It’s that time in the cycle of my writing life when I’m nearing the completion of one novel and casting about for potential new story fodder for the next.
Maybe “casting” isn’t the best way to describe it. I don’t go looking for story ideas. They find me easily enough on their own. Because I often absorb them subconsciously while in the act of play (reading, researching, watching good films), it’s often a surprise when story ideas pop up later, seemingly out of nowhere. A mushroom is a great analogy for them. I mulch and water the creative soil with great storytelling in all its forms, and a hefty dose of research from the time period I write about (the 18th century), as well as with settings and scenery that inspire, with Scripture, and with the richness of human nature observed. What I get in return is a crop of interesting ideas.
It’s at this point in the writing process, with a first draft done and a major edit nearly half done, that my mind is freed up to pay closer attention to the story ideas that have been coming my way for the past few months.
Ideas come to me usually in one of two forms. Either a character is paramount, along with something compelling about their personality or desires, and all I know is a sketchy fact or two about his or her external life. Or the kernel of the idea is a situation involving a group of individuals–an inciting incident intriguing enough that I can see a possibility of a story spinning out of it–in which I know little about the characters other than gender, age, and type, or the path they will take beyond the choices they make in that moment in time. Whether character-based or situation-based, not every idea that comes along has the complexity or substance behind it to expand into a novel-sized story.
How can I tell the difference? While I’m writing a first draft I’ll start a file for each idea that pops up to make sure I don’t forget it (though if I did, it wasn’t an idea I’d have expanded into a novel anyway). And then I’ll let it rest while I go on writing or editing the current work. Maybe I’ll get a few more flashes of ideas that seem to be related to one of those initial story kernels I filed away, and I’ll open the file and add them.
It’s like having several pots of stew simmering on the stove, now and then lifting the lid to add some ingredient to one, something else to another. Eventually, the nearer I come to finishing the work in progress (the one on the front burner), one of those pots on the back burners will start to boil up and demand attention. When the front burner is clear I’ll bring it forward and spend time experimenting with plot ideas, asking countless “what if” questions, prodding the characters to find what makes them tick and if I care about them and their conflicts enough to spend at least a year with them. Either the passion will take hold and I’ll dive into the necessary research and the storytelling, or it won’t and I’ll slide them onto the back burner again and open another file. Or pot.
So what’s cooking on the back burner now? Two possibilities. Both take place during the Revolutionary War, a slightly earlier time period than I’ve yet written. One is set in the southern colonies, one in the north. Both would require a lot of new research. I don’t know yet which I’ll pick. Or if I’ll finally be able to write the story I want more than anything to write, a sequel to two finished novels, set in the late 1790s. I’ve decided not to push that one beyond the proposal stage until and unless both of the other books find a home.
But it’s hard to keep from lifting that lid, just to take a taste. I won’t write the story. I won’t. But I could add a little salt there in the first scene, and some carrots conflict to spice up chapter three….
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