Where Do My Stories Come From?

fountain pen lying on notepad
Image by David Travis from Unsplash

I’ve been writing for two years now. I have one book in the final stages of the editing process, a six-book series that is outlined with hours of world development documented, and two other books living in my head with some form of character / world development sketches and a few scenes captured on paper.

I’ve always had stories in my head. Even when I was a little kid, my vivid imagination took me places away from my home life. From an early age, I loved the story of Tarzan. Is it any wonder the first story I made up was one of a young girl raised in the wild by wolves? The story came complete with the girl being captured and acclimated back into society, which she distinctly did not like. I remember acting out the story in the confines of the backyard in my parents’ starter home when I was around seven years old. I wonder what my mother thought when she looked out the kitchen window and saw me prowling around the backyard, growling at the imaginary doctors trying to put me back in my cage.

And here’s where I diverted from many authors. I’ve always had a story to tell and people seem to enjoy listening to them, but I never wrote those stories down. In almost every author interview I’ve read, they’ve been writing stories since they could remember. I never did. Oh, I had stories, but I was more of a verbal storyteller.

Why start writing?

So what made me decide to write these stories instead of just playing them out in my head? A couple of things occurred simultaneously. I experienced a dry spell on “books I couldn’t put down” and I had some time on my hands.

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a voracious reader. There’s not a time in my memory when I wasn’t reading a book. And I love to read across all genres. But a couple of years ago, I was having trouble finding books that appealed to me. I’d look forward to a new book based on the description, only to get a chapter or two in, and roll my eyes at how terrible it was. (“Terrible” could mean several things: predictable, unoriginal, or characters who weren’t appealing.) I complained to my husband one night about yet another boring book, and he said the magical words. He told me I should write my own book… that I’ve read enough to know what’s good and what’s not, and I was smart enough to figure out how to do it.

The second thing happening in my life was that my professional career was winding down. I was semi-retired, doing part-time work as needed for my husband’s company and picking up contract work here and there as a project manager. I had just completed a year-long contract and had nothing else lined up, so I could either start looking for a new job or run with this crazy idea that I could write a book.

Once I decided, the first thing I realized was I needed to learn how to write a book. I needed to understand the role genre played in the story. What was this story structure I kept reading about? And how did story structure work with the story in my head?

Beyond the technical process of writing, editing, and publishing, I also needed to learn what writing process worked for me. I discovered most authors fall into two broad categories: those who outline and thoroughly plan their stories (plotters) and those who discover the story as they write, also called writing by the seat of their pants (pantsers).

As I wrote my first story, I realized a third category existed. I was a hybrid of a plotter and pantser. I liked knowing where the story was going and felt more secure with an outline, but my story swerved from the outline several times during the writing of it. (Imagine my surprise to find out I wasn’t a plotter after a career of managing projects with tight production schedules and unmovable deadlines!)

I’ll admit, I always thought it sounded silly when authors said their characters did something on their own. And then, it happened to me! I certainly never planned for my protagonist to make nice with the antagonist and thoroughly undermine several upcoming scenes. What the heck? Now what? I had to go back to my outline and plot my way out of that jam with a new conflict story.

The best description I found for my style of writing came from an author in one of Becca Syme’s QuitCast videos focusing on Strengths for Writers: Strategic. (For those familiar with the CliftonStrengths, Strategic is my number one strength.)

In this video, Becca asked authors how their high Strategic strength showed up in their writing. Author Jaye Wells described herself as a “puzzler.” She said her pre-writing is mostly world and character building. Next, she plays with it and begins writing scenes. And finally, she pieces it together like a puzzle.

I love this description because it is exactly how my process has gone on the (ahem) several books I have in progress. And, strangely enough, being able to apply a label like this makes me happy.

And that leads to the big question…

Where do the stories come from?

My stories usually start with a scene that pops into my head. Sometimes it comes from a dream. Sometimes, it’s just a random idea that comes out of nowhere. Typically, it’s an action scene with multiple characters in some setting I’ve never seen before. The instant this clip appears in my head, I already know a lot about the characters. For one, I may know her name, age, MBTI type, and complete backstory. For another, I may know his occupation only. In the latest story, I knew nothing about him other than his name was Joe. (For the record, I’ve discovered that you can’t get tied to a name, because it sometimes needs to change.)

Anyway, once I have that one incident, I need to figure out what the rest of the story is. Why are they in this room? What is their relationship with each other in this scene? What has led them to this point? Where do they go from here?

After establishing those touch points, I think about the characters in more depth. Again, some of these things I just magically know. Others, I have to ask a few questions. For example, how did he become this unyielding person? What drives her to take charge like that? Where did she learn how to check if the gun was loaded?

My world building comes about the same way. What is this building they are in? How does it serve the story? What other things do I need to know about this world?

All these questions and ideas swirl around a lot in my mind before I ever put together the complete story. And, I’ve discovered, sometimes the initial view I started with will change because I get a better idea along the way.

The main thing I’ve learned is to capture some of that initial thought process on paper (or rather in a digital file), instead of leaving it swirling in my head. I’m still working on finding the best practice for my writing process, but I suspect it’s going to be one of those things that I’m continually improving with each story I write.

Happy Reading!

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