My mother always asks me how I think of a story idea. The short answer is that I make them up. The long answer is complicated. I don’t always know how to trace back a story to the specific thing that sparked it. When I do remember, it can be fascinating to look back at the tiny beginning and see how far it went.

The next time you’re struggling with what to write about, consider trying something off this list:

1. Use childhood memories.

a. Everyone’s childhood is unique. Freewrite and describe your childhood. Discuss your bad habits, your sibling rivalry,  and your little-kid mistaken assumptions (i.e, when I was five, I thought the people on the TV screen could see me). Act as if you’re writing the intro to your memoir.

b. Pick one memory and incorporate that in a story.

Your main character need not be like you; the setting need not be like your childhood home. The point here is to take a memory you have and create a different context. The memory may not have any direct importance in the story – but it may serve as a good starting point.

I found out how powerful childhood memories are when I wrote the story Ghost Town. I’d been thinking of when I was a little girl, and I made mud pies with my babysitter. My mom was horrified when she came home. Somehow a whole story idea spiraled from that. The story has nothing to do with mud pies…

2. Synthesize experiences.

This is similar to number one. It’s important to note, however, that synthesizing things like memories and experiences is not the same as creative non-fiction, nor should this exercise be simply writing down an experience and then changing the names of the characters. Instead it’s a way of using a concept you understand and writing a story based on it. You’ve probably heard the writing advice “write what you know.”  I adhere more to the adage “write what you’re passionate about,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t write about what you know. If you’re passionate about something you’re an expert on, then do it. But sometimes the process it daunting. It can be difficult to know what you know.

Here’s what to do:

a. Make a list of the topics/activities that you know a thing or two about. Anything is fair game.

My list looked like this: horseback riding, writing, living in a small town, working in a restaurant

b. Pick one and write a list of things you know about it. It will feel awkward at first, but it’ll be worth it.

I picked the topic horseback riding and wrote: “I’ve fallen off a horse many times. I know about fear, about doing things even when they physically hurt, I know about the internal debate that takes place: am I being foolish or am I being brave?”

And from that last sentence I wrote the story Brave.

Do you use any exercises or methods when brainstorming for a story? Let me know!

Stay tuned for Part 2 on how to come up with story ideas!

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