Monday, February 6, 2012

Author Nikki Andrews: Idea into Story

Today, my guest blogger is Nikki Andrews.


Idea into Story

So I’m sitting in a bookstore with a pile of my books in front of me. This is one of the fun parts of my job: getting to meet and talk with readers and potential readers of my work. They often give me fresh insight into the novels I thought I knew inside out, and their enthusiasm provides an antidote to those awful moments when I sit at the computer and watch the cursor blink.

I give a little talk and open the floor for questions. Inevitably, someone wants to know, “Where do you get your ideas?”

By now, having done this for a few years, I have a stock answer. “Ideas are everywhere,” I tell them. “Everyone and everything has a story. Ideas can pop up out of things I notice: An abandoned shoe on the library steps became a lovely little story about a girl who gets to meet her favorite literary characters. A hole in the ice on my pond led me into the mind of an alien observer. Or they show up in dreams: I have literally laughed myself awake at some tiny scene in my sleeping mind. Once I woke up with the sentence ‘Derek Daley interviews Sir Bernie’ running around in my head, and it took me days to figure out what to do with it. Or they come directly from real life: I want to tell a story about some of the characters I’ve met as a picture framer, or take revenge on someone who done me wrong.” Then I add, “By the way, I have a t-shirt that says ‘never piss off a writer.’”

That usually gets a laugh. Someone might ask what happened with Derek and Sir Bernie, and then the conversation moves on. But every now and then I see one or two people—often a child—still chewing over the idea thing, and it makes me think harder.

Anyone can notice a hole in the ice. “Oh look, a hole in the ice.” Probably most people will go one step further and think, “I wonder how it got there.” The human brain is really good at asking questions and proposing solutions. Maybe somebody came along with an ice ax and a fishing pole. Or a meteorite fell out of the sky. Or we have a family of otters at play. Maybe there’s a hot spot under the water that melted the ice from below—which, in fact, turned out to be the case.

There could be myriad stories that come from that hole in the ice. But how did MY story about the alien observer come about? Ah, that’s the real question those people are chewing over. They don’t need to know where ideas come from, because everyone gets ideas; they’re asking how a writer turns Idea into Story. And the answer to that is different for every writer and every story.

A writer teaches herself to be observant, first of all. A turn of phrase, a striking image, a scrap of dialogue, can lead to a story. A writer asks questions: the journalistic who, what, when why and how, and most importantly—what if? A writer puts ideas together. (The human brain is also very good at combining things.)How a story germ grows and takes shape depends on the compost around it, if I may combine metaphors from two of my favorite writers. Two paragraphs above, I dropped a clue about the compost around my hole in the ice: just a few nights earlier the Geminid meteor showers had streaked through the December sky. And because I love science fiction, my mind was primed for the big question—what if, among the meteors, there was a tiny, alien space ship?

From that moment, the path was laid at my feet. Not that it was a straight path, of course. There were turns and double-backs, side trails that petered out, quests for more information. Other paths joined mine, and I had to beat the junctures smooth. I had to make straight the highway, level the mountains and raise the valleys. Finally, after all the writing, rewriting, fallowing, starting over—Idea became Story.

Ideas come because we look for them. Stories grow because we work on them. We nurture them like children, lead them and follow their lead, teach them and learn from them. Just as no two children turn out alike, no two writers, starting at the same place, will write the same story.

If I’m very lucky, a few of my audience will be amenable to an experiment. I hand out pens and paper, and distribute folded sheets with a few words. Some people are nervous, some self-conscious, even outwardly hostile. But when I look at a clock and say “Go” I can seeds growing before my eyes.

Let the excitement begin.

If you would like to read “Probe,” the story that emerged from the hole in the ice, please visit my website,


Nikki Andrews has earned a living as a picture framer, receptionist, and stable hand, but in her real life she is an author and editor. She has published a mystery, Framed, with L&L Dreamspell, and two science fiction novels, Chicken Bones and A Windswept Star, with AuthorHouse. When she is not defenestrating her computer, she is working on two sequels to Framed as well the final novel in the Chicken Bones series. Several of her short stories have been published as well. In addition to writing, she works as an editor, both freelance and on the staff of two publishers. She is a member of Talespinners and the New Hampshire Writers Project, and lives near a waterfall with her wonderful husband, a cat, and assorted wildlife.

An artist and his model are discovered dead and coyote-gnawed in a remote snowy field. The New Hampshire State Police declare it a murder-suicide. But where did his last painting disappear to? What happened to her jewelry? Who is the true guilty party?
Brush & Bevel owner Ginny Brent has more reason than most to doubt the police. After all, she was Jerry Berger’s mentor and agent. When the lost painting reappears at her art gallery ten years later, Ginny seek answers. She knows Jerry didn’t kill himself or Abby Bingham, the model pictured among the trees in Jerry’s painting. Can she discover who did?

Ginny’s loyal staffers, Sue Bradley and Elsie Kimball, employ their own methods to find the truth. Elsie follows her exuberant young bird-dog into the forest and through frog-infested puddles to a pile of glacial erratics that might be the setting for the painting. Is that important? Sue cleans years of smoke and grease from the canvas and puzzles over the strange markings revealed under the gunk. What could they possibly mean?
In between worrying about the array of sharp cutlery at the neighboring Chowdah Bowl, fulfilling the sometimes whimsical needs of their clients, and planning to frame and unveil “The Lady in the Wood,” the three women learn that art is not the only thing that can be framed.


Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy said...

Interesting post - love it. "Where do you get your ideas?" is my most asked question too!

Linda Swift said...

Hi Nikki. What a great article. I agreed with every word, but I'm afraid I don't revise and polish my words the way you obviously do.That's why I need a really good editor like you. My head is spinning at all the writing you are doing besides editing and I know from experience that you put an lot of time and effort into the editing jobs. I wish you success with all of your endeavors. Linda

T.W. Fendley said...

Hi, Nikki and Denise -- wonderful interview!

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Probe. I loved it! Such a gentle way of describing an alien visit, with great description.

Denise Verrico said...

Nikki, what an interesting post. I always find that ideas seem to pop up when I'm doing research for current projects. Some little tidbit of information will catch my eye and beg for story. Thanks for being my guest and sharing!

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Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Nikki,

I get asked that question a lot as well. You're right: authors should be observant people. We're surrounded by fascinating ideas. All we need to do is pay attention!

Betty Gordon said...

Nikki, great post! The question about where ideas come from fascinates readers, authors as well. Mine come so often from dreams or when I'm in the early minutes of relaxation before sleep takes over. Too many times, however, the ideas take over and sleep disappears.

Jan Romes said...

Hi Nikki! Love reading your thoughts/posts! :-)) I agree with you that everything around us has a potential story and how sometimes that story nags us until we write it! I find myself scribbling on fast-food napkins, or whatever scrap of paper I have at the time when story ideas pop in my head (since they don't alway pop in at the most opportune time)! Best wishes with your writing career & inspiring people to write & observe. Hugs, Jan

Pauline B Jones said...

So true that the real question is how do you turn an idea into a story. Great point! Enjoyed the blog post!