Learn to cultivate story ideas like a bootlegger

 In Ned's Column

Moonshine books Ok, so let’s suppose you’ve read everything I’ve posted at this site on the subject of writing. And let’s also suppose you aren’t my mother. That means you understand the importance of developing a voice, know the tools you need to establish that voice, are prepared to send your work to potential publishers, have established a writing routine, and are now sitting at the keyboard ready to write!


…um, but about what?

As a writer, recognizing and developing story ideas is your bread and butter. Or biscuits and gravy, depending on your proximity to the Mason-Dixon line. The point is, whether you are a romance novelist, sci-fi short story writer or weekly columnist, generating ideas — and recognizing the difference between good ones and not-so-good ones (There are no bad ideas in my opinion, and I’ll explain that in a bit) — is the most important skill you must develop.

Here at the Siuslaw News (Motto: Your dependable source for news. Twice a week. Unless we lose count), we journalists steadfastly adhere to a strict code when it comes to culling story ideas.

And that code is this:

We will never, under any circumstances, have the budget for an Associated Press wire service membership.

Hence, we do not receive hourly updates from news sources around the globe. If I feel the need to go beyond the barbershop or surfing Google for ideas and information to develop a story, I must do so the old-fashioned way, by making phone calls until, eventually, another journalist with access to a wire service mistakenly answers their phone.

The conversation usually goes something like this:
“News desk, this is Scott.”
“Hi Scott! It’s Ned!”
“I’m on a deadline.”
“As a fellow journalist, I completely understand the kind of pressure you’re under.”
“No you don’t. You write a weekly humor column.”
“True, but I routinely spend most of my week deleting male enhancement offers from my email. As a result, I’m an hour behind my deadline and need information on a fast-breaking story in Maine, where I believe a woman has just eaten 10 pounds of lobster meat in under 12 minutes.”

[click] “Hello … ? Scott … ?”

While today’s wireless, techno-savvy world of instant access information can be a bottomless well of inspiration for any writer, just like Brad and Angelina’s school immunization records, it can also swallow you whole in its vastness.

Every writer has his or her own technique when it comes to inspiration, and the Internet is only one part of a much larger equation. While I certainly scan through headlines from the larger Portland and Eugene newspapers in an effort to stay up on cultural trends and world events, once I leave the office restroom I generally refer to a collection of ideas I keep in a folder on my desk. In it, I have clippings, print outs, emails and ideas jotted on pieces of paper.

So how do I decide between good ideas and not-so-good ones?

Before we get to that, I will explain why I don’t believe there are any “bad” ideas.

At least when it comes to writing.

Skateboarding down “suicide hill” wearing nothing but swim trunks and flip-flops when I was 10?

Bad idea.

But when it comes to cultivating story ideas — good or “bad” — they’re all part of the filtration process. Think of “bad” ideas as corn mash; it isn’t what you’re after when making moonshine, but it’s a by-product of the fermentation process that leads to the end result.

The trick is knowing when to dump it even though, like whisky, mash can still get you intoxicated.

On my desk is a folder I have cleverly labeled: Column Ideas.

This folder is my “corn mash.” That’s where everything goes to begin the fermentation process. Like a bootlegger, I sift through it regularly, dumping what is no longer usable (because of timeliness or spilled coffee, for example) and adding more in its place.

On those occasions where I come into the office without an idea, I turn to this folder to see if anything is ready to begin the distillation process. Sometimes just a key phrase in something I saved will spark an idea. And even though it may not be directly related to the idea in the folder, again, it started with the corn mash.

I should point out there are definitely things which, even though they are tucked into the folder, continue to pop into my head. For example, I received an email last week from…


He apparently lives in San Mateo, Calif., and has a P.O. box.
These are the kinds of things you really have no choice but to write about. And not just because I might land the lead in “Ned Almighty.”

Whether you keep a notebook to jot down ideas, search the Internet, notice an interesting exchange in a restaurant while sipping coffee, or inadvertently catch site of something suspicious at your neighbors’ house, once the binoculars are put away write it down and let it begin the fermentation process.

As any writer knows, identifying great story ideas is intoxicating.

But please: Don’t write and drive.

Next week: Developing a tough skin doesn’t mean you can’t use moisturizer.

Ned Hickson
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