Saturday, March 5, 2016

Guest Author: Barbara Venkataraman

Inspiration, Brainstorming and Keeping One's Head

Let's talk about Scheherazade, shall we? You remember her--the legendary Arabic queen and star of One Thousand and One Nights. She had the misfortune of marrying a king with a nasty habit of killing his wife every night and marrying a new one the next day. Luckily, she was very clever and a master storyteller and has provided us with the first documented case of the cliffhanger. On her first night with her new husband (which was also slated to be her last night with her new husband), she told him a fascinating story, spinning a tale all night long and stopping at dawn, right at the juiciest part of the story. Her curious, but still murderous husband told her she could live one more night, just to finish the story. She did finish and then started a new story every single night for a thousand and one nights until he finally told her she was so interesting he would allow her to live. That's almost three years' worth of stories, people! And you thought you were stressed about deadlines…

When your head isn't literally on the chopping block, it can be difficult to find inspiration, so what's an author to do? The prolific Stephen King, who never seems to run out of story ideas, says that his secret is to take interesting characters and put them in an interesting situation and see what happens. One of his recent books, Cell, provides a great example. King makes no secret of the fact that he hates cell phones, so why not make them the villain of the story? The premise, according to Wikipedia is this: it is an apocalyptic horror novel in which a New England artist struggles to reunite with his young son after a mysterious signal broadcast over the global cell phone network turns the majority of his fellow humans into mindless vicious animals. There are definite possibilities in that scenario, wouldn't you say?

Yes, you agree politely, but he's Stephen King, and I'm not. How am I supposed to brainstorm something brilliant? Ah, that's the key right there. It doesn't have to be brilliant--in fact, it can be the stupidest idea you've ever had! But it may lead you somewhere if you go with it, follow it, twist it, flip it on its head. You should defy your own expectations and, most importantly, keep asking why. Why does your character go to New York? Who he is going to see? Does he want to go or is he being forced to go? Is he running from something? How does he get there? What obstacles must he overcome? Pursue every avenue, exhaust every possibility and then throw another character into the mix. What are her motivations? What is their relationship? And then comes the most important question you'll ever ask about any imaginary scenario: What is the conflict? No conflict, no story, it’s that simple. Things must go wrong, fall apart, and look bleaker than bleak before you can write that happy ending. But it doesn't have to be an external conflict, it can be internal.

In my first Jamie Quinn Mystery, Death by Didgeridoo, the protagonist, Jamie, is depressed about the death of her mother. She has taken a hiatus from work that has stretched into six months and still, she cannot get her act together. That is an internal conflict. Then her Aunt Peg calls, frantic, because her disabled son Adam has been accused of murder and she begs Jamie for help. Jamie is a family law attorney who knows nothing about criminal law but very much wants to help. When she arrives at the police station, she gets into an argument with the cocky young state attorney who wants to bolster his reputation by making an example out of Adam. Jamie soon realizes that the only person who can help her track down the real killer is someone she despises. Conflicts all over the place! See what I mean?

A good source of ideas is the daily news. People are doing the craziest stuff all the time; you can't make up some of this stuff. I live in Florida, where bizarre news is the norm, so it's easier for me. Here's an example of something going on right now: a man and woman had a brief fling and produced a child. They planned to share custody of their son and signed a parenting plan in which one of the conditions they agreed to was that the son would be circumcised and the father would pay for it. This agreement was incorporated into a court order and then the mom changed her mind, she didn't want her son circumcised after all. Four years of litigation ensued, the case moved from State to Federal Court and the father ultimately prevailed. So, what did the mom do? She fled the state with the child, but only after seeking assistance from radical activists called "intactivists" who reject circumcision as barbaric and who staged protests on her behalf. (They also threatened the doctors. I told you they were radical, didn't I?)

While I don't have an opinion on this particular subject, I think I've proved my point, that the news is a great way to start the creative juices flowing. Just don't forget to change the names and situations in order to fictionalize your story. And remember that conflict can be anything, it can be huge: a war between nations, a hostile takeover of a corporation, the Avengers taking down the bad guys. Or it can be intangible: a clash of ideas, a phobia, or the agony of choosing between two lovers. Make your characters sweat it out! They may hate you for it, but your readers will love you. Now that you're out of excuses, sit down and start writing!

(Or you can stand if you want to, that works too.)

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Jacqueline Howett said...

Thanks for the reminders!

All the best with your novellas.

Have a pleasant weekend.

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