Are All the Good Story Ideas Taken Already?

You’d like to write a story, but every time you think of an idea, you realize someone else wrote that one already. You figure all the good story ideas are used up. That’s it. There are no more. The last original novel has been written.

I don’t think so. New books, movies, and TV shows are coming out all the time.

no-story-ideasNo, you protest. Those aren’t new. They’re just rehashes or remakes of old ideas, with some new flair added. They’re just old stories brought into modern times, well-used story lines put in a new setting, or known plotlines with the main characters’ genders reversed.

If so, that’s great news for you. It means you don’t have to think of something completely original, either. If rehashes or slight twists work so well, then you can succeed with that method, too. That’s the message Melissa Donovan delivers very well in this post.

I think what you’re really telling me is, you’re stuck for an idea, and every time you think of one, you recognize you’d be copying what someone has already done.

There’s a particular genre you enjoy reading, and you consider yourself knowledgeable about that genre, and you’d like to see if you can write a story yourself. But you see that field as being well-plowed already. For every story idea, you immediately think of the existing, published story that used that idea.

You’re just in a mental rut, that’s all. It’s possible to climb back out.

Here are some suggestions for coming up with story ideas. These might work for you, or they might spark thoughts about other ways to accomplish the same thing:

  1. Do Internet or Twitter searches for trending key words. Combining seemingly unrelated key words might result in the nugget of a story idea. I’m convinced that’s how Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird came up with the idea for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
  2. Search websites in your genre for words or thoughts that are trending. Those might suggest story ideas.
  3. Try the Suzanne Collins method. She came up with the idea for The Hunger Games while flipping TV channels. That turned out all right for her and might work for you.
  4. Pick two books at random off your shelf at home and see if you could combine the two in some way. If not, pick two other books.
  5. Try the generational/nostalgic method. Look for what was popular 25-30 years ago, and update it. First you have a new audience who wasn’t around when the original came out. Second, the older folks in your audience will appreciate the nostalgic trip down memory lane.
  6. Take a song you like (either instrumental or voice), and think of the story that might go along with that song.
  7. Take an interesting picture or image from anywhere (web, your own life, magazines, etc.) and think of the story behind that image.
  8. Take a favorite character from a book or movie, and consider what you enjoy about that character. What if that character was completely different in appearance? For example, if that beloved character was a handsome, young, athletic man, what if you wrote about an older, plump woman with the same abilities and faced with similar conflicts?

Your next story idea is out there. Be open and receptive, and let it find you. Oh, and be sure to send a comment thanking—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 12, 2016Permalink

My Story Inspires More Antikythera Mechanism Research

These scientists and anthropologists must have read my story. Is there any other explanation?

NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1
Antikythera Mechanism (from Wikipedia)

ToBeFirstWheels3fLet’s review the timeline. My story “Wheels of Heaven” was published two years ago, in June 2014. “Wheels” tells the story of the Antikythera Mechanism, that ancient Greek geared machine found in the seabed wreck of a Roman ship. Then in September of that year scientists mounted a diving expedition to see if they could find more pieces of the device. I blogged about that expedition.

Although the expedition did not uncover any additional gears, there’s been a new development, reported last week here, here, and here. With Computational Tomography (CT) imaging and Polynomial Texture Mapping, or PTM, they’ve discovered the Antikythera machine came with written instructions, a guide to its operation, an owner’s manual etched on its surfaces.

The newly translated 3500 characters of text refer to parts of the mechanism that weren’t recovered, such as a display of spheres representing the Sun and known planets. The text suggests the device wasn’t an astronomical research tool, nor an astrological prediction tool. Rather it was a teaching aid, an astronomy textbook of sorts.

Well, that would have been useful to know when I was writing “Wheels of Heaven.” In my tale, the machine has no display spheres, and no engraved text to read. The character in my story, Drusus Praesentius Viator, is an astrologer, and does use the machine to make horoscopic predictions. I based my story on the best understanding of the Antikythera Mechanism at the time.

Ah, well, science marches on, I suppose. Science Fiction writers are used to new discoveries rendering their stories obsolete. That phenomenon doesn’t happen as often to writers of alternate history, but it’s not unknown.

