Where Do Stories Come From? (Part 1)

A question that is often asked of fiction writers is “What inspires your stories?” Stories can come from so many places (except from some magical muse that just plops ideas into writers’ minds. Well, at least I've never personally been visited by a muse). Oftentimes, something I encountered—an image, something someone said, something I saw on TV—triggered either an entire story or an element of a story. I think these triggers are absorbed into my brain and then the most productive or interesting sparks stick with me and find their way into stories.

This past summer I couldn’t get the image of an outdated calendar hanging on a wall out of my mind. I didn’t know why I kept thinking of it or where it came from. I was working on a story about a young man who’d drowned. The man’s best friend and younger sister were both having an extremely difficult time dealing with his death. The best friend worked in a dark, wood-paneled bar, and as I wrote scenes set in the bar, I kept picturing an old calendar hanging on the wall in a corner. I added the calendar into the story. It was initially just a setting detail in order to give readers a sense of what this bar looked like; it was an outdated place, stuck in the past, and the calendar showed that the owners didn’t care about the upkeep of their dining room. As I worked through drafts of the story, I realized the calendar could be used as a symbolic object. For both the best friend and the sister of the deceased character, it was difficult to move forward. The calendar—several years outdated—could serve to show how time essentially stopped for these two characters and how they had been in a holding pattern since their loss.

When I returned to school this September, I immediately saw something that I hadn’t consciously noted before. I share an office with a colleague, and on her side of the office there was a calendar hanging on a corkboard. I looked closely and saw that the exposed page on the calendar was from December 2011; it was almost three years out of date.

calendar.jpg

I’m not sure why my colleague still has that calendar up. I think she’s probably forgotten about it. It’s easy to not notice because it’s halfway behind a bookshelf. The calendar certainly doesn’t bother me; I never even consciously took note of it for the entire first year we shared an office. But the image of the outdated calendar had clearly buried itself deep in my mind, and it emerged as I was writing my story set in the dark bar. The calendar in the story isn’t the same calendar that hangs in my office; the office calendar is a bright red and gold calendar from an Asian supermarket. I imagined the calendar in my story as plain and unadorned. Even though the calendar in my story differs from the one in my office, this real-life object had made its way into my story as a useful object. The outdated calendar in my story wasn’t pivotal to the plot, but it helped me see that the story was ultimately about stasis and the need to move on. Would that calendar have appeared in the story without my seeing the calendar every time I walked into and out of the office? Probably not.

I plan to write a few more of these posts and will discuss more catalysts for my own stories. At the end of each post, I’ll include a photo—without any commentary—that I hope might serve as a story spark for readers who are interested in writing their own stories. I think photographs, especially photographs for which writers don’t know the backstory, can serve as excellent ways to generate story ideas. And, so, here is the first photo:

Okay, I know I just said I wouldn't comment, but I lied. So, yeah, this dog is obviously awesome, but there are lots of stories here. Look at everyone surrounding the dog. Each person has a story. Maybe the story here belongs to the dog. Maybe not.

Okay, I know I just said I wouldn't comment, but I lied. So, yeah, this dog is obviously awesome, but there are lots of stories here. Look at everyone surrounding the dog. Each person has a story. Maybe the story here belongs to the dog. Maybe not.