|The Gleaners. Jean-François Millet. 1857|
By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund
I'm currently in the process of researching and plotting a book. In the grand scheme of things, this current project will end up being the 16th book I've completed.
After 15 other books, I find myself asking questions like: How in the world can I find ideas for another story? What if I've used up all my best ideas already? What if I pick a plot, character, or theme that is repetitious of something I've already written (or that someone else has written)?
Whether our fifth or fifteenth book, we must always be on the lookout for fresh, unique, and vibrant story ideas. Modern writers just can't afford to publish something unoriginal or mediocre, especially in today's overcrowded book market. It's already tough enough to grip our readers' hearts and minds with a fresh story, much less one that lacks luster.
So how do we do it? How can we keep on finding unique plots and characters time after time?
As I've been plotting my current book, I've realized that one of the best ways for writers to find ideas is through READING voraciously.
Obviously there are numerous benefits to reading, especially for writers. We can keep abreast of what is being published. We can stay familiar with genre expectations. We can improve our own story-telling. We can study fiction-writing techniques. And we can support fellow authors.
But one of the most important reasons for writers to read voraciously is to glean story ideas. Notice I didn't say steal or copy ideas. Obviously we'd get into a LOT of trouble if we take what someone else has created and rewrite it to make it ours. That's pretty much the same thing as plagiarizing.
No, I'm talking about gleaning. In the olden days, gleaning was a farming term. It basically meant that poorer people could walk along behind harvesters and pick up the crops or grains that were left. One little bit here. One little bit there. With enough time and effort, the poor person could fill a sack with enough to get them by.
Gleaning in our reading works the same way. We read with our eyes wide open, constantly scanning the landscape of the story. We search for little morsels that interest us that we can stick in a bag (aka file) and perhaps use in one of our stories.
Now of course, I gave my heroine a deeper motivation for why she plants her flower garden than simply to round out her characterization with a fun, different hobby. I try not to randomly assign my characters hobbies or interests just for the sake of giving them one. Instead I attempt to relate everything together to the plot like a giant puzzle where all the pieces eventually fit together.
But the point is that I took that tiny tidbit of an idea from The Secret Garden and I made it something much bigger and relevant to my story.
I can't tell you how many kernels I glean from books I'm reading, when I stop and think, "Oh I like that idea, but what if I changed it and did this instead?"
The books we read spark our imagination, turn on our creativity, and get us thinking in a deeper way than ordinary.
I not only glean ideas from the fiction I'm reading but also from the non-fiction. In fact, for my historical romances, I garner even more ideas from biographies and other history books than anything else. I would guess that contemporary writers could gather a wealth of ideas from reading newspapers, magazine articles, or memoirs.
We might pull an interesting setting idea from one book. Cut a character trait or two from another. Find a fascinating plot twist somewhere else. And when we start piecing them all together into the frame of our story, then we end up with a creation that is uniquely our own.
My Summary: Writers, if you're struggling with finding ideas, then read voraciously. If you're already reading, then keep your eyes open and look around. You'll be surprised at what you glean!
Where do YOU find you find your best writing ideas? Do you ever get ideas from the books you're reading?