So, we've been talking about coming up with good story ideas and I have a few things to add to the discussion. First and foremost, I'd like to say that my kids provide me with an endless supply of things to write about, both as a magazine journalist and a fiction writer. As a mother of three, I have a rich fantasy life about live-in help, luxurious vacations, and spa-days. If I ever find the time to pen another novel, it might have all of those elements in it because it's clear I won't be experiencing them in my real life. (sigh)
The idea for my first novel, Substitute Me, did actually come from my own trauma surrounding the search for the perfect nanny. I never found one, but the protagonist in the book does and drama ensues. These days, given the fact that my life seems to be on a permanent replay of work, feed the baby, laundry, grade papers, repeat, I'm not feeling another domestic drama. But that's okay.
When I'm not on duty as a human cow, I teach journalism to college students. This semester I'm teaching a class called Ripped from the Headlines: Using Journalism's Tools to Write Fiction. One of the main things I'm teaching my students to do, is scour the news media to find great story ideas. Because we all know that truth really is stranger than fiction. For example, my students just handed in an assignment where they had to research a recent story they discovered in the news that they thought would translate well into fiction. I received a slew of great stories -- from a female PhD candidate in chemical engineering who moonlights as a dominatrix, to a man who was rescued from a deadly shark attack by a group of friendly dolphins. Besides the fact that I felt like I must be living under a rock for not knowing about some of the more outrageous stories, I felt completely smart for creating this class.
A person doesn't have to go any further than their local paper to come up with clever, intriguing, unbelievable story ideas that they can spin into an amazing work of fiction. From natural disasters like the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan, to the recent lottery winner who is 85 years old, dramatic stories happen every day. This is not to make light of or profit from other people's misery. On the contrary, sometimes by unraveling the truth in fiction, we can give tragedy a happier ending, or at least sort out some of the complicated feelings involved. I just read such a book, the bittersweet Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron, which revisits the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
So, rather than 'writing what you know' or wracking your brain for creative ideas that may or may not be in there, open a People magazine and get inspired.
Lori L. Tharps is a magazine writer, college professor and mom. She blogs at MyAmericanMeltingpot.com.