then, one day, I switched to a job that had me traveling four days per week, forty weeks per year. This provided me with a great deal of downtime.
I can still remember the day about three years ago when I pulled out a blank notebook from my carry-on bag during a flight to Chicago. This was in the days before the use of tablet devices was allowed throughout the flight. I opened the notebook and, by the time I landed in Chicago, I had written about 5,000 words of a 7,000 word short story that would be my first published work.
Now let’s back up. Where did I get the idea for this story? It actually was easy. I have been in the habit of checking news headlines every morning to get up to speed on what’s going on in the world. One of the headlines that caught my eye had to do with a motorcyclist that was injured on a Florida highway when a vehicle driven by a senior citizen abruptly changed lanes in front of him at a low rate of speed. The man was thrown from his bike, and ended up with a crushed spine and a severed spinal cord. He would be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.
After reading the news story, I thought about how hopeless the situation was. Even with advances in modern medicine, it was clear that this man would never walk again and would likely have a shortened life because of his injuries.
That got me thinking. What could possibly occur that would make this story have a different ending? That’s where the plot for my short story, Heal Thyself came from. It had the man awakening in the hospital with the expected solemnity and sadness over his situation. He would then baffle the doctors by scratching his nose. X-Rays would then reveal that his injuries had been healed and, further, injuries he incurred earlier in life were gone without a trace. The story goes on to reveal that the man not only spontaneously healed, but was able to heal others in similar hopeless situations.
This ability sounds miraculous on its face, but in playing out how this man’s life would change, the miraculous nature of the ability dissolves.
This story came from the headlines and that is one tip for finding story ideas. Look for interesting situations and put your own twist on them. Here are some other tips that have worked for me in creating and fleshing out story ideas:
Write What You Know
This is probably one of the most overused statements in writing. We hear it everywhere. There’s a reason for that, however. It’s generally true.
If you’re a lawyer, courtroom drama or corporate espionage might be a good topic for you. It certainly works for John Grisham. If you are from Florida, set your stories in Florida and use familiar landmarks and locations. The more you know about your topics, the more validity you will bring to your work.
This doesn’t mean you’re limited to your own experiences. As you progress as a writer, you can add to your experience by conducting research and traveling to new locations. My job gives me the opportunity to travel all over the United States (42 states and counting). I try to observe the local landscape and culture when I travel and use it in my writing.
Of course, if you write science fiction or fantasy, you are inventing your own world. This should be based, however, in some kind of generally accepted lore. If you write about vampires, for instance, you might not want to have them eating bananas to survive. We are used to them drinking blood to survive. Changing that lore might alienate some readers.
If your story idea ventures outside of your area of expertise, find someone that can validate what you are writing about. Part of my book, Let Me Be Frank, takes place in New Orleans. I have been there a couple of times, but I am certainly not an expert in the city’s history or the way its law enforcement works. I found a fellow author, however, that is a retired New Orleans police officer. He agreed to give the manuscript a read and send me comments. I was able to correct some of the nuances that were not quite right in the book.
I have friends that are lawyers, paramedics, doctors, scientists, etc. These people can give my work credibility. In my first book, my character, Frank Rozzani, uses the gun referred to as a Glock in one of the scenes. I mentioned that he turned off the safety on this gun. One of my gun owner friends informed me that this weapon did not have a safety. I was able to remove it and, therefore, save my credibility in the book.
Research your settings, technology used, and other aspects of your story. In my first book, Frankly Speaking, I had to research snake bites and satellite technology to make the story plausible. Thank goodness for the Internet. I can’t imagine how writers did their research before it became available.
Another great resource is Google Maps and Google Street View. I can describe buildings and landscape on streets that I have never been to in vivid detail from looking at the available images.