Of course, “Wheels of Heaven” is not obsolete. Scientists don’t know for sure that the ancients didn’t use the machine for astrological predictions. It would be a simple matter for me to update my story to include the text and display spheres.

AntikytheraMechanismSchematic-Freeth12
Gear Arrangement in the Antikythera Mechanism (from Wikipedia)

Further, I’m not accusing scientists of deliberately trying to undermine my story. They may well be motivated to find the truth about this mysterious artifact. After all, no one credited the Ancient Greeks with having any understanding of gears before finding this machine containing at least thirty meshing gears. Not just simple gears, either, but some are complex epicyclic gears.

Still, I’d like to think some of the anthropologists might have read, and been inspired by, “Wheels of Heaven.” Could my story have sparked some of the research? Who knows?

Maybe you’re a scientist who’s curious about ancient technology. Or maybe you just enjoy reading good stories. Either way, perhaps you, too, could be inspired by reading the works of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Modernizing the Muses

What is the source of creativity? Why are some people creative, and others not as much? To those who aren’t, creative people can seem imbued with magical power, able to see beyond, and to make something out of nothing.

The ancient Greeks judged many such abilities to be god-given, and attributed creativity to the Muses. Later Greek mythology settled on their being nine of them, all goddesses, and all daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Each was an expert in some field or group of related fields. Though a muse might inspire a certain level of skill in a mortal, woe be unto the mortal who dared to challenge a muse herself.

I’ve blogged several times (notably here, here, and here) about muses, since I’m interested in creativity and enjoy the idea of somehow making that mysterious attribute more tangible and understandable. In my own uncreative moments, when stumped for a story idea, I wonder if I’d be more creative if I had a muse figurine. If I stared at such a figurine, would the muse herself inspire me?

Xanadu MusesGuilty pleasure confession: I liked the 1980 movie Xanadu, especially the scene where the nine muses emerge from a wall mural, to the tune of the wonderfully exuberant song “I’m Alive,” by the Electric Light Orchestra.

For today, I thought I’d ponder the various fields mastered by the ancient muses, and see how we would update that and assign modern creative fields to 21st Century muses.

Here are the classical muse job assignments:

Muse Name Domain
Calliope Epic poetry
Clio History
Euterpe Music, Song, and Elegiac Poetry
Erato Lyric poetry
Melpomene Tragedy
Polyhymnia Hymns
Terpsichore Dance
Thalia Comedy
Urania Astronomy

Today, I’m not sure we’d count History or Astronomy as being such creative endeavors as to be each worth having their own muse. Also, I doubt we’d split poetry three ways. Note that prose fiction (my preferred field) is nowhere on the list.

Here’s my initial attempt to modernize the muses, taking into account the different and newer creative endeavors available today:

Muse Name

Domain

Alpha Literary arts (fiction, poetry)
Euphemia Performing arts (music, dance, choreography, theater, movies, singing, comedy)
Idola Visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, interior design)
Mágeira Gastronomy / chef
Polycassandra Multimedia artistic works (comics, video games)

My list has only five, not nine. But even ancient accounts weren’t clear about the number of muses.

I stuck with the idea of giving them Grecian names (or feminized versions of Greek words). Alpha is, of course, the first letter. Euphemia means to speak or declare. Idola means vision. Mágeira is intended to refer to chefs and cooking. Polycassandra is intended to mean manifold helper.

Perhaps in a future blog post I’ll re-examine this list. I might be able to split up their duties in a way to better even out their workload. After all, Idola and Euphemia would be very busy, compared to Mágeira.

What do you think? Have I left out any creative fields of endeavor worthy of inclusion? Is there a better way to organize the assignments? In the task of modernizing the muses, it’s time for you to get creative and to out-do—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Recalling the Moment

When people ask, “how did you get the idea for that story?” it’s useful to be able to remember that exact instant when the lightning struck, when the light bulb glowed, when the muse whispered. For some of my stories, I can. For others, I have no idea.

People expect you to remember. They want to hear about the light bulb moment. After all, that’s a bit of a story in itself.

