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2 August 2013 ·

The Writers’ Notebook: Story Starters

The Writers’ Notebook: Story Starters
Where do you get the ideas for your stories? It’s probably the most common question writers are asked, though often I’m not sure exactly where the ideas have come from until the story’s finished, and I can trace it backwards.
Ideas can come from anywhere, from everything you see, hear, feel, imagine or dream. I think what tends to changes some of those experiences from just being interesting into inspiration for a story is how many questions can be asked from them.
Sometimes it could simply be an object in an unexpected place that sets you to wondering; sometimes you see part of a story enacted in front of you, leaving you dying to know the ending.
Here’s an example of each of these extremes – including how I found them, just to prove that you don’t have to be doing anything very dramatic to find story ideas.
Found object: I was walking the dog down a path near our house when I spotted a haircomb tangled in an overhanging twig. It was black plastic, nothing fancy, and the twig was a little lower than my head height. So how did it get there? Why didn’t the wearer notice it being pulled from her head? And who was she?
The most logical explanation is that it was a girl a little shorter than me, who hadn’t noticed because she was daydreaming or hurrying – but what was she dreaming about, or why was she hurrying? Maybe she was taller than me and was ducking for some reason. Or maybe she was a small child on a Shetland pony. Or maybe he was a boy; I’m just presuming it was a girl, but you don’t have to.
And what if: what if there was blood on it? What if it hadn’t been plastic, but jewelled? What if it had been one of this glorious pinterest collection?
Real life snippets: We were having lunch in a crowded café with long communal tables. The mature aged couple next to us were obviously on a first date: they were explaining various life details; they were consciously polite, tentative but happy. Suddenly she said she had to leave, and rushed out, leaving him looking crushed. An hour later, as we waited to buy tickets for an exhibition, we realised that they were in the queue behind us, seeming relaxed and happy – and quite excited at recognising us – maybe because, if their story was going to continue, we were now one of the details of its beginning.
But why did she leave? How did they get together? What are the backstories that led to them choosing an art exhibition as a first date? And most importantly, what happens next?
Nearly anything can be a story starter; it’s all about the questions you ask and where the answers take you.  

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio