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

This post wasn’t originally written for April 1st, because I am gullible all year round. But on balance, I think I’d better stay in today. 

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!

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own, very gullible and wonderstruck writing desk, here’s my newsletter.

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  1. #1 by Elizabeth Jasper (@EJasperWriter) on April 1, 2012 - 9:05 am

    I’m terribly gullible – If two of my friends tell me different stories about the same thing, I believe them both, and even when I knew my children were telling me huge, ginormous fibs I wanted to believe them even while I admired their originality and imagination. I’ll always fall for a good story- the more outrageous the better.

    It’s not always an asset, though. I’ve been fleeced financially for believing someone I thought was a friend was dying and needed money for emergency treatment for cancer. We sent the money and the next we heard this friend was living on the other side of the world with a new wife and child. I don’t give money away any more.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 1, 2012 - 11:14 am

      ‘The more outrageous the better’ – me too, because the odd and the bizarre are what makes life worth living!
      Sorry to hear about your experience, though. What an abuse. You wouldn’t think a friend would do that. I suppose your only comfort from this story is what it says about them and what it says about you.

  2. #3 by Viv on April 1, 2012 - 10:47 am

    I am at once very trusting and very cynical. I got taken in for 2 years by someone I thought a very close friend and have lost out because of it. Finding out how much I’d been lied to was very upsetting and distressing.
    I can also spin a yarn connecting almost anything to anything else but am useless at lying.
    One of the activities I do with my students, well, the more advanced ones anyway is something I call Would I lie to you? The students have to come up with 3 statements each that may be lies or true and be questioned on it. It’s hysterically funny to do and I join in. I have found that I am caught out with lies because I can’t lie, so I come up with highly improbable truths. If I use the one about being a life model, they never ever believe it’s actually true because it pushes their preconceptions about me as teacher so far beyond they’d rather think it’s a lie.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 1, 2012 - 11:16 am

      Trusting and cynical – that’s me too! And I can’t lie. At all. I’ve got too strong a sense of justice and a dislike of being lied to. (I really dislike being lied to; I react extremely badly to it.)
      Love the sound of that game! The improbable truths is a great tactic. Perhaps we should confess ours here – I was once hit by a train.

  3. #5 by mrdisvan on April 1, 2012 - 11:05 am

    While reading the Economist’s April Fool this year (about using 3D printing technology to create living animals) I must admit that my first thought was, “Wow – that’d be amazing!” even though the name of the company (GeneDupe) and its founder (Paolo Fril) pretty much gave the game away from the first sentence. The world is made a more amazing place if we open ourselves up to believe interesting fibs. (The problem is that most people seem gullible about the *least* interesting fibs!)

  4. #7 by cavalrytales on April 1, 2012 - 11:46 am

    I go with Viv. Trusting makes you cynical, regrettably. And careful, which is sometimes a shame.
    But…I sleep at nights. And whoever wrongs you will get theirs in the end, if you believe in fate, because they’re very sad people indeed.

    Right: who’ll lend me a couple of quid because I’m starving? Hey, thanks – I’ll send a postcard!

  5. #9 by Melanie Marttila on April 1, 2012 - 10:17 pm

    Lol! This morning, I fell for 2 April Fool’s online postings:
    1. George Takei stated that Paramount had accepted his movie proposal for Excelsior.
    2. The Muppets in Narnia.
    Wouldn’t both of those been fantastic movies?
    So I’m right there with you, sista 🙂

    • #10 by dirtywhitecandy on April 1, 2012 - 11:04 pm

      Thanks, Melanie! I like to think that in a world of sane, sensible things, we open the windows and let the birds in.

  6. #11 by Dave on April 1, 2012 - 11:11 pm

    A cynic, they say, is a disappointed idealist. Cynicism is never good. Be sceptical (or even skeptical) but also remain gullible in a child-like way – that is, the ability to simultaneously believe something because it’s fun while knowing that the most interesting truths are *never* literally true.

    • #12 by dirtywhitecandy on April 1, 2012 - 11:14 pm

      Literal truth versus story truth… my favourite kinds of story. This is the stuff of fable, the stories that make sense even though they don’t. The writers I most enjoy seem to be driven by this sense of finding a law of physics in the oddest little thing – and that starts from a willingness to treat something as true, even if in the cold light of day it can’t be.

  7. #13 by JES on April 2, 2012 - 4:16 pm

    Completely loved this post, Roz, from the basic premise right on down. And it dovetails nicely with a post at Brain Pickings today, on the value — to science and to creativity in general — of not knowing stuff.

    For the last few weeks, I’ve been sort of ad-libbing a weekly Web-based SF serial (for lack of a better word). Each chapter/installment is the product of a single day’s writing session, maybe 6-7 hours total, which includes a certain amount of pro-forma research into one obscure topic or another. But I don’t want to spend too much time on the research, because I know I’ve got to get to the end of the day’s “action,” such as it is. One of my readers, who has lately adopted a new nick — “Captain Quibble” — seems determined to catch me out on impossibilities or simple implausibilities. I go back and forth between being amused and feeling grumpy about this, because of the process I’ve set up… which simply doesn’t allow me the luxury of knowing everything up front, and consequently having to wing it. I figure when and if I ever revise (let alone publish) the thing, then I’ll have (or make) time to tie it all up neatly.

