Schenectady Is Where You Find It, or Where I Get My Ideas

I moved back to Austin, Texas, from Washington, D.C., two years ago. By now I’ve pretty much left Washington behind. I don’t comb The Washington Post for local news anymore, or call up friends just because I feel homesick. My house is finally sold, and while I’d still like to see my friends there more often, I feel the same way about the friends that live in Rochester, New York, or Lawrence, Kansas, or Yellow Springs, Ohio — all places I’ve never lived.

But there’s still one thing that ties me to D.C., one thing I’m not ready to give up: The Alert DC e-mail and text message notification system. This is not because I really care about traffic accidents, snow emergencies, or military flyovers in D.C. anymore. It’s because they’re a great source of story ideas.

So far I’ve written three stories that were directly inspired by DC Alerts: “Alert,” “Emergency,” and “In Anticipation of Wintery Mix,” which won a contest here in Austin. Not bad for a source of inspiration that costs me nothing except the occasional use of the delete key (I really don’t care about traffic tie-ups on 395 anymore).  I recently copied an alert about “Pending Nuclear Security Summit Restrictions” and saved it; there’s got to be a story in there somewhere.

Of course, that’s not the only place I get my ideas. Songs by Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Joe Ely of the Flatlanders have given me some great ideas, most recently “Thank God for the Road” and “Thirteen Ways We Never Saw the Light.” “Hallowe’en Party” was inspired by the kind of directions you give your friends to your house.

I mean, ideas are not the problem. You should see the contents of the file folders on my computer labeled “ideas” and the stacks of old notebooks that I don’t dare throw out even though I can’t even remember when I used them, because I know I wrote down a great idea in there.

Hey, I just sold a story based on an idea I scribbled down in a notebook while waiting for someone at Philcon about seven or eight years ago. Who knows what great gem is lurking in one of the other old notebooks kicking around this place.

Of course, the sad reality is that I’ll never turn most of my ideas into stories, because there aren’t enough hours in a lifetime to do something with all those ideas. The hard part about writing isn’t having ideas; it’s doing something readable with ideas.

Take that story I just sold. It started out as a response to a contest for SF set in the southwest U.S. I started thinking about New Mexico (while in Philly), and the idea just grew until I was scribbling like a crazy woman. I came home from Philly and started writing until it dawned on me that I had 5,000 words, still hadn’t come to the heart of the story, and the contest word limit was 3,000 words. I gave up on the contest, and kept playing with the story in odd moments over the years.

I finally came up with the real story — not the piles of background material I was writing before — after I traveled out to the high desert country of West Texas a couple of years ago. A mad weekend of writing, plus about three rewrites, and I ended up with something publishable. It clocks in at 8,500 words, so it wouldn’t have worked for the contest even if I had been able to find the right story faster.

I’m not even finished with the idea, because truth be told, there’s a novel’s worth of material in it.

But you know, if people really believe that ideas are the issue, maybe I should set up my own P.O. Box and run discreet ads in writing magazines. No reason the idea lady in Schenectady can’t relocate to Austin. She’s probably getting on in years and we’ve got better weather.

Nancy Jane’s novella, Changeling, is now being serialized on Book View Cafe. You can start at Chapter 1 here; a new chapter will be posted every Sunday. An e-book edition of the whole book will soon be available for a modest price.

You can still find 51 flash fictions and a few other stories on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of her stories are available through Powell’s.



Schenectady Is Where You Find It, or Where I Get My Ideas — 8 Comments

  1. The other fun thing is, the same idea can be used by many people. So if you start your Schenectady business you won’t need much inventory!

  2. Oh, it’s been done. There are deal-with-the-devil anthos, let’s-write-Sandman anthos, creative-murder anthos.

  3. I’ve seen some of those. But what if it was something like a picture? Or a line from a song? Or a DC alert entitled Pending Nuclear Security Summit Restrictions? Be interesting to see how different the stories would be.

  4. After a plagiarism kerfuffle with a romance writer, a romance convention had a panel in which three authors took the same encyclopedia article and incorporated the info into a passage. Then they showed how different the results could be.

  5. Oh, the old SF magazine authors would do that. I think one of them got a cover painting, and got three or four authors to write a story around it. That would be an interesting exercise, if we could find the right art.


  6. Years ago, a friend showed up at lunch and challenged us all to write a story that started: “See, we were drunk as s*** and had this dynamite”. There were at least six of us there, but I was in deadline hell and forgot all about it for a long time. Four of the group eventually wrote their version, all very different, but Bev Hale and I just didn’t come up with anything we liked. I was obsessed with my friend’s parents buying a house-with-outbuildings tract in Montana, and finding sweating dynamite under a commode, but the story would not come.

    Then Yard Dog Press decided to do a flash fiction anthology as a medical fund for YDP writers. One thousand words. It did not have to be bubbas (a famous anthology series out of YDP) but a few would undoubtedly use a bubba or two in their writing.

    Well — I not only went to college, I was in a fraternal order for a time. And I can tell you — frat boys can also be bubbas. When that connected with dynamite, I suddenly started my story.

    As it turned out, Bev started thinking about bubbas, bootleg whiskey and forged Dallas Cowboy Superbowl rings — and she, too, began her “We was drunker than…” story.

    Totally different story, even though there are bubba sightings in both stories. Practically the only bubbas in the anthology, as it turned out. contains both stories, for the curious!

  7. Some of those bubba stories are crackups.

    I used to use the “one idea” in classroom writing exercises. The students had a great time seeing what one another came up with. (Though always, the most popular stories were written by kids who invented the roman a clef rather than making up characters.)