220px-Suzanne_Collins_David_Shankbone_2010Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games series, has a great story for how she came up with the idea for the first book in the series. As reported here, she was channel-surfing between a reality show involving a competition among young people, and some news coverage of a war. The two TV shows blurred in her mind, and she came up with her book idea. She also claims that the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which she read at age eight, became the inspiration for the plot.

This is often how it happens. Two or more ideas get merged in your mind, and they can be widely separated in time. Some of these ideas could be something half-remembered from childhood.

On occasion, an entire story coming to a writer in a flash, so that it becomes a race to get it written down before the memory degrades. Other authors refine and mature a basic idea over time before they are ready to write. Whichever method you use, it’s still a good thing to write down the initial idea right after the bulb illuminates, perhaps in a daily journal. That way you’ll be ready when people ask.

What’s that you’re thinking? You’re wondering how I got the ideas for some of my recent stories? How nice of you to ask.

A Clouded Affair” came from a clash of two ideas. I was in a dieselpunk mood, having never written in that subgenre. Then I saw the call for stories for an anthology titled Avast, Ye Airships! Clearly, they wanted steampunk. What to do? How about a battle between a steampunk pirate and a dieselpunk pirate?

For “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” I was responding to a planned anthology of Steampunk Shakespeare stories. I wanted a lighter tale, so I reviewed the Bard’s comedies, and selected “A Comedy of Errors.” Clockpunk seemed a better fit than steampunk, so I went with that. While my story didn’t get picked for the anthology, it found a happier home as part of my What Man Hath Wrought series.

The Cometeers” is one story whose genesis I don’t recall. For some reason, I must have been thinking about save-the-Earth-from-destruction plot lines, and thought about how I could set such a story in the steampunk era.

Here’s a sneaky notion, to wrap things up. Since you won’t always recall the “ah-ha moment” when a story idea occurred to you, and since your zillions of fans will demand to know how it actually happened, it’s probably okay in this instance to make up a story. After all, you’re a fiction writer—making up stories is what you do. Moreover, who would say your explanation is wrong? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

How I Inspired an Expedition

According to news accounts here, here, and here, divers will use a special diving suit (called the Exosuit) to explore off the coast of Antikythera Island near Greece. The site is a debris field left by a Roman merchant ship estimated to have sunk around 60 B.C. in 200 feet of water.

300px-NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1They’ll be looking for more pieces of “the world’s oldest computer.” It’s a geared calculating machine, discovered by divers in 1900. No one credited the ancient Greeks with much knowledge of gear technology, until the discovery of this machine.

The question you’re probably wondering is, why now? The mechanism has been known about for more than a century. Why are scientists and explorers suddenly interested in finding out if they are missing some parts of the machine, or if they already have extra pieces and there were two devices aboard the ship? What prompted this new expedition?

I might have had something to do with it.

ToBeFirstWheels3fYou see, I wrote a story about the Antikythera Mechanism called “Wheels of Heaven,” and it just got published (by Gypsy Shadow Publishing) a couple of months ago. In my tale, I explain what the machine is and how it came to rest at the bottom of the Aegean Sea.

You’d have to agree this can’t be a coincidence. Obviously someone read my story and got to thinking, “I wonder if he’s right? Is that how it happened?”

No one associated with the expedition is likely to admit it, of course. They might even deny it if asked. After all, no scientist wants to confess to being inspired by a mere fictional short story.

But we know the truth, don’t we? The connection is too strong to ignore. They can refute it all they want.

At this point you’re probably curious what the fuss is all about. You can purchase “Wheels of Heaven” along with another story “To Be First” here, here, here, and other places too. Sail along on the ship Prospectus with the Roman astrologer Drusus Praesentius Viator, and a common sailor from Crete named Abrax as they argue over whether the machine can tell the future.

Once again we see mysterious parallels between the breaking news of today’s world and the worlds depicted in my stories. A few weeks ago, I told you about the upcoming landing on a comet, an event similar to the one in my story “The Cometeers.”

