Empty Pages – Where To Get An Idea (Episode 5)

Empty Pages – Where To Get An Idea (Episode 5)

Empty Pages
Image ©2021 by Ian MacTire, all rights reserved.

This podcast follows my journey from first draft to published novel and beyond. This episode discusses where to get ideas for stories.


If you’re a return listener, welcome back, if this is your first time, welcome! I hope you find the information in these episodes to be useful. Also, if you are enjoying these, please leave a review and share with others.

This is Episode 5, Where to Get an Idea. In our previous episode, we mentioned that one of the things you need to write is an idea. This episode is going to talk about where to get your ideas from.

Before we get into that, I just want to say that there are no original ideas, only variations on a theme. For example, one of the books I’m writing is about werewolves. Werewolves in and of themselves are not an original idea. In fact, the earliest surviving example of man-to-wolf transformation can be found in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates back to 2,100  BC, although the werewolf as we have come to know such a thing first appeared in ancient Greece and Rome, in poetic, ethnographic, and philosophical texts.  So using this example, humans have been telling stories about werewolves for centuries. The same can be said of things like vampires and other assorted monsters.

Looking away from the horror genre specifically, many of our most enduring myths and stories are really just the hero’s journey, with a different cast of characters each time. I say this in case you are currently like I once was. There was a time I didn’t write anything because I was looking for an “original idea”. I had come up with plenty of ideas for stories, but because none of them were “original”, I tended to discard them. I’m not sure what made me realize that I wasn’t going to write anything original, and that I should just write, but I want to share this with you in case this is what is stopping you.

OK, that out of the way, let’s talk about where to get ideas. Aside from the “mythical” and getting inspired by “the muses”, there actually is some tangible places. There are books that you can buy in bookstores and online that have writing prompts in them. These usually have some kind of short sentence or paragraph telling you what to write about and then the pages are blank so you can write. Some of these are just general suggestions, some of these are set up to give you a daily prompt. There are also writer forums, such as NaNoWriMo, and even subreddits on Reddit that were created with  the idea of inspiring people to write.

These are not the only places that you can go to for inspiration. One of the things you can do is to adapt a story from real life. Read a news article and then write a story about someone featured in it. You don’t necessarily have to know what that person is like, or what they enjoy or what their pet peeves are. Just imagine that you are them, and then write a story from their point of view. You can also choose to write about the event instead. For example, if you read an article about a sink hole opening up in the middle of a city, think to yourself about why that might have happened. The more mundane  explanation is likely that it happened because the city’s infrastructure budget isn’t sufficient to keep up with repairs and thus the street collapsed in on itself, but what if it’s actually a portal to another dimension and it allows giant kaiju to come here and begin destroying the city? Or maybe an ancient evil was buried there and it has been awakened?

Another way is to think about folklore and fairytales. Many stories have been written that take a well known and beloved fairy tale and gave it a little twist. We all know the story about Little Red Riding Hood. The movie  Red Riding Hood took that story, gave it a bit of a twist and voila, a movie about a woman who loves one man, but is intended to be married to another, and plans to elope with the one she loves with the help of her sister, only to have her sister killed by a werewolf that quite possibly could be the one she plans to elope with, and dealing with the consequences of that death.

You can always look for inspiration in the people that you know. Kevin Smith  based the character of Jay of the duo of Jay and Silent Bob on Jason Mewes. The Coen brothers wrote a story based on a stoner friend of theirs, that in the story becomes a detective. This is what led to the movie “The Big Lebowski”. Think about the people you know. Do any of them standout as the possible basis for a story? As well, you can always go to someplace public, like the mall or a park, and just people watch. Watch what people are doing and see if you can imagine a story based on the people you see. Maybe you see a little girl blowing bubbles. The more mundane explanation is that she’s clearly blowing bubbles. But what if it was more than that? What if those bubbles weren’t traditional bubbles, but a form of magic that allows her to help fairies get  back home,  but adults see them only as regular bubbles, because they’ve lost connection to the magic that would allow them to see and interact with the fae folk?

