Thursday, November 3, 2016

Wycoff: Where Do Writing Ideas Come From? Part 1

Joyce Wycoff & Missy

Guest Post: Start your writers' conference learning now with a series of guest blog posts from some of the conference faculty. This guest post comes from Joyce Wycoff, conference program guide, author of a young adult fantasy novella, Sarana’s Gift and a specialty journal, Gratitude Miracles, the 5-minute journal that could change everything!

“Where did you get your idea?” It’s a common question, and the easy answer is: everywhere!

The longer, and more interesting answer, can be explained using specific examples. When I started writing what turned out to be Sarana’s Gift, the idea literally came out of nowhere. I had decided I was going to write a novel, regardless of the fact that I couldn’t write fiction. (I had one, long-ago, half-finished novel as proof.) But, fact or not, I decided to go for it.

However, as I was researching and thinking about the novel which was going to be set in San Francisco, something else showed up. Suddenly, in my mind, a young girl was on a silver-white horse, galloping through a forest, running from something. Weird. But, I decided to get it down on paper so it would leave me alone.

I was curious though, what was she running from? Following that curiosity led me into the jungles of the Yucatan and through a series of challenges that had to be faced with no weapons or superpowers. (LESSON: follow strange stuff when it shows up.)

After that, deciding that perhaps I could write fiction, I started looking for an idea. I wanted to write about a mature woman, an ordinary woman whose life turns toward the less than ordinary. She would live in an ordinary town in Oregon and have an ordinary job as a portrait photographer.
Where do ideas come from?

Then, I needed a setting … someplace I would like to visit. After a couple of “nice tries,” I remembered an amazing video I had seen about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone (highly recommended: How Wolves Change Rivers.) It had haunted me when I saw it the first time and, watching it again, I knew it was right. Thus, Yellowstone Howling was born (and is about half done). (LESSON: follow what sparks your own interest.)

I asked some of the authors speaking at Sierra Writers’ Conference 2017 to share their stories of what sparks their books. I am in awe of their answers and their commitment to making a difference in the world with their writing. Please share your own stories of where you get your ideas in the comments section below.

Catharine Bramkamp: Author of 15 books, Catharine’s Future Girls series involves time travel where only girls can travel and there are no time machines.

A big influence for Catharine is travel. She explains, “On a visit to Saudi Arabia, we visited a shopping mall - there wasn’t much else to see in the small town we were able to visit.  And in that mall were two stores side by side catering to women. The first store featured long burqas, in every color ranging from black to navy.  Full headdresses, long coats or robes.

The second store looked like Fredrick's of Hollywood on steroids.  Brightly colored bras and negligees vied for attention in the store window.  The next store featured dresses fit for prom or  Quinceanera. Brilliant orange, purple and pink sequins, frills and tulle spilled out of the shop floor and danced along the shop doors.  The male guide explained that their women liked to look beautiful for their men in the privacy of their home.

Which was bullshit.

Women don’t dress for men. Women dress for other women. And that was my trigger. If Saudi women were dressing up and showing off to their women friends in the privacy of their homes, and indeed, far away from the men in the family, what  else are they doing? If the men have marginalized you so completely, so that you are only able to communicate with other women, ever, what would you communicate?  What would you plot?  Once the women tired of dressing up, what was next?  In my mind, it was science: time travel as the avenue to change their current situation. Kind of like: if you can’t join ‘em, change  the rules for membership.

If I want to reach the future myself, I need to focus on the younger reader. I was influenced by the books I devoured as a child and I wanted to do the same with my work.  The question Future Girls asks, is “What would you change?”   Empowerment is important.  We don’t write dystopic novels if we aren’t worried about the future and if we aren’t interested in influencing change.  Heavy stuff, yes?  On the other side, I wanted to make up a great adventure, and I hope I did. (LESSON: observe unusual combinations and what they might mean.)

Kim Culbertson: The Possibility of Now came very much from my teacher heart.

Throughout my years as a high school teacher, I've watched so many of my students struggle with the pressure to succeed in a culture that often seems to suggest they aren't good enough. But in the last decade or so, I've noticed that not only do they have the pressure of their immediate life -- their school, their family values, etc. -- but they also have this massive culture of the internet pressing in on them.