The question we must ask, then, is which will be the next story of mine to have some strong link to the news headlines? Which of my other books of alternate history will prompt the next scientist, explorer, or engineer to undertake a grand investigative effort? You can offer your own answer to this question by leaving a comment to this blog post.

Strange how this keeps happening, isn’t it? If you want to know the science and technology news of tomorrow, simply to turn to the works of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 21, 2014Permalink

The Story behind “The Cometeers”

As I mentioned in my News page, Gypsy Shadow Publishing has accepted my story, “The Cometeers” which will be published as part of the What Man Hath Wrought series. The intended launch date is in early September.

TheCometeers72dpiHere’s the marvelous cover, designed by Charlotte Holley.  Yes, that’s a planet-destroying comet headed right toward the Earth.  But if you look closer, you’ll see an silvery man-made projectile on an intercept course.  Just possibly, its occupants might save the entire world.

Inquiries have been streaming in from every corner of the planet (and from some of the comets), asking what this story is about. Far be it from me to deny my fans information about my latest tale.

Here’s the book blurb: A huge comet speeds toward a devastating collision with the Earth, but no one will launch space shuttles filled with nuclear weapons. It’s 1897. Instead they’ll fire projectiles from the Jules Verne cannon and try to deflect the comet with a gunpowder explosion. Commander Hanno Knighthead isn’t sure he can motivate his argumentative, multinational crew of geniuses to work together. It turns out one of them is a saboteur. Then things get worse. Only a truly extraordinary leader could get this group to cooperate, thwart the saboteur, and jury-rig a way to divert the comet. Lucky thing Hanno brought his chewing gum.

Armageddon-poster 1998If you recall the 1998 movie “Armageddon,” then you can think of my story as Steampunk Armageddon.

I don’t recall the exact inspiration for this story. As stated in this post, and this one, I use the “seed and twist” method of coming up with story ideas. In this case the seed is the standard save-Earth-from-destruction idea, and the twist is to set the action in Victorian times.

My problem became one of technology. They just didn’t have sufficient know-how in the Nineteenth Century to divert or destroy a comet. It’s an open question whether we really have the technology today.

640px-From_the_Earth_to_the_Moon_Jules_VerneTherefore, I assumed the world of Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon.  In that world, men had already achieved space travel in 1867. With funds from many nations, the Baltimore Gun Club had built a 900 foot long cannon outside Tampa, Florida, and launched a projectile containing three men.

My story is set thirty years later and no one has used the cannon since, due to the enormous expense. With a giant comet on the way, however, something must be done, so every country contributes what it can.

You can’t simply launch projectiles full of gunpowder at the comet and expect to hit it. The target is too small, the distance too great, and the calculations too imprecise. You must send men up also, in separate projectiles, to travel with your gunpowder bombs to make the necessary course corrections along the way.

That plan should work.

Unless something goes wrong.

“The Cometeers” will launch in September. For further updates, keep visiting this blog and reading the posts by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

The Story Behind “To Be First”

ToBeFirstWheels5As the launch date for “To Be First” and “Wheels of Heaven” nears (this Tuesday, July 1st), and excitement builds, I think it’s time for me to reveal the story behind “To Be First.”

A few years ago, I watched an episode of the TV show Mythbusters where they replicated a feat supposedly performed by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi in the Ottoman Empire in 1633. Çelebi is said to have constructed a rocket chair, launched himself into the air, and flown down safely using a wing-like apparatus. The event was intended to commemorate and honor the birth of the Sultan’s daughter.

The Mythbusters team considered the myth busted, but it got me to thinking. What if such a marvelous flight had taken place? What if the Sultan had understood the geopolitical and military implications?

LagariThink of it. Manned rocket flight in the 17th Century. Defensive city walls and high castle walls would mean nothing to a country with armed rocket-men. Rather than expanding and then beginning its slow decline to finally die with the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire might have spread much more quickly and farther.

Had the Ottomans also embraced the science behind rocketry, they might have hastened other technical achievements, and been the source of those advancements rather than watching America and the rest of Europe prosper.

It seemed like an interesting basis for an alternate history tale, so I wrote one. In my version, it’s 1933, three centuries after Çelebi’s flight, and two Ottoman astronauts (called lunanauts) are returning from the first manned flight to the Moon. Yes, I said 1933, not 1969.

