Ideas for stories come easily to me. However, not all writers and would-be writers can say the same. If you struggle to come up with ideas, or perhaps ideas you think are good enough to sustain an entire story that people will want to read from beginning to end, let me assure you it’s not an impossible feat. In fact, it just might be easier than it seems.
Here’s how a new story came to me a couple of weeks ago: I was staying with a long-time friend at a cabin near a lake. Naturally, as you might expect, we got to talking about mutual friends and acquaintances. A couple of those people had done things that I could very loosely use in a story. Next, since my friend and I are both kayakers, we went out on the lake. Since she knows the waterways quite well, she led me through a series of channels when the water was unusually high for August. Still, there were challenges like getting around a beaver dam and one narrow, brisk channel where we wanted to go upstream. We finally reached a calm, lovely pool. Some days earlier, we had visited the house where John Brown once lived and is buried, now a historic site. I had had no idea he even lived there! I did know that several forts in the region played key roles in the French and Indian War.
I put these disparate elements together into a new story, one I had no notion of writing before my visit. Notice how I’ve shifted from talking about story ideas to story elements—setting, backstory, characters, events. That’s how I cobble together a bunch of my stories. It’s nothing like starting off with a killer idea.
Now here’s my challenge if you are struggling: What events—be they historic or simply fascinating incidents—happened near where you live now or once lived? What about them intrigues you? What have you seen, done, and experienced in these places? Who else was with you? What else can you throw into the mix, especially an obstacle or two? I hope that before you know it, you’ll be in the middle of a fine story that only you can tell.
Hey, you can watch my second appearance on Joe Compton’s Go Indie Now. Our panel of all women had a great time discussing what draws us to alternate historical events and how we go about turning these “what ifs” into stories. We look at how we weave together real events and historical figures with made up ones. Turns out, we’re all quite willing to discard some of what historians tell us when it gets in the way of a good story. Joe asked a bunch of insightful questions of Madeleine Holly-Rosing, A.F. Stewart, Nikki Nelson-Hicks, Jenn Thompson and me. Check us out!
In case you missed my alternate history of space exploration during the 1960s, it’s available in the July/August 2021 issue of Analog Science Fiction.
What's that you say, it doesn't feel like you're doing better work? Your in-box still collects all those disheartening rejections? No matter. Seriously. Here's the evidence: Pull out something you wrote years ago, way back when you first got the urge to write fiction and began putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or whatever your early method was. Start reading through that piece. Do you see stuff in the first few pages, or paragraphs, or even sentences that makes you cringe? You would never make those rookie mistakes today, would you? Well there you have it! These are all signs that you've honed your technique, at least to some extent, given that you know at least some of what needs to be improved. Yeah, figuring out the best way to transform that early effort into a story you'd be proud of today is harder. But heck, I bet you have a few thoughts on how you can improve it. Now, I'm not saying that early piece is thoroughly professional, even with reworking. But then again, you never know. It just might be. I once sold an early story after it sat around for twelve years. That was how long it took me to figure out what it needed. Give it a shot! I wish you the best.
I had lots of fun talking about writing short stories as a panelist on Joe Compton’s Go Indie Now. You can watch it on You Tube and find out how creators of short fiction do what we do. Joe asked a bunch of insightful questions of Jae Lavelle, A.F. Stewart, Alexander Gideon and me.
It turns out we came to short story writing in quite different ways, ranging from starting with novels, poetry, etc. You see, there’s no single path to becoming a published author. You definitely don’t need to be an English major much less get an MFA degree.
We also talk about starting with ideas characters, themed anthologies, and a bunch of things we learned along the way. Check us out!
Announcing…I sold a horror story! This is only the second time I’ve tried my hand at writing one. I’m chuffed to say that I am now two for two when it comes to writing horror. Be sure to stay tuned and I’ll let you know when the time comes for you to buy the anthology it’ll be in. My story is just under a thousand words, so it’ll be easily readable in one sitting when it comes out.
I don’t read a lot of horror, despite tearing through all of Edgar Allan Poe at a formative age. Nowadays, I don’t particularly enjoy being frightened. This means I am even less of a fan of horror movies. That said, my success in selling these two stories leads me to give some thought to what I find particularly frightening. Sure, serial killers and the undead and horrible suffering and predatory velociraptors are on my list. But my biggest fear is something that doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention as I think it deserves.
I’m afraid of the widespread public rejection of science. There seems to be no arguing with those who sneer at others’ efforts to understand basic scientific concepts and methods, those who reject anything smacking of science out of hand. This attitude strikes me as closely tied to a more widespread rejection of experts and expertise. It’s especially pernicious these days and I don’t have much in the way of a suggestion to combat it.
But getting back to horror in fiction, I’m curious what my readers and blog followers think:
- Do you enjoy reading horror fiction?
- How about horror movies?
- What scares you the most?
Let me know and I’ll post comments.
2020 was a very tough year for readers seeking signs of hope for the future or solace in a brief respite from reality. It was an equally tough year for writers trying to string words together into something that felt meaningful. When our work did find its way into print or on line, all too often it didn’t attract the attention it merited. It’s time to remedy this! Writers: your readers, both new and old, need to reconnect with your insights. I urge you to put out on social media your 2020 year-end retrospective. Yes, many of cringe at the prospect of doing so. Here’s a bit of advice I wrote on SFWA’s blog as to how you might go about this without coming across as self-absorbed or grubbing for award nominations.
I’m pleased to announce that I had several articles published in 2020, all of which you can read for free:
- Monumental Thinking, which is in the January/February issue of Analog, is my take on suitable replacements for statues being torn down these days.