Another way is to take some event that happened in your life, be it big or small, and use that as the basis of a story. I once went diving with great white sharks off of the coast of Isla de Guadalupe. There was some cool things that happened there, including a shark coming into the cage I was in (albeit not intentionally, but that’s a story for different day).  Maybe that launches into a story about a man who is spear fishing off the coast, and his cage gets attacked by a shark, and the cable connecting the cage to the boat snaps, sending him down to the ocean floor. Now he has to fight against time and sharks to get back to the boat before his air runs out. Admittedly, this is probably the plot of a hundred different movies since Jaws was released in 1975. My point still stands though. I took an event that happened in my life, and spun an idea for a story out of it.

And finally, one last suggestion for getting an idea is simply to sit down and start writing a short story. You don’t have to have an idea in mind, just write what comes to your mind. Though I have  been blessed with an overabundance of story ideas in the last few years(I believe at last count I had 107 or 108 ideas),  I wasn’t always so lucky. Some of my ideas though did come from doing just this method. I didn’t keep the free form story I was writing because what I had written would need a lot of work to be useful for the idea it generated, so to me it was just easier to jot the basic idea down and work from scratch, but nothing says you have to scrap it.

There are many other ways to get ideas that I haven’t discussed in this episode, but in trying to keep this from being too long, I’m going to stop it here. I hope you found this helpful, and a good starting point for generating ideas if you happen to find yourself stuck, and who knows, you may find yourself jotting down a hundred plus ideas. If you have an idea for generating ideas that I didn’t talk about, please feel free to reach out to me on my Twitter account, or Instagram account, and let me know.  If I missed enough of them,  as always, I’ll make a second episode to cover what I missed.

Stay classy, and keep writing those stories!

