A Cracker Jack prize: story ideas

Story ideas do not come in a box of Cracker Jack…or can they?

When I was a kid, the box of molasses-flavored popcorn-nut mix contained cool toys.  It was a delight to pull out some plastic blue ring, too small for any human hand, and squeeze it halfway onto my pinkie finger and imagine it was…anything.  It was a secret decoder ring, and only I had the clues to save the world from the alien spaceship about to destroy humans.  Or the ring gave me super powers, and I would defeat villains by zapping them with my ring from atop flying horses.  I was boundless.

These days, the prizes are downright boring and cheesy if you ask me, but you can still take those cartoon baseball stickers or temporary dragon tattoos and write with abandon.  How?  Good question.

The all-powerful “They” say to choose a situation, emotion or object and launch from there.  Stories come from within so just start writing.  Yeah, that’s easier said than done.

Finding that starting point can be challenging.  I dislike catchphrase advice because without specific examples, I don’t know how to apply those general tips to my writing.  Two tips that annoy me are the seemingly useless “look around you” or “write what you know” how-to suggestions.  Those phrases are cliché until I learned how to make those work specifically for me.

There really is something to the generic advice to “look around you” for ideas.  Consider this: It’s Chinese takeout night, and when you get to dessert, you remember the classic fortune cookie joke-fortune, “Help! I’m a prisoner in a Chinese fortune cookie factory.”  That sentence alone opens countless opportunities.  If you write romance, imagine the hero sweeping in and rescuing the trapped maiden only to be chased by her vengeful lover who locked her away in the factory in the first place.  For the science fiction fans, is the prisoner actually an alien waiting to capture humans?  If you’re geared towards mysteries or thrillers, what does the hero encounter as he or she enters the factory only to discover that the true purpose of the factory is…?

Expand from that plot sentence and “write what you know” to develop characters.  What charming habits do you have that your alien can have to humanize it?  What annoying phrases does your aunt say that could provide tension between the hero and your damsel in distress?  Does your friend have a nervous tic that could distinguish your sleuth?  Could your spouse’s nickname be the name of a Young Adult character?  If your character’s favorite food is Cracker Jack, the same as yours, does this vice affect the story’s outcome?

Suddenly, writing is fun again.

If you feel that your life has not been exciting to this point, then start now.  Take advantage of where you are right now.  “Look around you” and study people at the mall, the dog park, the grocery store or wherever you hang out.  Imagine their stories.  As a wanna-be coffee shop hipster, I hear random snippets of conversation that are fascinating story fodder.  Always carry a journal, napkin or phone notepad to record these moments.  If you tell yourself “Oh, I’ll remember that later,” you probably won’t, at least not with the same flavor you had at that moment.

This personal exploration of people and their traits feels natural for a creative non-fiction writer like me.  I discovered that I can “write what I know” and tell my life story three different ways from three different perspectives: my relationship with my dad; my interactions with my mother; and episodes told from an outsider’s point of view.  Talk about maximizing your material.

I found more “write what you know” opportunities when a few months ago, I rediscovered folders full of high school and college essays, stories and poetry.  I flipped through them and wondered, how did I ever earn a passing grade on that?  What the *bleep* was I thinking when I wrote this crap?  Shudder.  However, reading these embarrassing scraps of paper more closely, I actually found some moments of brilliance and passages I can salvage.  Really, I was that creative?  Really, I was that creative.

If you don’t have past material to repurpose, it is not cheating to borrow inspiration from tools designed to spur imagination.  A quick search of “story ideas” yielded numerous phone apps: Lists for Writers; Storyteller; The Brainstormer; Story Seed Generator; Story Starters; and Flash Fiction Prompter.

I have not used any of those products, but I did stumble upon the interactive game Story Cubes, which are themed picture dice sets.  Rolling all dice in the Actions set generated an intriguing random assortment.

My Story Cubes inspiration


From this, my character Jimmy the Burglar was born, including the first line of his story:  “Jimmy the Burglar could barely pick his nose let alone a lock.”

Is that a story you would read?

This came from the roll of the dice instead of a Cracker Jack box, but still….  Just think of what you can come up with when you look around and write what you know.

Jerry’s Ghana Trip

In January 2011, Kwang and I took a 120 day around the world cruise with ms Amsterdam in Holland America from Fort Lauderdale in Florida.  On the ship we had about one thousand guests and about four hundred crew members.

Jerry was a professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Stanford before his retirement. On the ship Jerry was having breakfast or lunch together with us quite often. Naturally we are exchanging our travel experiences. Since he and his wife love to travel, they started to go all over the world when they were relatively young, work related or simply for pleasure.

