It’s all cannon fodder. Everything you do, are, and think about goes into your fiction. Why? First of all, you can’t help it. You are your best source of experiences and facts. Next, you need tons of material to write short stories and novels; you have to mine the world to get stuff.
Short Stories from Newspapers
Take nonfiction, for example. If you’re like me, you do read nonfiction, for general education, out of curiosity about things, and to get a break from fiction. But often nonfiction will spark stories. As, recently, I read a newspaper article about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a floating collection of junk and litter in the Pacific Ocean) and wrote a story about a little girl who lived on it. You can read it in: Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction. It’s one of those starting points I use the most: starting with Place. If there’s a floating garbage patch, who lives on it and why?
But recently I had an even more profound flash of inspiration from reading two nonfiction books. Now forgive me for not telling you which books they were. I try not to reveal much about my novels while I’m writing them.
I had been nervously aware for some weeks that I needed to start another novel, but I didn’t have an idea, except that I wanted it to be a reasonably contemporary fantasy.
I had been reading a book of my husband’s that had a lovely 19th century-looking cover. It was about a country I had always wanted to know a bit more about. Let’s call it Tibet. At the same time (since I often read two or three books at once) I happened to read a book about an aspect of science which I’ll pretend is psychoanalysis. Both of these books were superb. My imagination was on fire with the exotica of Tibet and the fascinating world of psychology. My brain, frantic for a story idea so that it could stop waking up in the middle of the night worrying, began to suggest to me that therapists-dreams-the unconscious and Tibet could mate and form a hell of a story.
A few ideas began to sprout. What conflicts might arise in a Buddhist culture if psychology or dream-analysis got a foot hold? Who would want to bring such “improvements” to Tibet? What if they were naive 19th-century psychology pioneers? What issues would they imagine solving in Tibet? Above all, who is the therapist that travels to Tibet? What big secret will she discover, and what are it’s implications? What mixture of mysticism, Buddhism, colonial hubris and the deep unconscious would be possible?
This example is nowhere near as cool as the combination that actually happened for me. I can only say that as I worked the material, I kept pulling in things I knew, had experienced, and valued. The material, however strange initially, became my own. Writing this novel has been an amazing experience.
Now, for whatever reason, this process does not work by reading 2-3 works of fiction. I have been inspired by one novel: but never a direct mixture of more than one.
Thus the lesson here is to read nonfiction! You will naturally select books with subjects in which you have some interest. Let these subject areas shine a light into your subconscious, hitting meaningful pressure points in your own experience. But keep it to just two books, or at most three. Combining just two subjects narrows your field and allows your brain to do recombinant magic without frying up.
So, if seeking a unique story idea, you might start by asking what subject areas you’ve always wanted to know just a bit more about. Then go buy two great nonfiction books, and curl up on the couch, hoping for magic!