- Elections Past, Present, and To Come is a reprint plus update of an article from the March 2016 issue of Analog talking about what it’s like to serve as an election official/poll worker. I’ve done this a bunch of times, including the 2020 Presidential primaries. (Do those ever seem like a lifetime ago!).
- What I know about writing about dinosaurs was posted on Cath Schaff-Stump’s Fantastic History blog.
My year end retrospective would normally include a list of my fiction that also appeared in print. Alas, 2020 has not been kind to the publishing industry. I was slated to have three science fiction stories make their print and/or on-line appearances. None of them did. Writers: This is why it’s important to make sure your contract addresses rights reversions and provides a kill fee if publication doesn’t happen within a stated time period. Sigh. These stories are all out to other markets once more.
Most Unexpected Pleasure: Serving as a judge for the Endeavour Award. It’s great to have a role in recognizing fine work by my colleagues who don’t make the choice easy!
Best Trip: Philadelphia Flower Show in early March. Have a look at some of my photos from it.
Best Educational Opportunities: Smithsonian classes went on line. You don’t even have to be a member (a/k/a Smithsonian Associate) to take them. I loved learning about how birds talk, parent, and think. I also sank into lectures on Paleolithic Cave Art, Santorini, Apollo 13, the Etruscans, Machu Picchu, and the Art of India.
Best Pandemic Antidote: Monthly flower deliveries for Zoom arranging with friends. If you are interested, check out revased.com. Or just have a look at some of my creations on my Flowers page and on Instagram.
Late to the Party: This summer I read and binge watched Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Most Fun New Series: The Queen’s Gambit. This show reminded me so very much of my own days as a kid and high school student when I threw myself into the world of competitive chess tournaments. While my experiences took place somewhat later in time, the gender disparity had not changed much from the 1960s depicted in the series.
Guilty Pleasure: Tiger King. The less said the better.
Things to Come: What will the weeks and months ahead bring? Watch this space for announcements of:
- The Next Frontier: my novelette forthcoming in Analog.
- My first flash fiction (under 1000 words) to be published in a horror anthology.
- My first blog post on a different site aimed at professional writers.
- More good things I can’t disclose yet!
Seeing my work published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact never gets old and especially not when I have an opportunity to write about a timely topic from my perspective as an archaeologist. The January/February 2021 issue features my guest editorial about efforts to remove statues and monuments dedicated to various prominent historical figures whom many believe have committed reprehensible acts sufficient to disqualify them from such honors. I’m mindful that these monuments, as well as the names we give highways, plazas, and public buildings, reveal our values to those who will come after us. Thus, I’ve come up with a different approach to creating worthy replacements.
I hope you’ll read the editorial, entitled Monumental Thinking, and then check out all the wonderful fiction and articles in this issue of Analog.
Do you envision my day beginning with a beautiful fountain pen and crisp, blank pages awaiting my musings or dare I say, insights? Do you picture me putting fresh paper into a typewriter and pounding away until The Story sits in a neat pile of pages on a polished wood desk?
Hah! Here’s one day this week: It starts when, upon waking, I realize I forgot to include something in a chapter I said I’d send off today. So I do some quick reworking via computer before breakfast. Food and tea are accompanied by a side dish of email. That’s when I discover my spam filter claimed for its own the galleys my editor sent me a full week ago. Yikes. They need to go back today.
Once that’s done, including a detour to verify that I have properly employed an infrequently-used adjective, I can get the promised chapter shipped out and eat lunch.
Next up is outlining a few scenes, which bring the conundrum as to the best point of view in a novel told from several characters’ viewpoints. None of the three choices is clearly best. I take a stab at reorganizing some scenes.
Then I look at email again and see that an editor needs my bio. Given the publication’s length constraints, I dig out a recent one and update it.
By now, thoughts of putting a well-balanced fountain pen to creamy paper are a fading memory. However, a blog post to end the day…well, here you go.
Writers fill my screen, their faces showing intense concentration as we sit silently before our laptops, each in our individual rooms, plying our craft. Three months ago, I would never have dreamed of writing fiction this way. Heck, I was never terribly fond of writing in a coffee shop with others at nearby tables, let along with a group of my colleagues in the same room.
Then came the pandemic and all of my words fled. Every single last one. After struggling for weeks, in desperation I completely shook up my long-standing writing habits. I’ve always found accountability to others to be a useful tool, whether on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. So I gave group writer sprints a try, reasoning that the result could hardly be worse than zero words. To my great surprise, my words came back.
How does a writer sprint work, you ask? A bunch of writers assemble via Zoom at a prearranged time and begin by saying what we each intend to write. Sometimes we’ll take a “Twitter pledge” to stay off social media, that great distracting bane of many writers and destroyer of productivity. Someone will set a timer and we’ll spend thirty minutes or so of silently writing. Well OK maybe with an occasional comment in Chat. Then we’ll all unmute and go around with brief updates as to how we each acquitted ourselves.Those who accomplished their goal for the sprint get applause, cheers, thumbs up, etc. Lather, Rinse. Repeat.
I have no earthly idea why this radical overhaul of my method works. Maybe it has something to do with an occasional cat waving its tail at a webcam or a dog come to beg for treats. Anyway, I’m putting it out here NOT to say you must adopt this method, or any specific method whatsoever. My point, instead, is that if what you are doing no longer seems to work, try something else. Whatever helps during this terrible pandemic is good.
We are all different people with many and varied approaches to our creative processes. My friend Jason Sanford has written an insightful piece on how the pandemic has affected a number of writers. Some keep chugging steadily along. (Awesome!) Some have been unable to produce anything. Some have had to abandon works in progress and begin afresh. The approaches are as varied as the writers and their creative endeavors. My point is to simply suggest that this could be the time to try a fresh approach.