He told us the difficulties he had when tried to reach to the bottom of the Angel Falls in Venezuela while climbing among the tree roots spread like spider webs and small and large boulders on the wet trail. He is really proud of this trip and thought he was one of the few people who went on this at his age.

“We did it.“ Kwang interrupted him and Jerry was quiet with disappointment and surprise.  Kwang continued, “Jerry, have you been to Africa?”

“Yes, yes, actually several times in Africa, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa,“ he answered with his eyes blinking. This time Kwang was surprised because of Jerry’s abundant travel experience in Africa.  When I listened to their conversation, they were doing a seesaw game just like kids and it was one of the funniest things to watch them with their faces down on the table.

“Did you climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, since you were almost everywhere in Africa?” Kwang waited anxiously for Jerry’s answer.

“No, no, I did not.  I have never even met anyone who made it“.

“We did it in 2008,“ Kwang told him and could not hide his excitement.

I jumped into their conversation to separate their seesaw game on the travel experience. Carefully I explained to Jerry how much we are proud of climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro at our age, Kwang was 74 and I was 72.  Then gave more details of the journey, for four climbers with two guides and twenty six porters and eight days ascend and two days descend.

The next day with Jerry during lunch time we asked him if he could give us the lectures on religion or philosophy like he did in his classes.

“We have three more months to go on the ship,“  I begged him and Kwang added, “For you it is not difficult.  Everything is in your head.“  Kwang touched his head with his middle finger.  Jerry hesitated for a few moments and then gave us a positive answer.  “Yes, I will do it but it was moré than ten years ago.“

“Thanks, Jerry.”  We made chorus to him.

“But I will tell you a story that is more interesting than religion and philosophy.  While I was in Ghana in Africa,” Jerry seemed to be organizing his scattered thoughts and continued. My cheeks were supported by my two hands and eyes were riveted on his face in order not to miss any words.

Then immediately I thought about the famous actress, Shirley Temple Black, who had been a movie star and served as ambassador to Ghana under President Gerald Ford.

Through his friend’s invitation Jerry had a chance to visit Accra, the capital city in Ghana, on the west coast of Africa. On weekdays he did work at the cafeteria and on weekends he traveled around the rural area in Ghana.  One weekend he headed to Benin in Ghana to visit another friend.  Outside, it was sizzling temperature.  I could boil eggs with this heat.  Jerry mumbled.  At the local bus station he took the bus to Benin.  To his surprise the bus had quite comfortable seats with air conditioning.  All the seats were taken.  Luckily, he got the last seat at the window in the back with long seats (big enough to seat five people).  He was the only Caucasian among the local people.  Everyone was looking at him like he was a monkey in a cage.  Their eyes were fixed on Jerry’s face with extremely curious expressions.  On Jerry’s right side there was a nice looking young man with a dark complexion.  Later Jerry found out he had a sick friend next to him.  The young man was taking care of his friend by giving him water and wiping off the sweat on his face.  The young man was eager to practice his English with Jerry.  His English was good enough that Jerry could understand him well.  The people in Ghana have very rare occasions for exchanging conversation with American people.  They did casual conversation and Jerry was told that the young man’s destination was also Benin where the bus terminal is and the sick man’s family would be at the bus station to meet them.

During the several hours long ride the friend’s condition was getting worse than before and the young man was giving water to his friend more frequently.

“Your friend is very sick.“  Finally Jerry expressed his deep concern.

“Yes, he is very sick and has AIDS and his family will meet us at the station in Benin.“

For the young man it was not a big deal having a friend with AIDS who is walking the fine line between life and death.  Jerry was extremely uncomfortable riding with a seriously ill person with AIDS.

“Mmm, I am very sorry to hear that and hope he gets well soon.“  Jerry expressed his  sincere concern to him without showing his uneasiness about the unexpected news.  The young man nodded his head with appreciation of Jerry’s concern.  The conversation was stopped for a while and Jerry was thinking about AIDS.  First of all, he did not pay much attention to the news about AIDS in Africa to the same degree he paid attention on the Middle East as a melting pot, but could remember $25 million assistance for the African AIDS program from the Bush administration and Bill Gates sent several million dollars to the program. And the last unbearably sad stories he remembered were the babies that were born with AIDS virus.  Jerry was looking at the scenery outside through the window absent mindedly.

