Where Stories Come From

“Where do babies come from?” a five-year-old asks, and we hem and we haw and we wonder whether he is truly asking for the mystery to be dispelled. Does he really want to know how the magic trick is done? There are so many different levels at which you could answer. You could say he was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes that grew and grew into the radiant star he is now. You could say the stork brought him. Or you could use the scientific approach; drawing diagrams showing how slot A fits into Slot B and really gross him out.

And so the uninitiated reader asks the storyteller, “Where do stories come from?” and we find ourselves in a similar dilemma. The easiest answer, of course, is that stories come from ideas. “Aha, but where do ideas come from?” the reader shoots back. And that seems to me such a ludicrous question that I wonder if perhaps the person asking is an alien from another universe.

You see, the universe I live in has more ideas than space between atoms. Ideas are everywhere, bumping into me, filling my brain, distracting me from dinner, mugging me on the street, leaping into my cart at the grocery. I don’t have a problem finding ideas; I have trouble getting rid of them. Asking where they come from is like asking where air comes from.

But that is the mystery answer, and the reader isn’t satisfied by it. He wants to know about slot A and slot B because, frankly, he can’t see ideas. They are invisible to him and so he wants a drawing, a diagram. Perhaps someday, he’ll need a story idea in a pinch, and he wants to know exactly how to get one. You know, for emergencies.

For that sort of person, I’ve listed below several of my stories, and where the ideas for them came from.

1. Dreams: The first story I published, A Speck in the Universe, came directly from a dream about a mother swimming in a pool with her children for so long she became liquefied and her children absorbed her life essence. It was the summer we installed our back yard pool. It was a very long, hot summer.

2. Images: The second story I published, The House That Dirk Built, was born when a friend invited me to look at the old house he was renovating. He had just cleared some ancient trees that had been right next to the house and there, where the trees had been, was a series of weird hand/claw marks evenly spaced and traveling up the side of the house into an upstairs window. He asked me what I thought they were and I said, “Werewolf tracks.” He thought I was kidding. I wasn’t.

3. Swimming in Someone Else’s Shoes: The third story I had published, The Derby, was inspired by a trip to Alaska where I discovered they have fishing derbies. For these derbies they actually catch Salmon, attach prize tags to them and throw them back into the water. Most of them are never caught for the derby. After all, there are a lot of fish in the sea. I wondered what the impact might be on one poor, individual Salmon, going through his entire life with a huge, “You’ve just won a new boat” tag sticking out of his cheek. A story was born.

4. Things People Say: I have a book of quotes that I call “Straw for the Fire.” I collect quotes from things I read, things I overhear on the bus, things my husband and children say. Kids are great for generating quotes that can turn into fabulous fantasy stories. Once, when I was making the bed and my son was “helping me” by playing under the covers, he peaked his head out and said, “I love my mother’s underworld.” That hasn’t made it into a story yet, but I can guarantee you, it will.

5. Places I’ve Been: Travel is a great way to get story ideas. Going somewhere new almost always elicits a flurry of ideas in my head.  The first flash story I ever sold, Traveling by Petroglyph, was inspired by a trip to Petroglyph Beach on Wrangall Island, Alaska. It is all about travel of the most unusual kind.

6. The Media: Amazingly enough, the media can actually contain ideas if you dig deep enough. My husband is very helpful wrangling ideas for me from news blurbs and current articles, as I am famously allergic to all that “real stuff”. Once he found an article titled “Coffins at Costco” about how the famous shopping club chain was going to start selling coffins in bulk. Instant story.

7. The Stories of Others: Everyone has a story, even if they aren’t a storyteller. Good storytellers and writers are collectors of other people’s stories. My literary short story, The Comfort of Cabbages, is just such a story inspired by a dear friend’s deep loss.  Be sure if you plan to write or share someone’s story in detail, you get their permission first and pass the story by them before it ever goes public.

So there you have it, the mystery solved. Stories come from ideas, and ideas come from everything and anything.

 Now go stick slot A in slot B, and enjoy the magic.

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Ripley Patton lives in a 22-foot camper in the woods of Southern Illinois with a cat named Lemmy. Her two young adult children, a daughter and a son, are her favorite people. When Ripley's not out exploring nature and getting her hands dirty, she's usually reading or writing a book.

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