Nuruosmaniye_MosqueI imagined their space capsule being about the same size as the Apollo capsule, but dome-shaped with a central spike like the roof of an Ottoman mosque.  The capsule would have a couple of windows and there would be some of that beautiful, flowing Ottoman Turkish writing on the outside.

As the story commences, the lunanauts encounter a strange ionic storm in space, and their capsule passes into an alternate universe. The tale takes off from there.

My central characters, Yazid and Kemal, hold differing views on what it means to be an explorer. What are the motivations behind those who roam beyond all prior journeys, who probe far into unknown regions? Do they do it for the money? For fame? For love? Or is it something simpler?

If you read my story, perhaps you’ll be motivated to become an explorer, and you’ll write your own gripping story of heroic and fantastic adventure. You, too, can manage ‘To Be First.’ At least, so says—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Don’t Refuse Your Muse

Is your brain in a rut? If so, you’re not alone. Today I’ll examine this tendency and suggest what you can do about it.

For all its desirable features, the human brain suffers from a love of the familiar and a fear of the unknown. This served as a good survival trait for our ancestors in their world, but it’s no advantage for a writer today.

Dont refuse museThis hard-wired preference probably prevents many people from becoming writers in the first place, since that can be a scary unknown. Even for those of you who’ve chosen to writers, this unfortunate brain feature keeps you using the same vocabulary words, writing about the same topics in the same genres, writing stories with the same themes and using very similar characters. It thwarts your creative urge, putting you at war with your muse.

As I’ve said before, your muse gets bored with the familiar and seeks the new and fresh. She grabs your arm and pulls you away from the safe and the known, beckoning you to explore the untrodden path. Her brain is wired in a different way.

Perhaps you disagree, thinking you don’t suffer from the malady I’ve described. You deny being a creature of habit who rushes to the familiar and avoids the unknown. Fine. Here’s your test. Tonight, before going to bed, hide your toothbrush. Let’s see how Mr. or Ms. Creativity handles things the next morning. Good luck!

For a great illustration of the problem, I encourage you to read “The Calf Path” by Sam Walter Foss. This poem paints an amusing metaphor of how our brains work.

Advertising Director Gina Sclafani wrote about dealing with the phenomenon. I find it interesting how she thought at first the task would be easy, since she prided herself on being open-minded. Then she well describes the difficulty, the inner resistance, to any steps outside the mind’s comfort zone. In the end, she’s glad she did, because the rewards are great, but she warns it is a journey pitting one part of your mind against a powerful counteracting part.

Here’s a three-step method you could try as a writer to push yourself out of your comfort zone. I’ll illustrate it with story genres, but it could also work with characters, themes, settings, style, or any aspect of story-writing in which you’re stuck.

1. Make a list of story genres you’d never consider writing about. Include the ones you find stupid, abhorrent, unseemly, etc. It’s no big deal, right? After all, you’re never going to write in any of these genres.

2. Spend five to ten minutes thinking through each genre on your list. Think about each one as follows: “I’ll never write in this genre, of course, but if I were to do so, here’s the story I’d write…”   You needn’t write down any of these ideas, just think through them.

3. Now let some time pass. A few days, weeks, or even months. This allows your muse to do her thing. You might well find she’s yanking on your arm and leading you down an unfamiliar path toward writing in one of those unwanted genres.

A similar thing happened to me. I knew I’d never write in the horror genre. Then I noticed a publisher seeking stories for an anthology to be called Dead Bait. I dismissed it, but my muse didn’t. She worked on the idea for a story she made me write called “Blood in the River.” I’m still not a horror story writer, but it felt good to get out of the comfort zone.

One final thought. At one point in their lives, each of history’s greatest contributors (think of da Vinci, Shakespeare, Bach, Edison, Einstein, etc.) had to leave a comfort zone in order to develop his or her eventual talents. Imagine the loss to mankind if one of them hadn’t taken that step? What if you could become a popular, successful, or timeless writer if only you stretch your mind in a direction it doesn’t want to go?

