In creating an idea for my first novel, I looked at my world, my family and friends, my town to find a speck of interest that could grow into an enjoyable read. “Write what you know”, some say is the way to begin. It truly is not, at least, not exactly. I’ll explain. My idea was to base a fictitious tale on my mother’s life, which I found quite interesting. As I began to write, it didn’t take long to recognize the flaw in my thinking. My mother had a hard life as an orphaned child, but grew up to be the most kind and loving person. While she has done a couple of unique things, her adult years had their ups and downs, but nothing truly dramatic or earth-shattering took place. She’s 87 yrs old and she will pass on one day having enjoyed her experiences and lived a good life with few regrets. Nice, but boring…for a novel, that is!
So, what I did was this…I expanded on the idea, I dreamed up other interesting characters, I reordered the way things happened in Mom’s life, I lied about some of her issues, I gave her some serious conflicts, and made her do things she never did in reality. In my story, she reacts to events in ways she would not have in life, the injustices the fictitious woman experiences shape into someone unlike my mom, and she ultimately is barely a shadow of my real mom. My story is much more engaging now and only loosely based on some events in my mom’s life.
A simple idea, such as an abandoned child, the consequential personality traits she develops and the paths in life she takes, is a great way to begin. However, if you write in a straight line, in other words, tell the story of a girl who grows up feeling lost and still marries, has a job, hobbies and children, and finally grows old and dies, your story will die as well.
To create a word painting of the scenes in your story, you must add layers of emotion, conflict, resolution and action which, in turn, create a resonance between your ideas…one action reverberating off another. Take a scene in which a reserved, insecure girl takes a job as a secretary and has trouble making friends at work. She keeps her head down and does her job the best she can, making a few mistakes as she goes and is reprimanded for them. Not a gripping concept. But you can add a few other elements to make it romantic, exciting, or frightening. For example, a reserved, insecure girl takes a job as a secretary. She thinks she’ll have trouble making friends as she always does, so she doesn’t try. But a young man in the next cubicle peeks over the partition and winks at her. She blushes as he asks her to dinner. This adds another element–a new character to interact with and a conflict for the girl to deal with (to accept the offer or not and the result of her decision). Maybe she goes on the date and (1) he dumps her, (2) she goes home with him and he rapes her, or (3) they continue to date and fall in love. Now the story has been enlarged.
The secretary has a far more developed character and set of circumstances, but you can dig even deeper to find out that, maybe her parents are unhappy with her choice of boyfriends, or she has a secret she doesn’t want to tell the boyfriend and he finds out anyway. He could be abusive and she can’t tell her friends, or her best friend may have her eye on him. Take it further into her psyche. Why is she reserved and insecure? What happened in her past that created this quirk? What are her hopes and dreams? What other people does she encounter on her job and how do they impact her life? The answers to these questions will create a rich and complex melange of elements in your story.
Have you had a story idea and had trouble expanding it into a book? What other ideas do you have for fleshing out your writing?