The young man broke the silence.  “In about 30 minutes we will arrive in Benin.  Why are you going to Benin?“

“Great.“ It was Jerry’s short answer without giving any reason for his going to Benin.  Benin was the last destination of this bus and it would return to Accra.  At the bus station his friends and the sick person’s mother and other relatives came.  Especially his mother was hugging him and sobbing.

With goodbye Jerry left the family for his next adventure.

When Jerry came back to the bus station after his four hour stay around Benin, he found out to his surprise the same bus and same driver was going back to Accra.

“How was the young man who was sick?”  Jerry asked the driver as soon as he saw him.

They communicated with each other with a little English and body language.

“He is dead.“

“What?  What are you saying?”  Jerry continued.  “He was ill but not that bad,”   Jerry screamed.

The driver continued, “He was dead as soon as he got off the bus and after he hugged his mother.”

Jerry could not believe the driver’s story, absolutely not.  He saw the person hugging his mother and her crying voice with joy to see her son again still echoing in his ears.

Oh my God.  It could not happen.  Jerry repeated again and again,  Oh, my God.  God, you are so cruel. 

The driver continued his story.  “He is buried already.“

“What?  What did you say?”  Jerry shouted with anger .

The driver nodded without any words.  “It was only four hours ago.“  Jerry said a word in his mind.

Now Jerry’s voice calmed down and he understood he could not do anything for the family, and the driver continued the story.  Jerry did not want to hear or could not bear to hear.

“That’s our tradition.  As soon as the people die we bury them without any hesitation or delay,” the driver told him.  Jerry could not understand the tradition.  It means for everybody or just for AIDS patients?  He did not ask any more questions and did not want to know.  He just wanted to forget everything that happened on the bus and in Benin.  He sat on the wooden bench covering his face with his trembling hands, waiting for the departure of the bus to Accra.

“Kook-Wha, I was with a dying person for several hours on the bus,” he concluded the most interesting story I have ever heard in my life and catching the expressions on his face.

“Life is empty as the famous philosopher told us.  And we came in the world with two empty hands and go back to the other world again with empty hands but full of memories and a loving heart.”

YOU’RE TRASH! Sift Through Some Garbage and Find Your Real Character

Something I almost never read about in the cozy mysteries I love so much is trash. Refuse. The detritus of human life. Lots of my favorite series deal with cooking, pets, books, bookstores, libraries, and crafting, but none of the characters spend time throwing stuff out. Most of my favorite authors would probably say that’s because a character doesn’t move a story forward while she’s taking out the trash. Unless she comes across a lifeless body hidden in a dumpster. But writers, think about what a revelation examining someone’s trash can be.

At my house, for example, a trash raider will find many empty potato chip bags in my garbage can and empty sour cream containers in my recycle bin. (I’ve been stress eating.) (Don’t judge me.) The invader will also find about two boxes worth of used facial tissues (I hope he gets my cold), banana peels, beverage cups from McDonald’s, soy milk cartons, an empty jar of peanut butter, a flattened box of chili mix, plastic grocery bags, and wrinkled packages of shredded cheese with crumbs in them. What can the trash connoisseur deduce about me? Well, he can guess that I don’t eat well-rounded meals, I’m probably sick, and I buy food often, rather than stocking up once a week like a lot of other consumers. Is that information useful? Maybe, maybe not, but it shows my character quirks very well.

What’s not in my trash is also revealing. No shredded paper, no bills, no used check registers or cancelled checks, no newspapers, but a few magazines and lots of junk mail. What does that say about me as a character? Am I a hoarder? Do I live off the grid? Do I embrace an electronic lifestyle and get my bills and news via the internet? Perhaps.

If you’re struggling with a character that is important to your story but remains elusive, try touring her trash. It might help you nail down her personality and give her some pizzazz. “Normal” items like cat food cans, chicken bones, egg shells, and empty yogurt containers won’t help you, so it’s OK to bypass those. You’re after more telling garbage . . . like that mailer with a return address from Frederick’s of Hollywood, the empty Ativan prescription bottle that was renewed five days ago, or the used tampon applicator. (Ewww.)

Let your imagination wander through the wastebasket. If your character is shy or bookish, would she order lingerie? Why would she order lingerie if there’s a Victoria’s Secret in town? There’s nothing unusual about taking an antidepressant these days, but why is the bottle empty already? If she’s almost 55 years old, would she still need to use tampons?