Often, this online culture showcases extreme versions of achievement -- the teenager winning a reality TV show, the eleven year old cello prodigy, the endless parade of YouTubers racking up thousands and thousands of "followers." Then, on top of all that, they are hit with all these phrases like "follow your dreams" or "you can do anything." It's so overwhelming. And while these statements have good intentions, the truth is that you can try your hardest and not meet all your goals.

So, my inspiration for TPoN came from watching all of this personal and cultural pressure unfold for my students. I wanted to write about what happened to a young person who tried her best, but then everything fell apart for her.

I'm especially interested in fish-out-of-water stories and stories where a character rebuilds his or her life. And I wanted, to write about Tahoe and skiing for my setting. (LESSON: think about the places that  call to you.)

Turns out, I wrote a book the way one might build a snowman during a snowfall. All these individual ideas kept sifting down onto me and even as they were still sifting, I began to build a book out of them -- rolling and packing and reshaping and hunting around for the right stick-arms and carrot nose -- until I finally had a book. This was a very different process for me than with my other four novels, but each novel is a very different animal. (LESSON: observe the challenges of the people you see every day. What’s a new way they could deal with those challenges?)

Mark Wideranders: The inspiration to write Stevenson’s Treasure, a novel about Robert Louis Stevenson’s year in California, came to me accidentally.  (LESSON: always pay attention to those happy accidents.)

During a weekend trip to my son’s house in the rugged hills above the Carmel Valley, I read in a guidebook that “Louis” Stevenson collapsed just above the house, and would have died were it not for two goat ranchers who took the comatose traveler to their cabin and nursed him to health.

What was the young, as-yet unknown writer with lung problems doing in these rugged hills so far away from Scotland?  I soon learned that Louis’s collapse was one of several near-fatal setbacks during his year-long quest to make an American, Fanny Osbourne, his wife despite the facts that she was already married, had children and was ten years his senior.  Fanny, a fiercely protective mother who had fallen deeply in love with Louis, faced the realities of keeping her children fed while somehow ending a marriage to a domineering and philandering husband.  As Louis wrote while riding a primitive rail car across the American plains, “No man is any use until he has dared everything; I feel just now as if I had, and so might become a man.”

Both Louis and Fanny inspired me because they risked everything – and succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations. (LESSON: anything that inspires you, may inspire others.)

Mary Volmer: While researching my first novel, Crown of Dust, I kept coming across references to female reformers I’d never heard of, like Victoria Woodhull, Myra Bradwell, Eliza Farnham, Olympia Brown, Mary Livermore. These were outspoken, idealistic, sometime scandalous women, well known in their own time for living outside the private sphere assigned them, yet largely missing from textbook history. Why? What became of well-known female reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony after the Civil War and through the end of the nineteenth century? Did they retire? What happened to the suffrage movement? Why a gap of more than fifty years after the passage of the fifteenth amendment before women won the vote?

Well, they didn’t retire.  Some of those reformers fought their whole lives for rights they never enjoyed. They fought for their daughters’ rights, and for mine. The epigraph by Susan B. Anthony at the beginning of my novel says, “Our job is not to make young women grateful. It is to make them ungrateful so they keep going.” The funny thing is, after the first pulse of curiosity got me reading, it was a sense of gratitude to Stanton and company that motivated me to write. That and the parallels which emerged between their lives and times, and my own.

I first imagined Madelyn as a grown woman, a suffragette in Oakland, whose birthmark and appearance, which most people considered disfiguring, but actually enhanced her fame. Then I wondered what kind of childhood she would have had to endure to prepare her for such a role? How did this woman come to be and would she trade her fame for an anonymous beauty? The questions became part of the main story line of the book. How will Madelyn come to terms with her appearance? Does she? What hardships does it impose? What assumptions will people have about her? What effect will romance stories and women’s magazines have on a girl so hopelessly beyond the ideal? What hardships do women, like Madelyn’s mother, endure because of their beauty? (LESSON: Pay attention to your own questions that send you in search of answers.)

So, where do your writing ideas come from? Please share in the comments section below.

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