Where the Wild Stories Are: How to Find Great Ideas for Your Writing

One of the questions I'm asked frequently when I give talks is this: Where do you get the ideas for your stories?Often I sense a certain pensiveness in the questioners, as though they were thinking, if only I, too, had access to that wondrous and magical land where stories come from!

Well, my answer to that question may seem somewhat simplistic and pedestrian, but it's something I really believe. Stories are all around us, like invisible spores in the air. We just need to have the eyes -and often the ears--to discover them.

It also helps to believe that every life is important, worthwhile, and dramatic in its own special way. That's something I feel strongly about.

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When I was writing my first collection of stories, Arranged Marriage, I got a lot of ideas from just listening to other people's conversations. I would go to an Indian dinner party and sit in the corner and eavesdrop. That's how I picked up the line which occurs early in the story "Affair" ("You know, of course, that Meena is having an affair!")

Eavesdropping is a great technique. I recommend it to all writers!

Sometimes we just need to be willing to listen. People are often hungry for a patient and respectful listener. They want to tell someone what has happened in their lives. They want someone who will give them attention, who will not judge them, who will try to feel empathy for what they have undergone. A friend once told me that soon after she arrived in America, her husband was shot in a store robbery. Her story touched my heart. I thought of how terrified she must have been, so alone, so far from home. That became the kernel of my story "Clothes," though I was careful to change the actual circumstances and to create a set of very different, imaginary characters.

The idea for my novel Sister of My Heart came to me during a visit to my hometown of Kolkata, on a day when I wasn't thinking about writing at all.I happened to see an ancient marble mansion being torn down to make place for a high-rise apartment building--something that happens quite regularly nowadays in India.Even as I recognized the necessity for this change, I felt a deep sorrow. Something important was passing out of our culture, a whole way of life, a different definition of family. It gave me the impetus to begin the story of two cousins who live in a house like the one that was being torn down: their adventures as they push against the boundaries erected around them, and what happens when they fall in love with the wrong men.

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Stories are all around us. Right now I'd bet there are a dozen possible stories floating around you--things you've seen at work, or on a bus, or at a party, or at your child's school, or overheard while waiting in a visa office. But you have to be vigilant so you can recognize them and capture their energy. And then you have to write them down, even a few words, even the roughest of notes, so they don't evaporate. Because stories will tend to do that.

That's why a writer's notebook is so important.

There are other places we can find stories.Books, newspapers, movies, photos, songs. More about that in another post.