Dumpster diving won’t often wind up on the printed page, and that’s as it should be. Just visualizing it is a creative exercise you can do to identify specific traits of a character who isn’t acting the way you want her to. Organizational charts and diagrams only help you so much. You’re looking for telltale clues, like a half-finished confession or a discarded suicide note, that give you a picture of her life and help you get to know her personally. Then it’s easier to make her actions match her personality.

Your hero, your villain, your victim, your recurring characters may be well known friends to you by the time you write them. You may never need to raid their trash to get a good sense of who they are. But the elusive ones can come to life if you look at the things they throw away.

What are your characters putting in their trash this week?

Paranormal a Ghost Story

As I was sitting at Starbucks writing one morning, a man sitting next to me asked what I was writing. I answered Paranormal Romance. He responded, “Oh! You’re writing a ghost story.” I smiled and told him that paranormal these days didn’t necessarily mean a ghost story. I explained I was writing a vampire romance. We went on to discuss a bit more about my manuscript and then I went back to writing.

When I think about that short conversation, it makes me ponder all the ways people might construe the word paranormal; how paranormal romance often is categorized in the fantasy section of the bookstore, so I looked up the definition of paranormal. Dictionary.com defines the word.

Paranormal: of or pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation, as psychokinesis, extrasensory perception, or other purportedly supernatural phenomena.

Ghost stories are definitely under the paranormal heading but so are many others. When you look at the second to last word of the definition, supernatural, the manifestation of a paranormal romance can move your imagination in many directions. There are vampire stories, which have saturated the industry (J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, which was developed into HBO’s True Blood, just to name a couple), to zombies, gods, faeries, witches and werewolves. The list could go on and on.

In my blog, Normal Becomes Paranormal, on Feb. 10th, I chose things in everyday life like the tree and the knife and made them something more as I developed my paranormal idea. In Gina Lamm’s Geek Girls series, an antique bureau literally pulls the unsuspecting heroine–or suspecting, depending on which book you read—to another time. This is a prime example of ‘without scientific explanation’. The heroines in the series couldn’t possibly function in the past, losing all their creature comforts, right? They do though, with the help of very sexy alpha males. Voila! The paranormal aspect is a simple time machine but the complications that it causes for the heroes and heroines make for a more dynamic romance as conflicts surmount.

A fresh take on paranormal romance that I’ve enjoyed in recent years is the Charley Davidson series by Darynda Jones. In First Grave on the Right, first in print in 2011, you learn her main character, Charley Davidson, is the grim reaper and her love interest isn’t your typical bad boy. Ooowee! Talk about a complicated relationship (I’m fanning myself just thinking about him). I can’t go into detail because it would spoil the story arc, so if you’re new to the author make sure you find a copy so you can devour all the excitement Darynda Jones packs onto each page. The story is rich with coffee obsession, laced with the not so typical t-shirt quote along with lots of steamy-hot-guy-going-on whenever Charley and her bad boy meet. There are also those pesky complications I mention, making a well rounded story, in a contemporary setting.

When you as the writer think about developing a new paranormal romance your ideas can go any direction you want. I know, I know, how can you possibly write an original vampire novel, you ask? Well the only way to answer that question is to see what’s already in print. What I would recommend is to read as many books as you can with similar characters; vampires, witches, and werewolves, etc. Find out what you like and dislike about the books and make your idea better. It’s not going to be an easy task but you can bring your own unique writing style to your story. Just keep jotting down ideas until you find the one that unfolds into something special.

Happy writing!

Born that way?

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.” – Ernest Hemingway

Some writers seem to be born with a gift for writing with passions that evoke strong emotions, while others soothe you with their serene words. But only you, the writer, knows whether your story took six months or six years to complete or that the finished manuscript was the third, the thirteenth, or the thirtieth revision.

Only you know if you received a graduate degree in English Literature, took classes in creative writing, or attended numerous writers’ conferences. No one needs to know that you scour your thesaurus numerous times for the most dynamic verbs and read the movie credits in search of the perfect antagonists’ monikers.

No one knows that you keep a copy of The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book by Jean Salter Kent and Candace Shelton to find descriptive phrases although you pen thrillers, not romance. The book categorizes evocative phrases for quick reference (i.e.: Physical Characteristics; Facial Expressions; Voices; Colors). You never know when one of those picturesque words will tweak your imagination. Also useful are your copies of Barbara Ann Kipfer’s Roget’s Thesaurus of Phrases which is an alphabetical listing of familiar phrases and your Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms which contains words that can add punch to your story.

Only the final manuscript counts so continue studying, learning, and writing. It’s not the reader’s business that you’re not a natural-born writer. Who is? I won’t tell anyone you were not “born that way”.