Where Do Story Ideas Come From?

by Marylee MacDonald in For Readers


“So where do you get your story ideas?”

My old friend’s question stumped me.

Recently she had begun writing short stories based closely on her own experiences, and she’d just finished reading my story collection, This Far Isn’t Far Enough. An army grunt in occupied German after World War II; a failed actor caring for his famous actor-wife now suffering from Alzheimer’s; an angry daughter who uncovers her dead mother’s secrets; these characters and these situations didn’t spring from what she knew about me. None of the stories in This Far Isn’t Far Enough come from my life. 

“You start with images, right?” she said, a logical assumption, since I’m a fine art photographer and had taught photography in an art school for many years before I began writing fiction.

“Almost never,” I answered, but my answer surprised me. Why don’t I start with images? I’m a visual person. I learn visually. I’m trained in the visual arts. How is it that I’m not inspired to write by things I witness? Bothered by my answer, in the weeks after that conversation, I tried to figure this out. Then in an airport, hurrying past a book display, I found my answer. Start with Why.

That’s it! I start with “why.” I overhear an odd remark, a pointed exchange between two people, or an angry curse, and I wonder why? I smell something strange floating up an elevator shaft, chocolate burning, and I wonder why? Or I see a fork missing from a fancy flatware set in an antique shop, and I wonder why one is missing?

Antique silverware

My curiosity about the missing fork stayed with me. I kept thinking about what might have happened. Stolen in the shop? Lost or stolen from the owner? Had its loss upset the owner? Or had the owner kept it as a memo?

The “why” of the missing fork acted like a fishing hook dropped into the messy currents of my mind, a mind that swirled with everyday concerns and pleasures, daydreams, fleeting impressions and flashes of memory, until it pulled together some strands. This was in 2008 after the Iraq war, during the occupation when the news was filled with stories about wholesale looting in the streets and museums and private homes plundered.

Troubled by what was going on, I remembered an article I’d read years earlier about The Gold Train, so it came to be known, that carried Nazi loot stolen from the Jewish citizens of Vienna. This was in the last days of World War II. Nazi officers in Vienna loaded up forty-some railway cars with stolen plunder and headed west, where it was captured by American troops. Later not all of the goods were accounted for.

Theories abound, but most of them involve Americans soldiers making off with some of the loot. I wondered about our young soldiers in Iraq, and in particular, I began to think about an innocent farm kid, totally out-of-his-depth in the chaos, encountering a swindle involving war plunder that upsets him. I wanted to write a story to discover what would happen. I knew nothing about how Iraq looked up close, how it smelled, about its heat and wind and sun, but I had been in Germany. It seemed simpler for me to imagine Germany sixty years earlier than Iraq in my own time. When I imagined occupied Germany, I created Virgil.

When he was in high school, the war was only a disturbance, like a long tornado season. Adults talked about it, and his teachers turned it into lessons with maps and colored pins. In his parents’ apartment, the radio was always on, the news reported by urgent voices with sirens sometimes in the background, but the menace was safely on the other side of the two oceans, a fight between foreigners. After America entered the war, he had studied the pictures in LIFE, envisioning himself belly-crawling up a hillside to pick off Krauts, but in his senior year, that poster of Uncle Sam scowling “I want You for the U. S. Army” spoke directly to him. . . . Without telling anyone, right after graduation he signed up, joining the 42nd Infantry Division. He made it to Europe four months before VE day. He had seen soldiers die. He had killed no one. After the surrender, the momentum gave way to confusion and fragmentation, sabotage and an endless river of refugees.

Virgil’s superior, Clay, orders Virgil to assist him in taking several crates of goods from the Property Warehouse to the Commanding Officer’s home. This seems odd to Virgil, even suspicious, but he does as he’s told, driving the second jeep, behind Clay’s.

At the CO’s house, a door opened, silhouetting Clay against the light from inside. Virgil propped his M1 against the dashboard and climbed into the back. Wedged behind the big crate, the small chest had bounced open and something glittered on the grooved floor. He pried loose a tiny, gold spoon, no bigger than his thumb. A child’s spoon. He’d never seen a gold spoon. He opened the chest whose lock had sprung. Nestled into fitted compartments were tiny spoons, forks, and knives with scalloped blades, all gold. Real gold, of that he was certain.

The missing fork I’d noticed in the antique store morphed into a spoon, a gold spoon, and Virgil seeing the gold spoon understands that what he’d thought was fishy, must be criminal. If he raises questions, he could die. It would be easy enough to blame his death on the enemy. What will Virgil do?

The missing fork I’d seen in a Wisconsin shop in 2008 prompted me to write my story set in 1946 Germany. “The Gold Spoon” is a story I love, for many reasons, but one is because it took me so far away from where I began.

Asking “why” is a powerful tool. It unleashes other questions, like: what does it mean? how would that feel? what might come next? These questions, asked again and again at each stage of writing, guide us to ever deeper and better insights, and to better stories. For a writer, there is an almost magical power in curiosity. What grabs our personal curiosity might seem haphazard, but I believe there is very little that is random or chancy in what snags our attention. Among the thousands of things we encounter every day, only a few prick our curiosity. As writers, we need to heed our curiosity. If we probe what makes us curious, speculate on the possibilities that come to us, challenge our answers, and probe again, we will find the key to the stories we need to tell. What we are curious about speaks of who we are.

After I returned from the trip that had me rushing through the airport, I looked up the book that had caught my eye. Start With Why is a book aimed at developing leadership qualities. Turns out curiosity promotes creativity in many fields.

Lynn SloanLynn Sloan is a writer and a photographer. She is the author of This Far Isn’t Far Enough, a story collection, and the novel Principles of Navigation, which was included in Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of 2015. Her short fiction has been published in PloughsharesShenandoah, and American Literary Review among other journals, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally. For many years she taught photography at Columbia College Chicago, where she founded the journal Occasional Readings in Photography, and contributed to Afterimage, Art Week, and Exposure.


Click here to learn more about Lynn Sloan’s This Far Isn’t Far Enough.

This Far Isn't Far Enough

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