You’ll have to excuse me. This calf-path I’m walking along is nice, but some woman wearing a chiton is tugging at my sleeve. “What’s that? Where? But that’s off the path and looks terrifying to—

                                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe”

Dear Ray Bradbury

I just had to write to thank you, thank you, for the great times, the pleasures of reading your work.  There’s no sense letting a little thing like your death in 2012 prevent me from expressing my gratitude, is there?

220px-Ray_Bradbury_(1975)_-cropped-Sorry, I haven’t read all your books and stories.  I’ve read less of your canon than I have of Jules Verne’s, Isaac Asimov’s, or Robert Heinlein’s.  But, oh, the few of your books I digested left lifelong mental imprints:  Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, Now and Forever, and The Martian Chronicles.  In high school, I read your short story, “The Flying Machine,” and my recollections of it inspired my story, “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” written decades later.

At one point, you declared you wrote fantasy, not science fiction.  In my view you blended the two.  You made science sound like fantasy.

Moreover, your flowing style of writing contrasted with that of the hard-science fiction writers.  Their stories conveyed a love of machines, of science.  Yours proclaimed a love of word imagery, of the magic of English, of poetic prose.

The authors of hard science fiction told me tales of technical detail.  You sang me stories of marvel and wonder.

I guess I’m trying to say that I write more like those other guys, but wish I could write like you.

On occasion, you related a particular memory from when you were about twelve.  At a carnival, one of the performers known as Mr. Electrico touched an electrical sword to your nose which made your hair stand out.  You claimed he told you, “Live forever!”

In a very real sense, Mr. Bradbury, you will.  Thanks again.

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

December 22, 2013Permalink

Dear Robert Heinlein

Yeah, I know the records say you’ve been dead since 1988, but I figure you found or inherited some way to cheat the reaper, like your character Lazarus Long did.  By some weird and inexplicable means, I think you could be reading this.

170px-RAH_1929_YearbookOver my lifetime, I’ve read several of your novels and short stories.  In my high school and college days, I read “By His Bootstraps,” Time Enough for Love, Star Beast, The Man Who Sold the Moon, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, Farnham’s Freehold, and The Number of the Beast. In later years I read Friday, Grumbles from the Grave, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

I’m not sure what it was about your work that stuck with me most.  Maybe the cool future technologies.  Perhaps the gritty, wise-cracking, rough-and-ready characters, all of whom pulled themselves up from humble backgrounds.  The writing style, full of well-turned phrases, could have been part of it.  Or possibly the hard-nosed, no-excuses, freedom-loving philosophy undergirding it all.  I can’t say, and likely I’ll never know.

Though I didn’t realize this until later, there is some similarity in our backgrounds, yours and mine.  I was born about fifty years after you, but also grew up in the Midwest, also graduated from the Naval Academy with an engineering degree and also served in the Navy.  After leaving the service, both of us turned to writing fiction.

I’m not comparing my writing to yours, just pointing out reasons I can relate to your life experiences.  After I began writing, I began to appreciate your approach to authorship even more.  I liked your rules for writing with their linkage of hard work to eventual success.

I also began to see how different a writer you were from some of my other author heroes.  Jules Verne lucked into a new field; no one else was writing science fiction.  Isaac Asimov took the established model of the time (publishing short stories in pulp magazines) and churned out an enormous output following that model.

By contrast, you rejected the status quo and uplifted the whole genre.  You believed science fiction should be regarded as respectable literature and worked to bring that about.  Your success benefitted not only you, but other authors too.  Without question, your stories inspired generations of engineers, scientists, and writers.

When I pondered over my own portfolio of published work, I had to confess I didn’t see the Heinlein influence there.  My story themes and characters differ quite a bit from yours.  But when I thought about it more deeply, I realize now what I took from your example wasn’t a writing style, but the hope that a guy like me could sell stories.

For inspiring me to be a writer, not necessarily to write like you, thanks.  And if you don’t mind, I’ll ask a favor.  How about taking time off from shaking up the status quo in your current plane of existence, to sprinkle just a bit of your writing talent on—

                                                              Poseidon’s Scribe

November 11, 2013Permalink