Wed 12 May 2010
Where do your story ideas come from and how do you develop those ideas into a story are two questions often posed to published writers. In this article, I attempt to provide answers by discussing how to use myths, fairy tales, legends, and nursery rhymes to find story ideas; choosing point of view, setting, and characters; and deciding where to begin.
Mining myths, fairy tales, legends, and nursery rhymes for story ideas
You’ve heard the advice that story ideas are everywhere. It’s true. One area I hadn’t considered was the retelling of myths, fairy tales, legends, and nursery rhymes. John Updike’s “Pygmalion” and Charles Baxter’s “Scheherazade” are examples of short shorts in which the author retells an old story. I chose “Hansel and Gretl” as the basis for a story.
The original tale begins with the father explaining to his wife that there isn’t enough food to feed four and tells her about his idea to lead the children into the woods and leave them. This story line fits today’s world—with a slight twist. Many families are stressed financially, and it’s often the elderly parents who are a burden to the children. Perfect! I have a theme for my piece and a new way to tell an old story.
Choosing point of view, setting, and characters
After some thought, I decide to tell the story from “Gretl’s” point of view. In my mind, she’s the most sympathetic character—a mother who loves her son no matter what. (In my version, the son and daughter-in-law are trying to get the parents lost.) I keep the woods as the setting. I could have used a mall, but a forest is more intimate; and the characters can interact without other distractions.
I don’t pay much attention to my characters’ names in first drafts. The main reason is many times I don’t know how the story ends until I get there. Even when I start writing with an idea for the ending, my characters often change my mind somewhere between the first and last sentences. It happened in this story.
I like to use names that create a picture in my mind. This piece started out as the story of Harold and Grace. Boring! Finally, I decided to have the woman’s name start with h (Hazel) and the man’s with g (Gordon). They sound like old names to me, and they are names that invoke specific images.
Where to begin
The original story begins in the family’s house. I wanted my tale to start in the woods and stay there. In the first draft, Hazel and Gordon walked through the woods picking up objects—the opposite of Gretl dropping bread crumbs to mark the trail home. I realized this didn’t work. What things would they pick up that had meaning to the story; and, if these things weren’t normally found in woods, how would I explain how they got there? I dropped that idea and switched the first scene to an opening in the forest where Hazel waits for Gordon. I’d figure out later how they got lost.
Here’s the first paragraph of my story.
Hazel rested on a tree stump while she waited for Gordon to catch up. An ashen hand, its veins prominent, protected her eyes from the setting sun, as she squinted through the maze of pines, maples and oaks, wondering where he was. She couldn’t get home without him.
The reader learns who the characters are, that they’re in a forest, and that Hazel is concerned about getting home. It’s the kind of opening I look for in a story. I want to know what’s going on up front.
Myths, fairy tales, legends, and nursery rhymes offer many possibilities when you’re looking for story ideas. They provide proven themes, potentially interesting settings, and character ideas to jump start your writing.
The original version of this article and accompanying story first appeared in Apollo’s Lyre. You can read them here.
Flash fiction bewitched Jim Harrington in early in 2007, and he’s read, written, studied, and agonized over the form since. He writes about his personal writing journey at Quotes on Writing. His Six Questions For… blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” In his spare time, her serves as the flash fiction editor for Apollo’s Lyre.