Most writers begin writing because they know they have one story to tell. Their goal is to “write a book.” But, most of us have more than one book we could write, and we have a wealth of material to draw on.
We also have different themes that occur in our lives. Possibly, we have certain events we’re struggling to understand, to squeeze the meaning out of. We may have funny stories that make us laugh. Maybe, we have stories we’re afraid to tell, that scare us when we contemplate putting those stories out into the world.
What we’re scared to write about or fascinated by does not depend on genre. For instance, you can use your inherent interest in love (and what makes people fall in and out of it) for detective fiction, romance, women’s fiction, historical fiction, spy novels, memoirs, or self-help books.
Make Your Story Unique
The question is, where should you look for material? For stories that aren’t “like” movies, but are utterly unique?
Ideally, you will write from you “highest and best self.” This means that the stories must come from inside of you.
Where to Find Material
Let’s start with a quick exercise. Write down three ideas from each of these periods of your life. Three or four words should be enough. What you want is just a springboard so that you can come back to these moments later on.
Which Stories Are You Afraid to Tell?
You may have stories that you fear would hurt someone or reveal a terrible family secret. Those stories can contain truths that seem so powerful they’re white-hot to the touch. You know that if you tell those stories, you will have to take a risk, maybe even just the risk of reliving what is painful to you. What are the stories that are so painful you could never tell them?
Here’s an example from the website of blogger Megan Hale.
“There’s a rumbling and I don’t know if I even have words to describe it yet, but I know I need to share where I am and what I’m feeling because I know someone else might be feeling it too.”
Sometimes writers “go to the pain” because that’s where they find their true subject matter. You can decide later if you’re going to walk down this path, but for now, just write down some possibilities. If this makes you anxious, just know that no one will see this but you.
What Are the Major Themes in Your Life?
Have your life experiences shaped your outlook on life? Do you have issues that arise for you or for those in your family again and again? Do you have the feeling that your life experiences provide a perspective you’d like to share with the world, if only you could figure out how to put that in a story? Here are some examples of the kinds of themes that might inspire a story. Write down at least four.
- Class differences—rich/poor
- Valuable perspectives based on race, refugee status, adjusting to a different culture
- Valuable perspectives based on your spiritual life or work experience
- Obsessions and preoccupations
Write down any of the above that strike you. Don’t overthink this. Just jot down some notes.
Having done the exercises above, you will have a list of ideas to work from. These will be your stories, the ones that have a wealth of life experience to back them up. Pick one idea, and see if you can develop a story.
In case you’d like to know where other writers find stories, read this post about where author Rick Bass finds his. Hint: stories don’t always have to start with situations. They can start with the sentences themselves.