I do this, because I never know what my muses will jump on next–which one or two bits and pieces, out of the vast plethora of things in the worlds both without and within–they will love.
I read fiction whenever I possibly can, of course. But often as not, the kernels that become full-fledged ideas don’t come from other novels. They come from anywhere and everywhere else. The key, then, is to keep your receptors open. Never assume that anything is too extraordinary, nor too mundane.
A few examples:
A number of years ago, I entered a “story in a day” contest. It was part of a storyteller’s festival. We had been given a very loose theme ahead of time–“from here to there”. The morning of, we arrived at the festival and were guided to a stage, with laptops set up for our use. We sat and wrote for four hours, at the end of which a guest author read the stories we had created, and judged them.
The idea that came to me emerged because I’d been reading a book on eastern European stories and myths, one of which was a variant of the story of the Swan Maiden. Another piece came from a news story I saw the night before, in which people were interviewed about camping stories: a college student talked about how on one camping trip, he and his buddies sneaked down to the beach and created a stonehenge out of picnic benches. I imagined how surreal but kind of wonderful that must have been for other campers, to discover, of a misty morning. A final piece was personal experience: grief and loss.
“The Swan Maiden” won first place that day, and will be released as part of my next short story collection, tentatively titled Songs of Myth and Memory. Each of the five stories in that collection arose out of fairytales, folklore, literature, or mythology.
“Persephone’s Library”, the title story in my current collection, is another example–I was out walking one day, and saw that what used to be farmland had been transformed into mud flats, and the beginning of a new housing development. Somehow, the way the land rolled into the distance, it looked like the edge of the world–as if there were nothing beyond the flats. The opening lines of the story floated up into my mind as I stood staring out at the vista. I went home and jotted down the opening paragraphs, then got on with my day, while I let everything else continue to develop and evolve in my mind. The next day, I sat and wrote the rest of the story. I sent it off in response to a call for submissions a week or so later, just before the deadline–after doing revisions, of course. And then, a few months later, came the email: they had accepted it for publication!
There are, of course, also the stories about the novels and how they came about–but their unexpected beginnings must be left as the subject of some future post.
My point here is simply that muses can often be capricious (but ever fabulous) creatures. You never know what they’ll seize upon–and so you have to give them access to everything you possibly can, even the boring stuff, like laundry, taking out the garbage–or an ugly stretch of mud flats, all messy and bleak, stretching into the distance, at the edge of a new subdivision.
Keep your receptors open. Don’t simply look around, but try to see the world, as much as you possibly can. Keep asking your muses, is there a story in this? What about this? Don’t be discouraged by silence, just move onto the next thing, and the next. Because if you keep your muses happy, you’ll be amazed by the kinds of gifts they’ll send in return.