You may have heard the old maxim Write what you know. The advice has merit, but it’s not the whole truth. If you want to write about a famous fashion model who befriends a lame penguin while on a magazine shoot in Antarctica, go for it, even if it has absolutely zero relationship to your own life. You may have to do some research on models and penguins and Antarctica, but it may be intriguing. How could it not be? And I would guess that even if you write about things totally alien to your existence, you will still be writing, in some way, about what you know. The tone or emotions or perspective will be your own. The truest maxim in this respect might be: Write what ignites your interest.
Don’t shy away from surprising seeds. The writer Jess Row somehow got himself stuck on the idea of echolocation, the sound-detection technique used by bats to navigate. Though he didn’t really know much about echolocation, he liked the idea and began imagining a girl who believed she had the power of echolocation, which she used to pursue the spirit of her departed mother. Following this bizarre seed, Jess created the much-acclaimed story “The Secrets of Bats.”
History is an incredibly rich source of story ideas. Toni Morrison heard tell of a slave woman who murdered her child to prevent the child from being a slave herself. Out of this haunting incident grew Morrison’s Beloved. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was largely inspired by the contemporary history of India, the protagonist even being born at the moment of India’s independence from colonialism.
So, in addition to absorbing the world that is immediately around you, feel free to absorb the world that is around you in a broader sense, even if that takes you to other time periods or the far reaches of the universe. Ideas are everywhere, and there is literally no limit to what you can write about.
Once you start absorbing the world as a writer, your problem will quickly shift from I don’t have any good ideas to I have so many great ideas I can’t possibly live long enough to get all of them down. This is a wonderful problem for a writer to have.
So how do you know when you have the right idea, the one that’s truly worth pursuing? Well, you’ll know. People who live in New York City know that if you’re riding the subway and across the aisle from you sits a wild-eyed person wearing garbage-can couture who is clearly on his way to nowhere, you should avoid making eye contact with that person because the second you do the person will lock those wild eyes onto your soul and start jabbering about apocalypse or Porky Pig or who knows what and the conversation will continue with or without your consent for an uncomfortably long period of time. Ideas are like that person. When the right idea enters your head it will loudly and persistently announce its presence. You may acknowledge its presence right away or it may take you a few days, but you’ll know when the right idea has arrived.
Bear in mind, however, that a single big idea won’t give you a whole story. A fictional work is really an accumulation of many ideas. A single word may have inspired The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but, somehow or other, Hugo managed to cultivate some five hundred pages from this seed. He also got the idea for a noble hunchback, a gypsy girl with a dancing goat, the Festival of Fools, a mob storming the cathedral walls, and a host of other things that he skillfully wove into a multicolored, yet unified, tapestry.
Before I forget, let me remind you to write your ideas down. Most writers don’t go far without a notebook handy. The “eureka” ideas may stay with you, but once you get going ideas will start popping in your head like popcorn and you can’t possibly remember them all. The jottings in your notebook don’t have to make any sense and you won’t use every single one of them, but sooner or later some of those notes will flower into something very useful.
Now, a word of caution. The seeds you pick up from the world are just that, seeds. Once you plant your seeds in the soil of a story, let those seeds grow into fiction, not fact. Don’t confine your story to the way things really were, in a literal sense. Fiction demands better storytelling than real life, even if the fiction seems perfectly “real.” Often beginning fiction writers stick too rigidly to the facts and inevitably their stories feel a little flat or indulgent. (True, many memoirs are quite compelling, but one reads a memoir with a different set of expectations than one reads fiction with.) Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is a somewhat autobiographical story about a mother seeing her baby through a terrible illness. The real-life seed idea was certainly emotional enough.
But Moore chose to fictionalize the story (even though the protagonist is a writer) so she could further deepen the story’s impact. If she had not done so, the story probably wouldn’t have the shape, suspense, clarity, irony, and humor (yes, humor) that makes it so unforgettable. The fiction writer must water the soil with imagination until the story yields the maximum amount of entertainment and/or meaning.
The goal is to write a story that a total stranger will enjoy (though some writers find it helpful to picture someone they know as the total stranger). The stranger reading your fiction won’t care about you or your life or your observations. Not a bit. All the stranger ultimately cares about is a great story well told. Will you be sacrificing honesty along with the facts? No. By bending reality into fantasy you are not lessening the Truth inherent in your idea. Rather, you are increasing it. Life is a blur in which it is difficult to see anything clearly because a zillion things are going on all at once. Art is all about sharp focus.