    In the meantime, I am taking a great deal of pleasure in just imagining what might or might not be true in the story’s world, and what the implications might be.

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 2, 2012 - 7:46 pm

      Thanks, John! I used to work with an editor who sounds like the ancestor of your Captain Quibble. I learned to be very watertight in reasoning and research. But my ability to misunderstand and then enjoy the imaginative paths that leads me to have always served me well! Good luck with your possibilities!

  8. #15 by Jonathan Moore on April 2, 2012 - 5:17 pm

    Hi Roz,

    Just came up with an idea today, probably won’t do much with it so thought I’d share. Looking out of my Sheffield office block I can see below me a burrito outlet and a pizza stall on a street of closed down shops. On the first floor, above the food outlets is a sign for a company called First Contact. It’s not a particularly prepossessing sign, and maybe it’s just a down at heel dating agency (my friend Mr. Google tells me it’s a recruitment agency), but wouldn’t it be great if it was a company being paid to prepare for First Contact with an alien species? There’s no budget for them anymore, the government have stripped them back to the barest grant subsidies and their days in Whitehall are a distant memory. Now they’re drowning in paperwork and struggling to buy paperclips in a shabby Sheffield office above the mexican street food stall. And then the aliens arrive…

    Not sure where it goes from there.

    I think it’s true about needing to be a bit gullible to find a story, but there’s a problem (for me anyway) in assuming there’s a workable story but on closer investigation it doesn’t hold up. Some things work as a passing fancy, but they’re not substantial enough to support the logical narrative needed to repay readers for sticking with a novel.

    But what do I know? I’m 5 years in on my WIP and still no sign of dick.

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 2, 2012 - 7:47 pm

      Hi Jonathan! Organisations like that have to have their offices somewhere. Sounds entirely plausible to me. I think you’ve got novel no 2 there. 🙂

  9. #17 by Paul R. Drewfs on April 2, 2012 - 6:44 pm

    It’s not that I’m gullible, it’s just that I, like Christopher Moore, sincerely do believe that: “Sarcasm will make your tits fall off.”

  10. #19 by Dave Morris on April 2, 2012 - 11:19 pm

    I was reminded by Jonathan’s idea of this story I wrote when I was 15:
    (Strictly for the wilfully gullible – as I was then and am now. Though not as gullible as my wife.)

  11. #21 by Jessica Knauss on April 3, 2012 - 3:21 pm

    Beautiful post! The January 6th stuff is true — so why shouldn’t a lot of other wonderful things?

  12. #23 by lvoisin on April 3, 2012 - 8:26 pm

    Great post! I love the idea of putting out gifts for the Wise Men too! I was called gullible a lot as a kid, so I learned to be skeptical, but, like you, I love a great story.

    In addition to being a novelist, I work as a technical writer and I also teach meditation and energy awareness (not a plug, just a description of my many hats). When I’m “fanciful”, my computer scientist boss attributes it to the novelist part of me. As a meditation teacher, I experience the world in a mystical way, which I’ve long come to recognize as “different” or “strange”. But what if that strangeness, that part of us outside of the norm is who we really are?

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on April 3, 2012 - 10:57 pm

      Thanks, Lisa! Interesting what you say about strangeness. I think the way I see the world is normal, but others tell me it’s ‘different’. Vive le difference!

  13. #25 by philipparees on April 1, 2013 - 12:24 pm

    I rather think trusting as a way of life ( and I can do no other) actually is a deeper form of wisdom. Nothing elicits un-trustworthiness as quickly as gullibility mistaken for idiocy. People expose themselves very speedily when they assume you are ‘taken in’ when what you are doing is trusting. Then you really KNOW. Otherwise how do you find out? If you don’t trust on principal how will anyone prove themselves trustworthy? Its a bit like the death sentence writ small. You cannot reverse a lack of trust.

    Apropos its relevance to stories, I found two editors of a novel both criticising the ONLY real life episode as ‘wholly improbable’ ‘must come out’ nobody would believe….yet told at a dinner party everybody easily believes because nobody would make that up!

  14. #26 by chloeleighcorin on April 1, 2014 - 1:34 pm

    A few years ago I was downtown, on my way to a movie, when I was approached by 3 strangers backpacking (I know, sounds scary). They needed a place to stay for the night and seemed nice enough so I offered my place. At the time, it never dawned on me that this could be a bad idea. It all turned out well, made some new friends, and they left the following morning. I wouldn’t do that today, but it made a good story. “Gullible” use to be the only language I knew, luckily I can keep up in other languages now. 🙂 Great post, my friend!

    • #27 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 1, 2014 - 6:41 pm

      Chloe, that’s a brilliant story. I remember doing things like that as a student. The world felt like a commune; everyone shared everything. We slept on strangers’ floors without a second thought. Was that just the era (mid-1980s) or our age? Thanks for commenting!

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