If you’re a return listener, welcome back, if this is your first time, welcome! I hope you find the information in these episodes to be useful. Also, if you are enjoying these, please leave a review and share with others. 
This is episode 6, where I talk about my writing set up. just a quick disclaimer, I am not getting paid to plug any of the products that get mentioned, these are just the products I personally have discovered to work the best for me. If you find something that works better for you, rock on! Live your best life! So in case you are wondering what a writing set up is, it’s basically the workspace and tools you utilize to write your stories. This can range from something as simple as, say, a notebook and pen at the kitchen table, to an elaborate library complete with cozy fireplace and picture window looking out on some idyllic scenery while banging your story out on an iPad. Whatever set up you decide on, the most important factor, at least in my opinion, is whatever is going to set you up for success and not get in the way of your creativity.
For example, I don’t typically use a notepad and pen or pencil, simply because I can’t write as fast as I think. I used to think that all good writers wrote their stories by hand and only once it was done, did they type them out. I don’t know if that is actually true. It could be, back in the day, it was probably easier and cheaper than messing up on a typewriter and having to start the page from scratch.  All I know is that my hand would end up cramping up while trying to keep up with what my brain was telling me. To get a good visual for what I mean, imagine that I’m writing Star Wars: A New Hope. My hand would be writing the cantina scene with the aliens, but my brain would already be at the part where Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were rescuing Princess Leia from the detention level on the Death Star. It was extremely frustrating because it would often times derail what I was writing and my pages would often become a mess of hand writing that had become almost illegible and several things scratched out.  I eventually switched to a system where I would write until I couldn’t keep up, then grab a new piece of paper and begin writing where my brain was, but that just ended up resulting in a mess that I couldn’t figure out how to put together. This would eventually become moot when I stopped writing for several years.
Fast forward to when I started getting serious about writing again. I had no problem getting ideas, and I would jot these ideas down on any piece of paper I could find, and these I would carry around in my pocket. It got so bad that at one point, I found myself with my wallet in one pocket, and a stack of papers just as thick as that wallet in another.  During this time, I had resumed trying to write by hand only to run into the same situation as before. The final straw came when I left this stack of papers home one day, only to  come back to find out that my ex-wife had thrown them away, because in her words, “it was garbage and I didn’t need it”. Thankfully she had just thrown it away and I was able to retrieve it. This event would lead me to think of a way to solve this so that it didn’t happen again.
Now before I get into my set up, I will say that I am not claiming that my way is in any way original. I’m sure that there are numerous writers out there that either have the exact same set up, or something similar. I will also say that I don’t think my way is the right way or the only way, it’s just one way. What I want for you is to think about your own situation and figure out a solution that works best for you. Now then, on to my set up.
My basic set up consists of using the app Evernote for keeping my ideas in one handy place, a laptop that I  can type on that allows me to type as fast as my brain goes, and Scrivener, a word processing app that was built from the ground up with writer’s in mind.  
The first step was to figure out some way of being able to keep my notes in one place, that couldn’t get lost, and couldn’t get thrown away. I’m horrible at remembering some things, so if I had not been able to get my stack of notes back, I would have lost so many ideas. As well, having a stack of papers is not necessarily a good idea, because if my ex hadn’t thrown them away, it’s entirely possible that I might lose some simply taking the stack out of my pocket. Then there is the wear and tear itself as paper is folded, unfolded, folded again, etc. At this point in time, I was used to carrying a smartphone, and I used apps for several other things in my life. It was here that I turned to. The thinking was that my phone was not likely to be lost, stolen, or thrown away, and so keeping notes there would be a safe bet. After doing some research and downloading and playing with several different apps, I settled on Evernote.
Evernote allows me to access my notes from my phone, as well as one more device (under the free version). This I found to be excellent, because it turned out that Evernote had a desktop version that was compatible with Windows that I could link together (they also have it for Mac as well, though I don’t use any Apple products aside from an iPad and the iPod Classic).  This meant that I could be out and about, get an idea and put  it in Evernote, or work on an outline and even write, and I would be able to access it on my laptop when I got home. The free version also has limited amount of storage, but since everything I’m storing is text, I have never even come near the limit.  You can store more than just text, including pdfs and pictures, but I’ve just never needed to use this feature.
The next piece is the laptop. I don’t really think I have to go too far into this, because it’s a laptop, enough said. The most I’ve ever paid for a laptop has been a little over $500, but that’s because when I get a new laptop, it needs to be good enough to last for at least four or five years before I need to upgrade. If you figure that I spend $500 and it lasts for five years, the math works out to $100 per year, and that’s a good return on investment in my opinion. Now you don’t need to spend that amount. You can find deals for pretty decent computers  for less if you’re patient, or buy around holiday sales. I personally find that this amount works for me, and I’m usually able to get pretty good mileage with laptops in this range.
That said, with the laptop, I’m able to keep up with what was is in my brain when I’m writing. I used to be a huge PC gamer, and as such, I used to have a really good gaming PC that I would also try to use to write. I say try because, unfortunately, I had the bad habit of deciding to take a 30 minute break to play a game only to find that a few hours had gone by and I had wasted time that could have been spent writing. It was this bad habit that made me decide to get a laptop that  couldn’t play the kind of games I was into at the time. This and I wanted to be able to go anywhere and write. At one point I had the “romantic” notion of sitting in a coffee shop writing the Great American Novel while sipping on a latte or whatever it is that hipster writers drink. The problem was that I had, and have, no desire to write the Great American Novel, I’m a basic coffee and creamer kind of guy, and coffee shops suck for getting any kind of writing done.
Finally, the software that I would use to write my stories. To be honest, I gave so little thought to this very crucial piece. I had already been using Microsoft Word for several years for everything from my resume to business reports, among other things. Since it worked so well for everything else, I figured it would work well for writing. At its most basic, Word will get the job done.  For a short story, I found no problems with using it, although aside from my novel in high school, and the first draft I completed last year in December, I never actually finished anything I started to write, and neither of those were done in Word. Before I continue, I don’t want to bad mouth Word. Some of you use it and enjoy it, and it works for you, and that’s great.  If it does, rock on! It’s absolutely good at what it does. It just turned out not to work for me, although I wouldn’t find that out until I got the idea for my werewolf novel. 
Most of my ideas come in short bites, just enough to know what the basic premise is and not much else. Not the werewolf novel. When the proverbial dam burst on that idea, it was a flood of ideas.  As a comparison, think of most of my story ideas as post it notes, while the werewolf stuff is more like the Lord of the Rings.  I quickly found that Word was not up to the task of keeping this stuff organized, and I would soon find myself with several Word documents open as I bounced back and forth between the different documents trying to keep these ideas organized. It quickly got out  of hand and frustrating, not to mention that having several Word documents open would begin causing my laptop to become sluggish. 
So what was I to do? For a good two or three months I struggled with using Word until I got so frustrated, I went to Google and typed “software for writers”, or something similar, into the search. I don’t remember what all came up in the results, but Scrivener was among the top results, if not the  top result. I saw that it had a 30 day free trial, and I downloaded it. It was a little overwhelming at first, but after playing with it for awhile, I started to see that it was perfect for me. I’m not going to turn this into a commercial for this product, if you want to know more about it, you can go to their website at literatureandlatte.com. However, here’s what I found to be the highlights:

