How to get ideas for stories – be gullible

Be open to oddness: BBC TV Panorama's infamous April fool hoax, the spaghetti trees of 1957

How do you get ideas for stories? Here’s one trait I’m sure keeps my ideas machine ticking away

I am hopeless at spotting a fib. The other day I was at the hairdresser having the red refreshed. Instead of my usual contact lenses I was in glasses, which have to come off while my locks are being daubed. I was listening in a thick myopic fog while my hairdresser, who is Spanish, was telling me about Christmas traditions in Madrid. They were quite charming and I repeated them in wonder: you put out gifts on January 6th for the Three Kings, including water for their camels? Wow – I love that.

She might have been kidding, but I would never have seen any ironic winks or smiles because I couldn’t see beyond my own eyelashes. The rest of the stylists in the salon and their clients might have been sniggering through their capes, agog for what I would believe next. If they were, I don’t mind. I was having a great time because I liked the story.

I have always been hopeless at spotting a fib. If you tell me something whacky that sounds interesting, I will find a reason why it is plausible. So a glass of water left out for the Wise Men’s camels makes perfect sense to me, because it has story logic, and in my head I’ve joined the narrative dots.

As storysmiths, the extraordinary, the ironic and the surprising are our currency. Part of our job is to invent the logic that gets from A to bizarre – or the other way around. Good stories are about big changes, interesting journeys, the unexpected.

If a straitlaced friend tells me she has taken up burlesque dancing, the last thing on earth I’d say is ‘you’re joking’. I’d swallow it because I’d think what a surprising and refreshing turn her life has taken, how wonderful it is that she has conquered her stage fright, shyness, objections to female exploitation and previously voiced disapproval of skimpy feathered costumes. I will think: ‘she must have needed it – I wonder why?’

So I am A1- gullible. But I’ve far outgrown being embarrassed by it. It’s served me well as source of stories.

Do you value the strange? Have any personality traits that may seem laughable or embarrassing, but that you feel help you as a writer? Share in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Victoria Mixon on January 10, 2011 - 8:43 pm

    I have a tendency to misunderstand dirty jokes as hilarious non sequiturs. I can’t tell you how many times this has gotten me into trouble. Once I laughed uncontrollably in a room full of stymied friends over someone saying he was “f’ing this woman Bald Steve.”

    Aside from the fact that my life is much funnier this way than it would be otherwise, that weird tendency lets me find unexpected telling details in seemingly ordinary places, and that skewed angle on ordinary life is the stuff of fiction.

    • #2 by rozmorris on January 11, 2011 - 10:19 am

      Victoria, you have such a minxy sense of humour that I can imagine you are a riot all by yourself. Seriously, though, the joy of the misheard is creative gold.

      • #3 by Victoria on January 13, 2011 - 5:34 pm

        My husband’s favorite thing to say is, “Where did I get you?”

        • #4 by rozmorris on January 13, 2011 - 9:01 pm

          Victoria, although you posted this reply from an email address I’d never seen before, I knew it must be you.
          My husband says the same thing about me.

  2. #5 by jjdebenedictis on January 10, 2011 - 8:53 pm

    I’m a day-dreamer. For the first seven years of school, virtually every single report card I got chided me for not paying attention. Thank goodness I got good marks anyway; my parents just shrugged and let me be me.

    In fact, I never found my tendency to daydream to be a bad thing. I ride the bus, and in my head, I’m creating stories. I get insomnia, and in my head, I’m creating stories. I don’t get bored very often, because I’ve got a constant source of entertainment inside my own skull.

    This second trait isn’t mine, but it’s related: One of my cousins has a bit of a bad memory. She has a delightful attitude about it, however. Whenever she has (yet another) scatterbrained moment, she just laughs and cheerfully says, “Everyday is a surprise!”

    • #6 by rozmorris on January 11, 2011 - 10:21 am

      Jen, I have an overactive brain too. And I love that story about your scatterbrained friend. I have a pretty bad memory for books and films. It was a handicap when remembering quotes for an English literature degree, but now it means that six months after I’ve read or watched, I can enjoy the story all over again.

  3. #7 by Les Edgerton on January 10, 2011 - 11:55 pm

    Nice post, Roz. I’d buy the water thing in a minute. In fact, when my son was little and most of his friends and their parents were setting out milk and cookies for Santa, we’d always leave out a cold can of Budweiser as the Santa I knew hated milk, but loved a cold beer. Until he was about five, he’d race downstairs and find the empty can and scream, “Santa was here!”

    These days, Santa would rather we left him a Jack and water…

    • #8 by rozmorris on January 11, 2011 - 10:25 am

      Thanks, Les! Personally I’ll believe anything if I like the story logic – and the water thing ticks the boxes for me.

      Might I suggest a highland single malt for Santa?

  4. #9 by Laura Pauling on January 11, 2011 - 11:25 am

    Be gullible and have the writing chops to make it believable. 😉 Great post.

    • #10 by rozmorris on January 11, 2011 - 2:18 pm

      Laura, I am so delighted that other scribblers understand! I’m not away with the fairies or dim, I’m just a writer!

  5. #11 by Dom Camus on January 11, 2011 - 11:48 am

    Do you value the strange?

    If I go to a good restaurant I typically order the strangest thing I can find on the menu. I recommend this policy for anyone who isn’t fussy about food. The less exotic dishes are there because dull customers insist. The weird dishes are there because the chef wants to make them and are therefore often better!

    • #12 by rozmorris on January 11, 2011 - 2:19 pm

      Dom, I do that too. And I choose recipe books with daring ingredient combinations because I want to believe they are brilliant.

  6. #13 by Andrew Culture on January 11, 2011 - 2:07 pm

    This is brilliant, I knew there was a good reason I’m so gullible!

    • #14 by rozmorris on January 11, 2011 - 2:20 pm

      Thanks, Andrew – embrace your open mind!

  7. #15 by Hart on January 11, 2011 - 3:15 pm

    Oh this is great! There is a sweetness to being gullible, even if I don’t think I am, particularly. I think it is probably a great trait for making up the sweet little details.

    My own fiction mostly has the BIG pieces generated via dream or situation I come across and then combining things that seem not to go together for the overall plot. It is less imagination and more puzzle master…

    • #16 by rozmorris on January 11, 2011 - 4:13 pm

      Hart – puzzle-making is a good analogy for story building. I never thought of applying it to dreams, though – but my dreams aren’t as weird, actually, as reality often seems to me!

  8. #17 by Lisa Cron on January 12, 2011 - 11:32 pm

    You have no idea how liberating this is. I have always been embarrassingly gullible, and bent on either overcoming it, or at the very least, hiding it. You’ve reframed it so deftly that now instead of fighting it, I am going to embrace it. Thank you for a life changing post!

    • #18 by rozmorris on January 12, 2011 - 11:55 pm

      Wonderful! Welcome to the fold.

  9. #19 by Lauren Michelle on July 29, 2011 - 3:04 am

    I can be pretty gullible. My supervisor totally got me at work one day by going on and on about how late I was, and I totally believed him. Turns out, he was kidding, and everyone laughed at me. I never tried to use it as a source for story ideas, though. I will have to put this to use in the future. At least then I won’t feel so bad about being gullible. 🙂

    • #20 by rozmorris on July 29, 2011 - 6:38 am

      Lauren, there’s only one thing to do if you’re gullible – write! Thanks for sharing your moment here.

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