Every idea, great or small starts with a seed. Sometimes it’s a comment, other times it can be something you’re witness to. That little speck of almost nothing takes root and grows in our imagination. From a small sprout it branches out as our brains insert it in plots or use it’s static details to flesh out characters and settings.
So I wondered where do you start in your brainstorming process? What roots a story in your mind so that it can blossom?
For me it’s intriguing tidbits that jump out from a plethora of information intercepted via my four senses—taste, hearing, sight and touch. I can’t smell, so that leaves me at a disadvantage. (I actually had a contest judge ask why I didn’t use smells in my description. That forced me to take a closer look at what I might be leaving out that could enrich my story.) Since I have a visual background I’m also very open to things I see because I think in pictures. But of course that can get me into trouble if I try to describe too much. And as we all know that's a hard balancing act in itself.
I’m a huge movie buff (except for horror) and love to people watch. Which means I look like I’m staring off into space a lot. Really I’m mentally recording bits of conversation (people can talk about strange topics), fashion that my characters might wear (especially tweens since it was years since I fell into that category), and interesting finds (ie. pics of black holes, star systems, etc.)
Touching back on strange conversation, I was at a jam-packed Wendy’s yesterday where there weren’t many seats to choose from. I decided to sit in the one with four booths laid out like a cushy pinwheel. To the back of me sat a group of two thirty-something men and one of my old high school class members. They were talking loudly about work shifts, what kind of job they’d heard such and such got and of course Harley’s. To the left of me were two older men, who I’d guesstimate fell into the range of late fifties or early sixties. Though they weren’t my peers, they caught and held my interest because I’d never heard anyone discuss their topic. Back and forth they traded insights on the similarities and differences of medieval war (Japanese clans) versus modern day. Don’t tell me your interest wouldn’t be piqued if you heard a couple old guys comparing the Al-Qaida beheadings to Japanese warlord “hits”.
What caused my ears to zero in in the first place? One asked the other a question. “When were more lives lost—at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11?” They went on to talk about how altering the course of actions during World War II and other strategic missions could’ve changed the world today. Not only did they discuss military issues, but also factored in economics! My mom thought they were boring as plain `ol garden variety dirt (without the white sprinkles), but I found them fascinating. It made me wonder what else they knew, and astonished me that they’d retained so much in an age when it’s in one ear and out the other.
Will I use anything I learned from them? Maybe, later on down the road. Right this second I’m going with Dippin’ Dots, a food I heard all about on Unwrapped (from the Food Network) last night while eating dinner out with the family. Touted as the “ice cream of the future”, how could my ears not perk up? I’ve already set up my heroine to crave some of that sweet delicacy, so how can I not use this “happy little accident”? Of course, if it didn’t work with my character arc or GMC then I wouldn’t put in just because it’s “cool”.
The “greenthumb” magic comes from how you filter the information you receive. You can take it in, twist it up and make it come out your fingers anyway you like. But that whole process starts with a seed…and preferably not one that sticks between your teeth.