  • you could keep all the notes and writing in one file, that you could access from a tool bar on the side, so no more multiple versions of the program needing to be opened
  • it had a tracker that allows you to set project goals and daily goals, so you could theoretically set your project goal to be at least 80 thousand words, and/or your daily goal to 2500 words (which is my own personal daily goal), and it would help you keep track
  • when it came time to export your writing, you could export it in any format, including .doc and .docx (which is Word’s default extensions, depending on version), PDF, and even various ebook formats.
  • and probably one my favorite features, you can go full screen and set it to be as opaque as you want, so the background can be made as light or dark as you want it, which helps to block out the annoying pop ups that Windows loves doing, so that it cuts down on distractions
  • and my absolute favorite feature, the full screen is set up to mimic a page in a typewriter, meaning that when you start writing, you will of course start at the top of the page, but once it reaches the middle, it stays there, meaning your head is looking straight ahead, instead of bent downward as it would be in Word because new lines form at the bottom of the screen

If you’ve used any kind of word processing program for any length of time, you  know how sore your neck gets looking down all the time. This was a huge game changer for me.
The remainder of my set up is that I have a room that I converted into an office, so I have a place to work, but I can also take my laptop and go the the library, or work in the park, and yes, even a coffee shop if I want to deal with that hassle. The only other thing I have in my set up is my iPod Classic,  as I listen to music when I write.
So now that I have gone over my set up, how exactly does this help me be more productive with my writing? Evernote allows me to jot down my ideas, and work on my projects without needing to carry around my laptop. When I’m ready to sit down to write, I can simply open Evernote on my laptop and retrieve whatever work I did on it. The laptop allows me to type as fast as my brain spits out the story. And Scrivener allows me to keep everything in one place so that I only have that and Evernote open so that I’m not fighting with my computer being so slow. If I’m in the middle of writing and I forgot a detail, I can click on my notes, then jump right back to where I left off. It also allows me to set up my book so that I can write in chapters, or even in character points of view. If I decided that one chapter should be placed ahead of another chapter, I can just drag and drop it where I want it, without having to rewrite it. My set up works with me, not against me, and because of this, my  creativity can flow unimpeded. And the music? Well, that helps with blocking out distracting sounds, and even help with setting the mood for whatever scene I’m currently writing. In a nutshell, the tools serve the muse, they do not interfere with it.
When figuring your set up, make sure that you are striving to create a system that feeds your creativity, or at the very least, doesn’t impede it. I hope this inside look helps you if you’ve been struggling. If you already have a set up that works for you, please feel free to reach out to me on my Twitter account, or Instagram account, and let me know.  Who knows, your set up may help out a fellow writer to reach creative nirvana. Stay classy, and keep writing those stories!

This has been another episode of Empty Pages. If you enjoyed what you heard and want more of it, you can follow me at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts from. Please leave me a review, as that really helps me out, and if you do, you might find your review featured in a future episode. You can find me at ianmactire.com, as well as on Twitter and Instagram as @ianmactire. Until next time, I’m Ian, and this is Empty Pages.  Stay classy and write those stories!

© Copyright 2021 Ian MacTire, All Rights Reserved, except where otherwise noted.

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